Claudie's Training Diary 4: dress rehearsal in Baikonur
With launch scheduled for the morning of 21 October, it's time for the final preparations. Claudie Haigneré's diary continues: On the morning of 9 October, we leave Star City for Chkalovski military airport where we board two Tu 134s of the ZPK training centre for the flight to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
We use two aircraft for security reasons: the first carries the prime mission crew and the second the backup. For me, it means three-hour trip in a friendly, relaxed environment, sitting comfortably in a big saloon, with an atlas on my knees to trace out our flight on the ground below: the Volga, the Aral Sea, the Kazakh steppe where we will land.
At Baikonur's Leninsk airport we are officially welcomed by the Russian general responsible for the cosmodrome and the deputy head of RKK Energia, who gives us our orders for the checkout of our spacecraft scheduled for tomorrow morning. The prime crew boards a blue bus; the back-up a yellow bus. Just as they always do: I have been coming to Baikonur for ten years now, and these are still the same buses. Somehow, these familiar rituals are deeply comforting.
I appreciate the constancy. I know this place. That road leads to the launch pads; this road goes to the Cosmonaut Hotel. There are the camels, dromedaries really, a feature of the Kazakh steppe. There's the usual militia truck driving ahead of us; over there are the communication relay towers that will track our liftoff. All of this is familiar to me, and I can feel that almost imperceptibly I am slipping into another universe.
At the Cosmonaut Hotel, we follow tradition and walk down the path that leads to the Syr Daria River, where every cosmonaut since Garagin has planted a tree after their mission. Then, after a meal in quarantine - for health and safety reasons, the crews are kept apart - we go to our rooms in the isolated third floor of the hotel.
The next day is dedicated to the checkout of our Soyuz TM 33 spacecraft, and it is long and hard. Our work begins when we put on our spacesuits - and check them carefully for leaks: the next time we wear these suits it will be just a few hours before the launch. Then we walk off together, awkward and clumsy, to the huge assembly building where our spacecraft lies, as yet uncovered by its launch fairing. We reach our ship by a little narrow staircase, and enter by the small hatch at the side of the orbital module. Then we slide into the capsule together.
The ship seems to be ten times as cluttered as the simulator in Star City. And unlike in the simulator, the three seats are in the raised position. In the very last minutes of our flight, the seats will be moved up by 20 cm or so to make room for shock absorbers to deploy before we touch ground. Right now, we must check that there is enough clearance between our knees and the control panels.
The space inside the fully-loaded capsule is so cramped that we almost feel there's been some mistake: there's no way all three of us will fit in here. But we do, somehow. We have to pay very careful attention to all the projecting pieces of equipment: we don't want to damage anything or to tear a hole in our spacesuits. It's a very necessary test but it isn't easy: we have to combine extreme care with the physical abilities of a contortionist.
Once we're satisfied that we can somehow fit inside with the seats raised for landing, we make an awkward exit. The seats are returned to their normal position and we climb into the Soyuz again, still in our suits. This time round, we check that we can reach all the controls, valves, actuators and levers that will be our working tools during our mission. We check for accessibility, and visibility, too, once we are strapped into our seats. We check the on-board documentation, and try to find a seating position that gives the best compromise between comfort - though you could hardly call it comfortable - and functionality.
At the end of this second session we can finally take our spacesuits off and change into flight overalls before we return to the spacecraft. This time, we check everything, in detail, inside and out. We have to know where to find every last plug and connector cable, to confirm that we can reach the stowage compartments under the seats. We may want to ask for such and such a switch to be moved to such and such a place. And so on: every detail is important. We need to be able to reach whatever we need in an instant, without having to wait until we can ask ground control.
After almost six hours in the Soyuz, there follows a long debriefing with the engineers where we list all our requests and recommendations. Then we report to the chief of construction, who assures us that everything we have asked for will be taken into account. We will return to the assembly building in a few days for a second checkout, to ensure that we can take over our ship in confidence. By then, the Soyuz will already be cocooned in its fairing, ready to be mated to the rocket before its journey to the launch pad.
It's been a long day, and an important one. We can feel that the whole team has come together around us. In some way, we have changed status. This isn't training any more: this is the real thing. We are the crew of Soyuz TM 33 and our departure is imminent.
Now all we have to do is make the psychological adjustments that will allow us to cut our ties with the Earth, to ready ourselves for space. That final adaptation will take place here in Baikonur amid the steppes; here, in the cosmodrome, here in the vehicle assembly building; in the Cosmonaut Hotel and in that faithful blue bus, listening to quiet music. Then there will be all the pre-launch rituals on the evening of 20 October and the morning of our launch itself.
This really is the last stage of our long preparation. For now, though, we return to Star City for three days to pack and say goodbye to our friends. Then we are back in the Tupolev 134, bound for Baikonur on Tuesday morning, 16 October.