André Kuipers' diary - Part 17(II): Rest, Baikonur and quarantine

Inside landing capsule
Inside the landing capsule

Primerka

Thursday was the day of the first primerka, the test to see if everything is ready for the flight. This is a very official event in which the media are also present.

I put on my spacesuit and I must say that it felt reasonably comfortable. That was fortunate because I will have to be in it for eight hours on the day of the launch. Standing and walking is less enjoyable. The protective boots are tight and they force you into a bent position. But we only have to walk a short way to the bus and to the rocket.

With suit technicians
TMA-4 crew and reserve crew with suit technicians in Baikonur

In front of the cameras the spacesuit was tested to see if it was airtight. Everything was OK. Then came the real work. To the Soyuz TMA-4. This stands in scaffolding in a great hall and we climbed up the steps leading into it. It was more like potholing than spaceflight.

We crawled inside through a small opening in the orbital module. Then we descended into the landing capsule. That was a very tight and cautious event. You have to turn yourself around at the right moment and be very careful not to damage anything. You then drop yourself into the commander’s seat, close the hatch and manoeuvre backwards onto the left bucket seat taking care not to sit on the seat belts. You have to do this very calmly because it is hot and tiring work and streams of sweat run down your face.

When the whole crew is there you carry out all sorts of tests; buckling up, radio communication and screen tests, checking the positions of valves and switches, etc. For the first time I also tested raising up the seat. This operation is carried out just before landing to absorb the impact better. The seat moves forward half a metre so you end up sitting very close to the instrument panel. I wasn't looking forward to that because of my height, but it wasn't so bad after all - I had more than enough room for my knees.

But then I had to get out again and, with the seat in the landing position, it was almost impossible to break free and roll to one side onto the commander’s seat.

KUBIK installed
KUBIK experiment installed in Soyuz TMA-4

After considerable effort and trying all techniques to get out of my seat without damaging the capsule and helmet, I managed to do it after a quarter of an hour. At least I now know what the best way is, and also know that when we land all sorts of helpers will quickly arrive at the capsule to assist the crew.

That day we also tested the laser distance meter, which I may have to install and use. We checked the orbital module. There the Kubik apparatus for the biological experiments is already installed, waiting for me. It is all starting to get very real.

Quarantine

After returning from Baikonur we had instructions about where to find our clothing and about the medical checks and contacts during the flight.

Quarantine room
Quarantine room

From now we have to follow all the doctors orders. We are in quarantine in Star City so that we do not contract any unpleasant illness at the last minute. I live in a separate room in a private area on the ground floor of my own hotel. We are not allowed to shake hands, embrace or kiss. Contact with outsiders is limited. An epidemiologist ensures that everything runs smoothly.

That means that we also have a few quieter days to make the final preparations, such as working on a handbook with personal notes. We still have a communal dinner with the crew on cosmonauts’ day, 12 April, the date that Yuri Gagarin went into space. We cannot take part in the festivities of course.

A look ahead to the final week

After a traditional breakfast on Tuesday morning, we will set off again for Baikonur. On arrival at Baikonur we will again stay in the quarantine area. The epidemiologist will constantly hand out alcohol wipes to clean our hands with.

Together with our trainer we will prepare the real procedure books, consult with the people who will be doing the final orbital calculations for the correct launch time, now and then we will lie on the tilting table, and eat three hot meals a day. No chance of losing weight here. Going running is still allowed.

We will also have to hand over our personal belongings, attend a press conference and return to the Soyuz for the final checks. By then our luggage will be inside.

And then there are the traditions. We will raise the flags and two days before the flight, we will go the barber. I've no idea what he will do with me though!

Launch platform
The launch platform

The launch

On 19 April we will get up at 01:30 to prepare ourselves. We will put our signatures on the doors of our rooms and then set off for the bus. On the way, an orthodox priest will bless us with copious quantities of water. Our family, friends and the press will be standing outside to see us off. Then we will make our way to the launch site where will put on and test our spacesuits.

After a meeting with the commission and dignitaries, we will walk to the square in front of the building where we will officially report that we are ready.

The bus will take us to the launch platform, with the traditional toilet stop halfway, where we will briefly report to a commission again. And then we will climb the steps to the lift and wave goodbye to everybody for the last time before our flight.

The lift will take us up about 40 metres to the entrance door of the capsule, which will now be covered with the rocket fairing.

I will go inside first, descend into the landing capsule and settle into my seat. Then everything that I have trained for and dreamed of for so long will get underway.

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