Pre-Flight Preparation & Tradition: On the Road to Baikonur
Last week was an interesting week to say the least. The week started off with final flight readiness exams for the primary and backup crews of Expedition 25. On the first day, the primary crew of Scott Kelly, Alexander Kaleri, and Oleg Skripochka had a full day-long exam in a training facility that mimics the Russian section of the Space Station while the backup crew of Sergei Volkov, Oleg Kononenko and myself had a day–long exam in the Soyuz simulator. The next day, both crews switched places and took the other exam. Each exam involved routine operations that we will have to perform while on-board the Soyuz and Space Station as well as malfunctions and emergencies that we could possibly face.
The examinations themselves are steeped in tradition. After dressing in our Sokol spacesuits, we marched out in front of an army of press and media and reported to the commission. The commander of the mission then picked one of five envelopes. Each envelope contained a series of malfunctions that if picked, we would experience during the simulation. After the envelope is picked, each of the crewmembers then signs the outside of the envelope. Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to open the envelope and look inside. We would find out what was in there soon enough. After each exam, we faced a panel of specialists, managers, and senior cosmonauts to explain our actions and answer their questions. Both crews, on both exams, scored the highest grade and were recommended: “Ready for Flight”.
After the exams were all over we had a wonderful party at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center with the crews, cosmonauts and our instructors. There was a great feeling of accomplishment. It was great to be able to share this celebration with those wonderful training professionals who make many sacrifices and work very hard to ensure that crews are ready for flight. It doesn't matter what country you are in, the pride that people who work in the space program have in their chosen profession shines through in all that they do. It is really humbling to be a part of this special endeavour of humanity.
Later in the week, we went before the “State Commission”. The State Commission was headed by Sergey Krikalev. Sergey, besides being the Chief of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center has spent more time in space than anyone in history (803 days 9 hours and 39 minutes). At the commission, all our training for the mission was reviewed, each of us said a few words, and then we were certified “Ready for Flight”. Following the State Commission we conducted a press conference with Russian and European media (which was also covered by NASA TV).
The period before leaving for the Baikonur Cosmodrome is filled with a great deal of wonderful traditions. On Friday, after the press conference we visited the Cosmonaut Museum here in Star City. Before touring through the great historical displays, each crew sat at Yuri Gagarin’s desk and signed the cosmonaut book.
It was fun looking through the book and seeing the names and well wishes of the crews that went before us. It was also a great experience to see Sergei find one of his Dad’s entries. (Sergei is one of two current 2nd generation cosmonauts). From Star City we headed down to Red Square where we each took turns laying flowers at the tombs of Yuri Gagarin and Sergei Korolev. What a great honor to be able to show our respect to the first human in space and to the Father of the Russian Space Program. In addition to paying respect to those great champions of human spaceflight that have gone before us, we also had some time for "photo-op's" in front of the Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon inside the Kremlin and of course in front of St. Basil's Cathedral.
After spending some time touring around Red Square we headed back to Star City where we shared a great dinner with our NASA colleagues in Star City and the newest class of European Space Agency (ESA) astronauts. The newest class of ESA astronauts are a great group of very talented and personable people. They are: Samantha Cristoforetti from Italy, Alexander Gerst from Germany, Andreas Mogensen from Denmark, Timothy Peake from England, and Thomas Pesquet from France. Their sixth classmate, Luca Parmitano from Italy was not present because he is presently training in Houston.
Tomorrow the plan was for the prime and backup crews to attend the traditional pre-departure breakfast then board aircraft for the flight to Baikonur. Unfortunately, a malfunction on-board the Space Station is delaying the depature and landing of the Soyuz 22S TMA-18 spacecraft in which Alexander Skvortsov, Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Mikhail Kornienko were scheduled to land this morning in Kazakhstan. Because that landing is delayed, our departure from Star City is most likely delayed too.
Whenever we end up arriving in Baikonur, I’m really looking forward to seeing that place where so much space history was made and that continues to play a very important role in humanity’s exploration of space.