The last installment about the Simonyi launch tour. NOTE: He and the other two cosmonauts landed safely on Saturday; see www.charlesinspace.com.
The launch was really amazing - a fest of engineering, spectacle and raw energy. By contrast, the visit to Mission Control (TsUP in Russian) was more human and even sweet, in its way. The physical scene was unimpressive, but we could see Charles and the other cosmonauts on camera and communicate with them.
We went to TsUp (for Tstentr Upravlenia Poletov, or Center for the Control of Flights) on Monday night. Somehow, I had been expecting some small intimate little group in a control room, but of course it was a public spectacle, with about 100 or 150 people crowded into a viewing gallery above the mission control floor, where staff were actually working, and across from a giant screen full of various displays: maps, countdown times, video feeds and the like. The people ranged from our own group to dignitaries from the Russian government and the US Embassy, cosmonauts' families, press and the like. We milled around for quite some time, taking photographs, some of us greeting old friends. This seems to be the occasion for Russia's space community to reconnect.
The countdown board showed the time until docking, and then as it happened we saw both a fuzzy video and a nice clear diagram illustrating what was happening. But the moment of magic came about half an hour later, when the hatch separating the Soyuz launch capsule from the main body of the space station was opened, and the cosmonauts started coming through to be greeted joyfully by the three six-month space veterans they were about to replace.
For all the majesty of the space launch, this was the more special moment: Three human beings came back into our sight, safe and sound after their journey from the launch that had flooded the night sky with so much light. We got to go down to the floor of Mission Control to watch this, Martha Stewart trailed by her camera people. (All this will be on her show sometime in May, I believe.)
After a visit to the display room floor and a toast, we trooped back upstairs for the communication session, in which a few people would pick up some antique-looking phones plugged into the Russian communications net and be able to talk to Charles directly. For all the Russians' rocket wizardry, they had a direct link with the space station for less than a third of each orbit, through an area marked on the giant map with a red border. We waited for the airship to enter that range and suddenly the cosmonauts came into fuzzy view. Susan Hutchison, who runs Charles's foundation, was the first on the phone. "Weightlessness becomes you, Charles," she remarked, referring to how lack of gravity makes a person's head swell slightly with extra fluid, filling out the wrinkles. (Gotta try that sometime!) Then came Martha, talking casually in front of the crowd with the practiced ease of a television host.
And then Mrs. Yurchikin, wife of one of the cosmonauts: "My darling! My sweetie pie! My only one!" she squealed into the phone, oblivious to the crowds around her. The cosmonauts blushed (you could see it over the video, which by then had come into better focus). And the assembled dignitaries, ribbons and uniforms and all, burst into laughter.
Then followed another magic moment, as Charles's brother picked up the phone. He spoke in Hungarian, but in rough translation he said the following: "For 47 years, the voice of Hungary was kept quiet [by the Soviet Union]. Now at last we are free to speak, in our own language. Now we are equals in space and in the world, on our own terms."
Humanity and freedom - what could be better?
After that, we repaired for another toast, and finally got home around 3 am.
All in all, this whole experience was even better than I expected. I have spent a lot of time in Russia, so I know better than most of the people on the tour how much work Space Adventures must have done to make the whole things seem effortless. But of course, just like a conference, a tour organizer adds value around something - whether it's an event such as Charles' launch or a park full of wild animals or a cruise - with talks and commentary, social activities and the like. But then it's up to the people on the tour...and in that, Charles's friends were blessed by the presence of Charles' other friends and families.
So let me end by recounting a dream I had right after the return from Baikonur:
This was not really part of the tour, but it was provoked by it and by other specifics that are fun to pick out. Part of the goal of a tour like this is to foster friendships, discovery, etc. ... to allow people to change or to reflect the change in their lives, whether it's a Swedish couple sharing a holiday with two daughters and their boyfriends; a widow having fun again, surrounded by friends; or who knows what other private experiences people were having as they mingled publicly?
For me, it was this: We left Baikonur around 2 am an hour late courtesy of Ivanov, but with the two-hour time change we still got to the hotel before 5 am. I was too cheap and the hotel too expensive to keep my room for the two days we were gone, so I was fervently hoping for an early check-in. Bless it, the Hyatt was accommodating, so I set my photos to uploading (slowly) via e-mail and went to sleep.
And then I had a dream. [For context, those who know me know that I recently left CNET, closed my long-running PC Forum IT conference, stopped writing (newsletter) Release 1.0 and have been gradually assuming an identity more as an investor than a writer/conference manager, and adding space and health care to my major interests.] I dreamt that I was in a grander version of my Hyatt room, a suite with several separate rooms. One by one clumps of people started arriving for a celebration representing Easter. At first I was embarrassed; all I had to offer was the meager fresh-fruit amenity the Hyatt had provided. But the friends brought food as a holiday offering - left-overs from their own celebrations, baskets of goodies so the place was soon full of food and conversation. The people were a dream version of those on the tour: some close friends, but most of them new friends who assumed I had always lived in this beautiful place. (The subtext here was not deception but rather a new identity reflected in my new home.)
They were all happy and lively. One group - the Swedes I think - began cooking up a huge hunk of venison in the kitchen, and everyone was running through the suite laughing and sharing the goodies just as we had done last night aboard our cramped plane, laughing and joking with launch- and champagne/Chivas-induced excitement.
In one room there were several children practicing floating (a reference to the gymnasts yesterday and of course to weightlessness). They were doing quite well, halfway up to the high ceiling, but one kid bumped into another and bounced back towards the ground. A couple of us adults started laughing gently and giving the kid fond advice: "First you have to have some clear space. Then you have to concentrate on rising." My own laughter woke me up.