Michael Lopez-Alegria's Mission Log
Those were the words I heard from Colonel Jeff Williams as my Soyuz crewmates and I floated through the hatch connecting our two vehicles. But let me back up a couple of days.
Image to right: Expedition 14 Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria (right), Flight Engineer and Soyuz Commander Mikhail Tyurin and spaceflight participant Anousheh Ansari sit behind protective glass while they speak with Russian officials at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Image credit: Victor Zelentsov/NASA
For whatever reason, even as the final days in Baikonur approached I was feeling no sense of reality about launching into space. The notion still seemed like a far-off objective, one for which I had been preparing for such a long time that I felt like a child waiting for Christmas in February. My family and a NASA delegation arrived in Baikonur in time to see the Soyuz rocket rolled out on a train and pivoted to the vertical position on the launch pad two days before launch. In the meantime I was in the Cosmonaut Hotel. The sixteen days in Baikonur were relatively relaxing, and there was a pleasant familiarity to the routine by the time it was over. The day before the launch a State Commission gathered in a conference room in the hotel. The prime (Misha, Anousheh and I) and backup (Astronaut Peggy Whitson and cosmonaut and Russian Air Force Colonel Yuri Malenchenko) crews were in an adjacent room behind a huge pane of glass that protected us from the unwashed. The fact that we had shaken the hands of many of the members of the commission (and would do so again several more times) was overlooked for the sake of convenience and protocol, to which our official quarantine took a frequent back seat. After a number of pleasant but repetitive speeches from heads of various organizations, the prime crew was officially named as the one to be launched the following day. After a press conference behind the same glass we were treated to the traditional viewing of the movie “White Sun of the Desert.” There’s a long story behind why every crew of each manned launch from Baikonur watches that film the day before launch, but I don’t think the tradition has anything to do with great cinema. The movie was entertaining nonetheless.
We retired at 6 p.m. (more or less) and reveille was at 1 a.m. After my shower I was swabbed in more places than I care to share for microbial samples, then wiped down with large pieces of cotton soaked in alcohol. One can’t buy that kind of treatment (nor would one want to). We dressed in brand new undergarments and our flight suits, only to be soaked again by a generous helping of holy water splashed on us by the local Orthodox Patriarch. I notice that in Russia they cross themselves backwards from in Europe and the U.S. (coincidentally, the hot water tap is also on the right – sometimes). We then went out to our now-familiar bus for the now-familiar ride to Building 254, where the capsules (and crews) are processed. The 45-minute trip was pleasantly shortened by some messages from the crew’s families. Misha’s wife Tania quoted some poetry, Anousheh’s husband Hamid did a short comic routine that was apparently quite funny (it was in Farsi) and Nico played the starring role in a one-act drama that he wrote and produced (with expert help from his stage manager and mom). Once we arrived at 254 we waited around for a very long time, most of which I spent wondering why we had awoken so early. Finally we started to get suited up, one at a time. We were given a brand new set of underwear (after all, we had been wearing ours for a couple of hours), an EKG harness and of course a diaper. We then donned the Sokol launch and entry suit, which is a little like being put back into the womb, only with tie wraps and zippers. After that we were led into another room, this one also separated from a conference room by a window that consumed an entire wall. We each in turn climbed into a seat like the ones in the capsule, the only way to fit into which is to assume a fetal position.
The purpose of this was to test the pressure integrity of our suits. On the other side of the glass was a combination of official and personal guests who must have been thankful for being where they were and not in the seat liner. We were then sat in chairs facing the crowd, but could only wave and smile. It was very warming to see the faces of those close to me at that moment.
