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Happy Columbus Day: A Day to Celebrate Explorers Past & Present-The Launch of Expedition 25

Photo by Victor Zelentsov, NASA

Here I sit at the airport in Moscow reflecting on the amazing events of the last two weeks and excited that after two months on the road (Germany, Russia &
Kazakhstan), I'm heading home! In a strange coincidence, I should land in Houston at the same time that the Expedition-25 crew docks to the International Space Station. While I wait for my plane I’m starting this post to document the experience of launch week at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The week was filled with activity and tradition.

On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010, Expedition 25’s Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft rolled from the assembly building to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It was an incredible sight to see this powerful rocket being pulled by rail against the back drop of the chilly Kazakh desert steppe at dawn. I estimate the trip from the assembly building to the launch pad took roughly an hour. After the spacecraft arrived at the launch pad, it was rotated to the vertical launch position. I was extremely impressed with the speed and efficiency of the entire operation.

This was the first rollout of the new TMA-01M spacecraft. The TMA-01M is a modified Soyuz spacecraft that features upgraded avionics and a digital cockpit display. It provides big improvements in the crew’s interface with the spacecraft.

Photo: Victor Zelentsov - NASA

Photo: Victor Zelentsov - NASA

Photos by Victor Zelentsov, NASA

The last full day before launch was a busy one. The prime and backup crews went before the State Commission. After brief comments by senior leadership of both the Russian and American space programs, each crew member had an opportunity to say a few words. I tried to express my sincere feeling that it was a great honor to be a part of the backup crew for Expedition 25. Both the prime and backup crews are very experienced and capable and I learned a lot from them.

After the State Commission we had a press conference with media from all over the world. We also got to meet (through the quarantine glass) the two Russian students who designed the mission patch for this launch. They were both beaming. After the press conference, we participated in one of the many Russian pre-launch traditions, watching the traditional pre-launch movie. With the crew watching from behind the quarantine glass, we all watched the Russian movie “White Sun of the Desert” (“Белое солнце пустыни”) This film, which was released in 1969 and set on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea (Turkmenistan today), has been watched before every launch in recent history. This film has nothing to do with space travel but is an entertaining blend of action, comedy, music and drama. I’m not exactly sure why or when this tradition started but one of the stories I heard is that this film was watched by the first crew to fly after a Soyuz spacecraft disaster which took the lives of a Soyuz crew during re-entry. Since there were no problems on the subsequent flight, there was a desire not to change anything (even the choice of the pre-flight movie).

The crew started out Launch Day with breakfast at 8:00am and then had free/nap time until about 8:30pm. Prior to the pre-launch meal, Scott Kelly, Scott’s Flight Surgeon Steve Gilmore, and I took a stroll through the Cosmonaut Grove so that Scott could enjoy his last sunshine, fresh air and cool breeze for the next six months. Earlier in the week, Scott Kelly and Oleg Skripochka planted their trees in the Cosmonaut Grove following the tradition of every space traveler who has left Earth from Baikonur since Yuri Gagarin. Sometime during our stroll through the Cosmonaut Grove it dawned on me that it might be interesting for people to be able to follow all the pre-launch preparation by sending out pictures of the “play-by-play” via Twitter. So with Scott’s permission I started to document as much as I could. I didn’t want to pass up this rare opportunity to give everyone a behind the scenes look at our time immediately prior to launch from an astronaut perspective.

After dinner, we met with senior leadership of the Russian and American space programs and prior to leaving the quarantine facility, each crewmember signed the door to his quarantine room and then received the traditional pre-flight blessing from a Russian Orthodox Priest.

Photo: NASA

Photo: Ron Garan

Before boarding the two cosmonaut busses (one for the prime crew and one for the backup crew - keeping with the you can’t put all your eggs in one basket mindset), we passed through lines of people who gathered to say their good-byes and wish the crew well.

Photo: NASA

Photo: Scott Kelly via Ron Garan'<br />s iPhone

At 11:00pm, we began the 45-minute drive via police escorted convoy through the pitch-black desert to the launch complex. The atmosphere on the bus was serious and quiet. After arriving at the launch complex, the prime crew suited up in their Sokol spacesuits, conducted leak checks, and then had an opportunity to say a few words (through the glass) to space program management and to the crew’s launch guests.

Photo:  Ron Garan'<br />s iPhone

Photo: Ron Garan'<br />s iPhone

Shortly after 2:00am, the crews boarded their respective buses to the launch pad. In keeping with other pre-launch traditions, the busses stopped prior to the pad, then after a short delay, the backup crew was permitted to board the prime crew bus to say our goodbyes. The Soyuz rocket on the pad was an interesting sight. The normally grey colored rocket was now all white from ice that formed on the exterior of the rocket from its super-cooled load of fuel. Steam poured from the spacecraft as liquid oxygen boiled off and was vented. It was obvious that this rocket was ready to go somewhere very soon. After the prime crew was dropped off at the pad, the backup crew then switched buses, signifying that they were now prime for their assigned mission.

After riding the elevator to the pointy end of the rocket, the crew climbed through the access hatch and down into the Soyuz descent capsule to strap in and begin the 3 hours of preflight checks. We then rode out to the viewing area located about a mile from the launch pad to wait for launch.

Photo Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Photo by Carla Cioffi, NASA

The launch was spectacular. At 5:10:32am, the 32 rocket engines of the Soyuz first stage lit up the night sky as they roared to life. After what seemed like an eternity, the rocket lifted off the pad to the cheers of all the spectators who gathered in the cold desert morning to witness the send off. After approximately 8 ½ minutes, the crew was in orbit.

Photo: NASA

Photo: NASA

It was an amazing experience to witness a Soyuz launch for the first time. In addition to the excitement and historical significance of watching a launch from the same pad as Yuri Gagarin, I couldn’t help but think that in just a few months I’ll be strapped to that rocket making the same trip. I truly realize how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to travel to space and will do my best to share that experience as best I can.