André Kuipers' diary - Part 16: Last lessons, final exams and traditions
25 – 31 March This week was very important, the final exams! The instructors test if you are entirely ready before the flight, and if you are completely familiar with the systems of the Space Station and the Soyuz. It's a make or break situation, because if you don't pass the exams, your flight simply will not go ahead.
Now that I am ready for the exams it was also time to say goodbye of my trainers and instructor in Star City. So I had my last lesson from Larissa, my Russian teacher, who, with a lot of patience, has tried to teach me Russian. We went through a few last things like the more commonly occurring expressions and how best to give speeches. I have given her a few crocuses as a thank-you. It is quite strange to say goodbye to people with whom you have been working for so long. Perhaps you will never see them again.
At the weekend I spent almost all my time with my head in a book: going through the procedures in the onboard documentation and highlighting important points in red which state exactly what button to press at what time. Everything is well prepared to go into the exams on Monday and Tuesday. It was just like when I was a student. Studying well into the small hours. I only got away from it all by joining some ESA and NASA colleagues at mealtimes. They had prepared meals for me and my back-up, Gerhard Thiele. We didn't have to do anything and were looked after very well in order to give us as much time as possible to prepare.
Monday was the first big exam in the Space Station simulator. For me it was just like training because my tasks are very clear and well organized. I worked on the scientific experiments for the DELTA Mission while the permanent crew carried out maintenance work.
I was able to do the CIRCA/BMI experiment, the blood pressure during mental stress and specific breathing rhythms. The activities ranged from establishing all the connections, to the final transfer of data to the computer. I have also finished the complete timeline for all the biological experiments with the KUBIK and Aquarius equipment, even the part that is actually done in the Soyuz. I was completely satisfied with how it went. At the end there was, of course, another leak in the Space Station to which we had to respond.
You get the results of such an exam immediately afterwards. You must then appear before a commission of top officials. The engineers, instructors and specialists are also there, all the experts together. In the ISS exam everything went very well.
On Tuesday they were all there again for the exam in the Soyuz simulator – for me this is the most difficult exam.
As First Engineer, I am jointly responsible for the spacecraft. For this reason, eighty percent of my training is geared towards emergency procedures and safety measures. A lot of different procedures were covered in this exam. In our spacesuits we took our seats in the simulator. The start, preparation and launch ran according to plan.
Then the problems started. First of all, the radio let us down, so I had to switch over to the reserve system. One of the angular acceleration meters also broke down, whereupon it automatically switched over to the second system. That meant that for the rest of the flight I really had to pay attention because I was now working all the time with the reserve system. After that both radar systems broke down which meant that we knew for certain the commander would have to dock with the Space Station manually.
The docking operation appeared to go well, but the antenna makes first contact with the Space Station was stuck, which meant that we were unable to complete the docking. To make matters worse, a fire started in our capsule, which was not put out by closing down the electrical systems.
We managed to extinguish the fire by letting all the air escape from the Soyuz. Because of this the mission had to be called off and we had to return to Earth immediately. Following an emergency procedure we had to separate and take up the right position.
After that we tried to start an automatic emergency landing programme, the so-called programme 5. But that also refused to work and so we had to do everything manually. I had to start up the engine exactly at the right time to slow down and make the return to Earth.
Then the acceleration meter appeared not to be functioning correctly, and the computer was unable to work out when the engine was supposed to cut out again. The fuel consumption was normal and we knew how long the engine had to burn, so we could shut it down ourselves at the right time. The separation of the landing capsule from the living quarters and from the engine compartment of the spacecraft, and the steep, stable re-entry through the atmosphere went normally.
Then finally we saw to our amazement that the brake forces had increased to more than 17G! But fortunately it appeared to be a fault in the simulator computer …
If this exam had been for real, then it was a short mission: just two days. The training was still more difficult than the exam, and that is precisely the purpose of the training: that you pass the exams and that the real flight will be much more straightforward than the training.
After that hard day we emerged from the simulator tired, stiff and sweating and, after having changed our clothes, we had to appear before the exam commission and the specialists. The commission could not find fault with anything in our exam. The entire crew had worked faultlessly. Reason for a celebration.
It is tradition that the crew throws a party for the instructors after successfully passing their exams. We did that with a lot of toasts and a lot of speeches. There were some emotional moments such as, for example, saying our goodbyes to the trainers. There are often old-timers in the field. Some of these people have been training cosmonauts for more then thirty years, and know so much that they could easily go on a spaceflight themselves.
The day after the exam is, according to Russian tradition, reserved for official proceedings. First of all, we had to appear before the great commission in the so-called white hall in the main building.
Routine dictates that the commission discusses the results of the training and the cosmonauts extend a word of thanks. The floor is then passed to representatives of just about all the organisations that have anything to do with the flight, so that they can each declare us ready for the flight.
The radio, TV and printed press can then ask questions. This time the Dutch press was also present. After that it is customary that we write in the visitors' book in the originally arranged room of Yuri Gagarin in the museum in Star City. After that we left for Moscow.
First we went to the Russian spaceflight organisation. There we met Anatoly Perminov, the new head of the organisation. He presented us with two watches.
After that on to Red Square, to Kremlin Wall, behind the mausoleum, to lay flowers at the memorials to the heroes of Russian space travel such as Yuri Gagarin and Koroljov, the chief design engineer and the brain behind all firsts in Russian space travel. I laid flowers at the memorials to Vladimir Komarov and the Salyut-1 crew. These cosmonauts perished during their flights in the Soyuz in 1967 and 1970. After that, the Soyuz was made much safer.
After a visit to the Kremlin itself and many photos later, we returned to Star City. It was very quiet in the bus. Everybody was sleeping after a tiring day and week.
Fortunately in the following days there is almost nothing in the programme. The crew gets a few days to rest and prepare themselves for the launch in two weeks time.