André Kuipers' diary - Part 14: Shep's Bar, tips and results of medical
11 - 17 March Here at Star City, the seventieth birthday of Yuri Gagarin last Thursday was naturally accompanied by enthusiastic celebrations.
First, flowers were laid at the statue of the greatest Russian hero in the history of space travel. Then there was a spectacular show with all kinds of concerts.
After that, cosmonauts past and present gathered for a buffet with lots of vodka and delicious snacks. I had a chat with Aleksei Leonov. In 1965 he became to first man to go on a spacewalk, and he still follows events in spaceflight from the sidelines. We spoke briefly about my flight and he has complete confidence that it will go well. For the rest, we mainly talked about the paintings he does on the theme of space travel.
After the gathering, I still had a couple of training sessions to do. I also went langlauf skiing for the last time, on this occasion with my fellow crewman, Mike Fincke. It is starting to thaw here at Star City, so the skis can go back in the cupboard for the time being. On Friday, I went out for a meal with two friends from the Netherlands who are visiting. We did not go to Moscow, but instead to a small restaurant on the way to Moscow. This was because I had been kindly requested not to go into the city for security reasons. It was Election Day here, and you never know what might happen.
Mike was the centre of attention this weekend. It was his 37th birthday. We joined a lot of people from NASA and a number of Europeans and Russians on Saturday evening at Shep’s Bar. This bar is in the cellar of one of the American cottages here at Star City. The astronaut Bill Shepherd, who was the first commander of the International Space Station, set up the bar when he was training here. There are benches, a margarita mixer, a jukebox and a piano; the walls are covered with photographs and astronauts’ signatures cover the bar. You can play table tennis or billiards, and if you crawl through a hole in the wall you find yourself in the gym!
Of course, there are no bar staff; if you want anything, you just take it from the fridge. Otherwise, it is quite like a friendly pub. I go there now and again, if there is a good film on, for example, or if there are special celebrations on one of the public holidays. Last Halloween, they had a theme party there: the men dressed up as women and the women dressed up as men. I wore an enormous blonde wig. The theme resulted in all kinds of comical scenes.
My colleagues, Pedro Duque and Frank De Winne, came over on Monday and Tuesday. We talked at length about their missions last year and two years ago. I gained a lot of useful tips from our conversations. For example, I need to take a ‘bum bag’ with me to store compact flash cards from the cameras; I will sleep best in the Soyuz with my legs towards the docking entrance; and that I should make the most of the time during the first two days to look out the window, after that time will be limited. Actually, that is something that I should not do too much. Pedro told me that he had got slightly sunburned during his flight; the sunlight is much more intense because the ultraviolet light is not filtered by the Earth’s atmosphere.
The stars are best seen from the Soyuz or the Pirs airlock in the Space Station because you can turn off all the lights in these. In addition, they both told me that the landing, especially, will be quite an experience. You hear a few big bangs as the various parts detach during re-entry. There are another couple of shocks when the parachutes open and, of course, when you hit the ground. The worst things about it, they tell me, are the huge oscillations under the parachutes and the uncomfortable position if the capsule comes to rest on its side.
On Tuesday, the results of my medical check-up arrived – an important moment. All kinds of specialists looked through the documentation one more time and wanted to make some final checks. An orthopaedic surgeon had another good look at my back. After all, I am quite tall for the Soyuz and he wanted to make sure that I would not have any problems. After that, I met with an official committee, who told me that the results were fine. I am physically and mentally fit, so I can fly. It is certainly nice to hear it…
Over the past few days, a film crew has been accompanying us to make a documentary. They wanted to shoot a lot of background material and conduct interviews in all kinds of places, such as when we were doing sporting activities or holding a press conference. It is a nuisance, having a camera under your nose the whole time, but I expect it will be worth the trouble. The documentary is supposed to tell viewers about one of the experiments and my life as we prepare for the flight.
On Tuesday evening, after receiving detailed instructions from ESA colleagues about the numerous interviews and press conferences that I will have to give on board the Space Station – for example, a TV appearance every morning – I prepared for the final training exercises. These took place the next day in the centrifuge and in the Soyuz simulator. For the last time and as a complete crew, we ran through the landing procedures. The next time we do it will be under exam conditions. All very nerve wracking, but I am confident of passing. The real examination, of course, will take place in four weeks time when I make my own journey into space.