André Kuipers' diary - Part 17(I): Rest, Baikonur and quarantine
1 – 11 April This is my last report before the flight. Because of this I will continue until Sunday 11 April. So this diary entry covers more than one week. The launch will take place on 19 April 2004 at 09:18 (05:18 CEST).
After the final exams, a few days of relaxation were planned for the crew. That meant no training, no press and no official work.
For me, it meant four restful days spent with my girlfriend Helen. We had no regrets in dropping our plans to visit a beautiful town and a nice restaurant in favour of just relaxing together, walking and cycling, and socializing with ESA colleagues in the small kitchen during mealtimes.
Of course, we also spent the entire period trying to trace Helen’s luggage. There were personal belongings in it, which needed to be taken up into space. The bag was still somewhere at Amsterdam Airport.
The only official duty that I carried out was to attend a dinner at the Hotel Metropole in Moscow for the conclusion of a symposium in honour of 15 years of collaboration between the ESA and the Russian space agency (until recently named Rosaviakosmos). At this moment I am, of course, a symbol of that collaboration, and I was therefore invited to the dinner, and with the approval of my commander and the training centre I went along.
In addition to the top people from the agencies, there were also many astronaut colleagues and colleagues from ESTEC. It was very nice to speak to them again. I also heard a lot about the other side of the DELTA Mission. There are loads of people busily working on the flight, but I only manage to see a small part of what was actually going on.
On Sunday last week, a tennis tournament took place here in Star City. The Star City Open. Many cosmonauts took part in it, including my original commander, the old guard and Yuri Kargapolov, our ESA office manager. Yuri won the tournament. Training three times a week had paid off for him and his reward was a great cup.
We had a pleasant visit going to see Mike Fincke, his wife and little son. It is a lot different for Gennadi and Mike than it is for me. They go to the ISS for more than 190 days, whilst they have small children of two and three. That is the price of being an astronaut.
Helen left on Sunday. I will hopefully see her again briefly in Baikonur. Fortunately, her luggage finally arrived at the airport so she could give our chauffeur the personal belongings for the flight.
Final preparations in Star City
With my ESA astronaut colleague Reinhold Ewald, my reserve Gerhard Thiele and I went through the operational side of the flight. During the mission Reinhold will lead the ground team in ESTEC and Moscow. It was a useful session in which we discussed the programme for each day and how we would communicate. The planning for the first experiments in the Soyuz seems to be very tricky due to the scientific restrictions and work restrictions on the crew, who only get a little sleep before the launch and therefore need a good rest.
On Monday there was another medical test. It is true that we were officially declared fit two weeks ago but, according to the rules, a final check must take place just before the flight. The ESA doctor Ulrich Straube had to come at short notice from Cologne with all the paperwork. All of the tests were carried out again and all the specialists were called upon. And everything was still all right.
Immediately after the tests I had my final experiment training. I performed the entire experiment without any procedures, only using a page with diagrams and some text, and everything went fine. The final base recordings of my eye movements were also made to compare with the flight data later on.
During the flight, I hope that I can find a good spot for the experiment. I have to hang up a screen with visual fixation points somewhere where no one will come floating past, and then properly secure myself at a distance of one and a half metres. That is going to be a challenge. I have also gathered together the final skin bacteria and completed a questionnaire about back pain. Now I will see how the bacteria and back pain goes during the flight.
There are also some physiological preparations. Up until the flight we have to lie down several times on a tilting table that is tilted backwards. This is so we can get used to the full feeling you get in your head during weightlessness, which is a result of blood displacement to the upper part of the body. With tight bindings around the upper legs you can retain some of the blood in the legs and reduce the effect.
Fitted out with heart electrodes and blood pressure meters, we also went into the big centrifuge again to replicate the acceleration forces encountered during the launch and during landing. I was already imagining that it was for real.
I have also prepared myself personally. I have sent NASA a list of e-mail addresses of those people who can send me e-mail messages. It is restricted to a small group comprising of members of the ground team and family members because I will not have time to read heaps of e-mails.
I have prepared my personal belongings with my training coach Antonio Torres. That was a frustrating job. You are only allowed to take one and a half kilos and there are all sorts of restrictions. I have always had a tendency to bring along far too much. Now I am really limited. Photos, personal jewellery and mementos, toys and my music (still far too much of course) are included for certain.
To test the spacecraft and our spacesuits, we spent two days in Baikonur with a large group of engineers, trainers and officials. In this Russian enclave in the barren, dry Steppe of Kazakhstan, lies the launch site.
We flew there from the training centre in two aircraft. During these final weeks the reserve crew always travel in a separate bus or aircraft so as not to endanger the flight if there was an accident. From the inside the aircraft seems more like a train with a restaurant. There were sofas and tables and good food.
In the last weeks I must have signed thousands of signatures. The Russians arrived with piles of photos to be signed, but also with Dutch flags for taking up into space. Russian museums, collectors and people who worked hard on the flight are really pleased to receive a memento.
After being received by a committee, we were driven in two buses to our cosmonaut hotel. We stayed there in a private area, in twos, sharing a small apartment with two small rooms, each with a bed and a desk.
After signing yet more photos I went for a run that evening. In the grounds of the hotel there is a small avenue with trees that were planted by the first cosmonauts. Just beyond the trees is the boundary of Baikonur. You can get to the river through a hole in the fence, and if you wanted, you could run endlessly through the Steppe.