Image to left: Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria (right), Flight Engineer Mikhail Tyurin and spaceflight participant Anousheh Ansari give a "thumbs-up" signal. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
After another series of short speeches by the Russian officials, we exited the building into the darkness. Walking in a Sokol is great practice for auditioning for a part in a Planet of the Apes sequel. There is no way to stand upright; one is reduced to hunching over, looking at the horizon just beyond the eyebrows and schlepping clumsily forward, carrying our ventilator units like oversized lunch boxes in our left hands. The crowd that was behind the glass was now outside lining a wide, 30-yard walkway that led to the same Russian officials who had just wished us luck from the other side of the glass. It was an emotional moment for all of us. I glanced around as well as my Neanderthal posture would allow and managed to catch a glimpse of a few familiar faces. Again, it was heartwarming. We saluted the officials while Misha pronounced us ready to board the spacecraft, and turned to reboard the bus. We boarded the bus once more for the final mile or so to the pad. The rocket looked as if it had recently been painted. When I saw it the previous week it was olive green; now it was white. The white was not paint but rather ice that forms on the outside of the skin of the rocket when it is fueled with liquid oxygen at more than two hundred degrees below zero. There were only a few people around the rocket, but many more than the number on the pad before a space shuttle launch.
Having skipped the bathroom break, the same Russian officials were waiting to greet us at the foot of the rocket. We shook their hands (too late to catch anything now) and headed to a rickety stairway that led to a rickety elevator. We ascended the first step of the ladder (another tradition). The three of us then paused briefly, did a cautious about-face on the narrow and nearly vertical steps, and waved to the cameras.
Image to right: Attired in their Russian Sokol launch and entry suits, the Expedition 14 crew and spaceflight participant Anousheh Ansari wave goodbye to the cameras at the launch pad. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The elevator operator was not dressed in a smart flight suit adorned with bright patches, but rather in modest and not particularly inspiring mechanic’s coveralls. The elevator car was more like an elaborate cage that allowed us to catch glimpses of the rocket between the various levels of scaffolding as we climbed rather slowly. It was starting to sink in. When we stopped at the top the elevator opened into a small enclosure resembling a metal tree house, the other exit of which was into the hatch of the habitation compartment of the Soyuz capsule. There was really only room for one of us at a time in the tree house with the two technicians, one of whom seemed to be outside standing on a branch. While Anousheh was crawling through the hatch, I was inside and Misha was still in the elevator. We took off boots made specifically for each of us to go over the Sokol suit booties, their lifespan of about 150 steps having been expired. Right after Anousheh disappeared from the habitation module, I followed her in – and out, through the hatch that leads down into the landing compartment. If the Sokol was my womb, mom was having triplets.
The Soyuz landing compartment is small when wearing a flight suit. When wearing a Sokol, it’s tiny. Getting into my seat liner in the left seat was rather challenging, but with a few helpful pushes here and there from one of the technicians I managed. Anousheh was already in the right seat and getting comfortable. The fasten seat belt sign was on, so we complied by attaching two waist and two shoulder straps. In addition there are two straps that each have a fabric cup to hold one’s knees down in the seat in case of a loss of cabin pressure. Rather than masks falling from the overhead compartment, our suits would automatically hold 0.4 atmospheres (about 6 psi) of pressure, enough to support life but not comfort. Under this pressure every part of the suit wants to extend, much like blowing into a rubber glove will spread the fingers. In order to keep our legs from extending, these knee straps hold us to the seat liner and our feet stay fixed in place. Our suit technician departed and Misha occupied his center seat. After closing the hatch between the landing compartment and habitation module above (we relied on the technicians to close the outer habitation module hatch), we were ready to begin the pre-launch preparations. Two hours to lift off.
