Continuing the saga of the Simonyi launch tour...[See previous post for context.]
Saturday: the launch prep
After watching the cosmonauts leave their hotel, we had an early dinner (about three hours after lunch) and headed off in our own bus for the space museum on the way to the launch pad.
But no! It turned out that deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov (widely rumored to be Putin's successor) had suddenly decided to put in an appearance in Baikonur, and that turned everything upside down. He was in the space museum, so it was closed to anyone else.
Instead, we went straight to site 254, where the cosmonauts were making final preparations...or perhaps more precisely, where they were being prepared. At this point, they weren't doing much independently other than slipping secret items into their space suits, which apparently is a long-standing tradition. Rumor has it (and this is really a rumor; the rest of what I say here is pretty well fact-checked) that Charles has his own contraband copy of Ride of the Valkyries. Instead of running things, the cosmonauts were being checked and rechecked, stuffed into space suits, and brought out for ceremonial moments. (Pictures here.)
We sat in the bus for a while and then word came that we cold go in for a last glimpse in groups of 10. One group would get special VIP passes to go in, and would then come out and give their passes to the next group, and so on. (Though as it happens the passes say "Soyuz TMA Specialists." TMA stands for Transport Modified Anthropomorphic; that was one of the question on the quiz.)
I was in the second group, which ended up being the last. The other people stayed on the buses for quite some time, while we stood outside in a courtyard waiting to be let in. With Ivanov in town, however, everything turned quite "difficult." The planned meetings with the public were curtailed or canceled, while Ivanov and a few other favored local press got inside.
Eventually someone discovered that if you stood in the right corner next to the windows, you could peek in between the slats in the window blinds. Cameramen rushed over, but there really wasn't much to see. I discovered a cigarette-trash can to stand on - a little unsteady but helpful nonetheless. A functionary came over; I thought he was going to shoo me away, but no, he politely emptied the butt-and-water-filled can (into a corner) and turned it over for me, making it a steadier perch. We milled about for what must have been an hour or two, while other people - press, dignitaries of all kinds and eventually the rest of our own group - accumulated in the courtyard. A busload of students unfurled their banner: "Dream, trust, study and win!"
And suddenly, out came the cosmonauts, and Ivanov, and a host of other notables. They marched to the front of an empty space, said a few words, and headed for their bus. The press broke ranks, the public followed, and there was a nice melee as well-wishers shouted and children cried, but nobody touched!
To the launch site
Back to our buses we went, and on to the launch site. By now it was growing dark, ahead of the 11.31 pm launching. Everyone kept saying how exciting a night launch would be...
We milled about in the dark, experimented with a toilet (it was not a hole in the ground, but it had no water and no, I did not take a photo, though Ed Fries did.)
....and the sublime
So now we get to the magic moment. Through some wizardry of Space Adventures, we got to a viewing perch that gave us clear sight of the rocket. Just across from us - it felt almost close enough to touch - stood the rocket, frozen gases steaming out of it under the spotlights. We could hear a countdown, and then the whole thing was flooded with light as fuel rather than air spilled into the open. There was a dull roar, and it got brighter than anything I have ever seen. I could almost feel the heat on my face, and suddenly a bright blob detached itself from the pool of light and roared into the sky. I lay down on my back to watch it rise. Eventually, probably three or four kilometers high, it punched through a thin layer of clouds which exploded into a mottled sheet of light. (A few pictures here; same link as before.)
Slowly it grew dimmer, but the afterimage of the launch stayed in my eyes for the next half-hour.
Everyone hugged everyone; it was magnificent. We were rushing to get to the airport, fearful that Ivanov and his crew would close it down, but we couldn't leave without a round of champagne first. Then we made our way back to the comfort of our bus, crazy with awe and delight.
Yes, it was better than any of us imagined. Even those who had seen a day launch were awestruck by the majesty of the night launch... I hunger to see such a sight again...and I will, one way or another.
Back at the airport, it was now almost 2 am, and as luck would have it Ivanov had beaten us there, but his plane was already pulling out and our way was clear to get on the flight after a brief encounter with passport control. (Baikonur is formally in Kazakhstan, though you don't need a Kazakh visa to get in from Moscow. However, you do need a Russian visa to get back into Moscow. Just one of those things!)
Looking at the schedule beforehand, I had wondered how I could sleep on the 3-hour flight home ... On the flight, I had no interest in sleep and joined in the general merriment. Imagine a college dorm party squeezed into the long tube of an airplane. It was great! Everyone was as pleased as if they had done it themselves, and I'm sure the SA folks were also congratulating themselves on an amazingly smooth adventure. No one was lost; miffs over who got on and off the various buses and into the various events were forgotten. We had all witnessed a miracle.
Next: Watching the docking at Mission Control two days later...