Soyuz MS-02 launch to the ISS

06:00. The day begins here at the Cosmonaut Training Center’s hotel. A few days prior to the launch, both flight crews are housed here in quarantine mode. It is crucial that no infection is transferred to the space station. Friends and relatives of the cosmonauts are slowly gathering next to the main entry to greet the teams on their final ground journey.

The word “Zvezdnyi” on the bus means “one that belongs to the stars”

Two buses are idling here; one for the main crew and the other for the backup.

07:20. An old and dusty Russian song about space starts to play. While it may sound extremely naive, here in this place and on this occasion, oddly, it feels just right. The main crew comes out first: Robert Shane Kimbrough, Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko.

Then the backup crew: Mark Thomas Vande Hei, Alexander Misurkin, Nikolai Tikhonov. The crowd applauds.

The Russian Orthodox “SWAT team” comes last. People say I must come up with a joke for the caption for this picture. However all that comes to mind are images of Korolyov, Gagarin and Barmin spinning in their graves, but that’s not funny.

After a very short ceremony the crews quickly get on the buses; catching cold is the last thing you want on a space trip.

07:25. The buses depart for MIK Site #254 escorted by armed security. Ground services are already prepared and are waiting for the cosmonauts to commence their preflight routines. Except for this one occasion the two space crews are not traveling together. If they are to fly from one city to another they will depart on two separate planes 20 minutes apart. The same goes for the ground transportation: separate cars, different times.

Specially designated bus for the cosmonauts support group

The next stop for us will be in two hours at Site #254 where the crew is to report to the government committee. Meanwhile, the spectators and friends of the crews are riding back to their hotels to have breakfast. We do have time. The rocket launch still seven hours away.

09:30. Here we are at the MIK a.k.a. Site #254. This is where the space rocket is undergoing final assembly. Both crews are being prepared for the flight here as well. The final choice of which team is to fly takes place right before the report to higher command. Across the street are the remains of MIK Site #112. The #112 site is the very building that became the grave for the only Russian Buran vehicle after the roof collapsed in 2002.

We are among the first to arrive, so not many people yet. It’s cold and a bit snowy. The buses are idling.

The word says “Government committee”

Here’s the stage where the report to command will take place. The selected crew will come through the door on the right, pass in between the lines, and then take their places on the blue spots according to their flight roles. The government committee representatives will step on the two blue spots in front of the team. The armed forces may be long gone from Baikonur but their memory still remains in cozy little traditions like this one.

10:10. The crowds are slowly gathering. Being part of the National Geographic team has its bonuses: we are allowed inside the guarded perimeter. There are more people waiting outside. If you’re lucky enough to possess the skill of seeing through walls you may see the remains of the Buran inside Site #112 in the background.

Our allies from other galaxies sometimes come to give their blessings to the cosmonauts.

10:15. The selected flight crew comes out, cheered by the people and press.

The report itself is ceremonial. “Ready for take-off, we’re feeling well.” Thirty seconds later the cosmonauts hop in the bus and depart for the launch site.

Andrei Borisenko.

Robert Shane Kimbrough.

I really like the way Sergey Ryzhikov is playing it.

10:18. Our colleagues from the AFP are beaming pics via the sat link. The connectivity here in Baikonur is dismal.3G is only available in the city sometimes. On the cosmodrome ground they even shut the mobile network down during the launch window. Wi-Fi and toilets are not exactly rocket science, but even these are nowhere to be seen.

12:10. So here we are on watch site #2, located straight in the middle of nowhere. Spectators are slowly getting here.

12:15. Here’s the Soyuz MS-02 mounted on top of the Soyuz FG rocket in its full glory. The rocket is still embraced by the umbilical structures. Launch pad #31 is absolutely identical to the infamous launch site #1, also known as “Gagarin’s Start”, which is shown in the first photo of this blog post. It’s still two hours until the launch.

12:50. People are coming in as we are freezing in the desert. Here we can see the TsENKI (Ground-Based Space Infrastructure Operation Network) support groups arriving.

13:00. It’s boring and quiet. Nothing is happening. Unless a visit from a giant teddy bear counts.

13:10. I am killing time looking at the service personnel managing stuff on the rocket.

13:20. Flight crews from the future are getting ready to run their own launch sequence.

13:30. The service structures are retracted.

13:40. 25 minutes till launch. I take shelter in the warm bus. It’s not that easy to shoot with a 400mm lens in the cold desert wind.

14:04:42. “Main engine start.” The cable mast is pulled away.

14:04:54. Liftoff. The Soyuz MS-02 rises up a bit slower than its predecessors, which makes the view even more spectacular than it already is.

14:05:00. The hold-down arms are pulled away and the rocket is seen full-height. The blasting roar reaches us.

14:05:03. Magnificent.

14:05:06. I take a last look at the Soyuz MS-02 before it disappears in the clouds.

14:05:14. Left behind.

Lots and lots of pictures are coming soon in my new article about the cosmodrome museum collection artifacts. Stay tuned :-)