For shuttle launches we are all strapped in at about the same time relative to launch. Those two hours in the Soyuz are quite a bit busier. We power the onboard control panels, verify the correct position of valves and switches, perform communication checks, confirm pressure integrity of both hatches and verify good biomedical telemetry. At about an hour to go the escape system is armed, meaning that in the event of a serious pre-launch malfunction, the habitation module and capsule can be jettisoned from atop the rocket by means of an escape rocket perched above us. A few seconds and 20 g’s later, the capsule alone would land under parachute about a kilometer away. With about 15 minutes to go we are finished with our work and some nice music fills our headsets. Our modern womb isn’t particularly comfortable, and between being stuck in the same position and being purposefully rather dehydrated to avoid a completely different but even less desirable situation, when not busy one’s mind drifts back and forth between knee pain and leg cramps. There is no view outside since the entire vehicle is covered by an external fairing; it feels amazingly like the simulator in Star City. One major difference is a fourth crewmember. A small toy bear hangs from a string above Misha’s head. All Soyuz crews dangle such a “gravity indicator” in accordance to yet another tradition. Our crew commander, who bears the responsibility of choosing the talisman, chose his namesake; in Russian fairy tales, bears are often named Misha.
The lull in the activity and pleasant melody permit a quick nap. During the moments preceding a shuttle launch there is constant communication that keeps the crew informed of the progress of the countdown process. On board Soyuz the crew hears none of that, and since there is no countdown clock there is much less of a sense of building excitement. Lift off time was to be 07:08:40 (all times aboard Soyuz are Decreed Moscow Time); at about 07:02 I finally started comprehending the overwhelming reality.
The first stage of the Soyuz has 20 main engines and 12 smaller steering engines. We need all of them. Their ignition about 10 seconds before lift off, just after the music is turned off, is the only indication that anyone is still paying attention. A voice says “ignition,” then begins a series of crisp reports that I’d never heard before in training. Since ascent and all aborts in the Soyuz are fully automated, we spend next to no time preparing for this phase of flight (as opposed to shuttle training, in which this represents the lion’s share of simulations). Nonetheless by the sound of the voice I can tell that things are going swimmingly. When the clock reaches the appropriate moment there is a barely perceptible nudge and we gently slip the surly bonds of Earth.
Image to left: The Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
I have described the ride during the shuttle’s first stage as like being in a car with bad suspension driving down a railroad track. Soyuz first stage is much kinder and gentler. There is only an occasional rumble that lasts several seconds, not unlike the almost pleasing sense of very light turbulence that one feels aboard a commercial airliner. The g’s build very gently; so far all seems very civilized.
At about two minutes, there is a noticeable bang above us followed four seconds later by a marked decrease in thrust. The pilot in me says we’ve hit a bird, but that notion is overruled by the reality that we’re nearly 200,000 feet above the ground. In fact the bang was the escape rocket being jettisoned; we’re plenty high enough for our parachute alone to save us in case of malfunction. The drop in thrust was due to the four sections of the first stage boosters falling away, leaving only one section to push us onward. With the reduced thrust comes a relaxation in the g forces, down to just over one. The character of the ride doesn’t change perceptibly. About 40 seconds later we hear another bang; this one accompanied by a brilliant light. The fairing has been jettisoned, and the light is the sun streaming through the small porthole on my side of the ship. The change is dramatic; like walking from a dark cave onto a white sand beach on a sunny day. We squint to be able to see the control panels, although the sum total of our tasks is to change camera views from one side of the cockpit to the other. Nonetheless I struggle with a seemingly shrinking brain and feel rather inept when performing them. The sensation of being catapulted into space is somewhat distracting.
The g’s build steadily once again; Misha (the little one) now weighs over twice what he did on the ground, and the cord from which he is hanging is taut. Just before five minutes after lift off, Misha’s suspension line goes slack as the second stage engines shut down. One or two seconds later the little bear becomes a furious pendulum, as the third stage engines light just as he was briefly floating blissfully. For the humans aboard it feels like being rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light as the third stage engines light. Four minutes and about 3 g’s later we hit weightlessness for good, although not without more drama. At first we feel like we in turn have rear-ended someone else when the third stage engines shut down, then like we’re the next victim in a three car pile-up as the third stage is jettisoned. Finally, all of the dynamics stop. Misha, and the rest of us, are floating.