The last hours before launch
On the morning of launch day, the State Commission declared the crew fit for flight. Late-access payloads were loaded into the Soyuz spacecraft late in the afternoon. And, at the end of a long Russian night, Roberto Vittori and his Soyuz TMA-6 crewmates, the Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and NASA astronaut John L. Phillips, began their voyage into space.
The hours during the build-up to the launch of a Soyuz are very strictly planned. The crew began their preparations some hours before the launch with a long and thorough cleaning of their bodies; they have to avoid carrying micro-organisms to the International Space Station.
Before leaving the cosmonaut's hotel, according to a tradition dating back to Gagarin's time, Vittori placed his signature on his bedroom door. Baikonur Cosmodrome is a place steeped in history.
The first step of Vittori's journey into space was a very small one: six hours before the launch, the crew boarded a very terrestrial vehicle, a bus, which brought them to the launch pad for final preparations.
Around 22:00 CEST (20:00 UT), five hours before entering space, Vittori and his fellow crewmembers put on their Sokol spacesuits, which provide them water, fresh air and safety during the critical launch and landing phases.
During a traditional military ceremony the crew received their final clearance for flight, after which they were able to exchange greetings with their families.
Just over three hours before launch, at about 23.30 CEST (21:30 UT), the propellant tanks of the Soyuz launcher were filled. The cosmonauts embarked on the second small step of their journey to the ISS. A lift brought them to the top of the launch pad.
After a very last wave to the crowd, the cosmonauts slipped into the Soyuz capsule, almost filling the landing module, sitting on their seats and waiting for the launch. The Soyuz Commander Sergei Krikalev seated in the middle, Flight Engineer Roberto Vittori on the left and the second Flight Engineer John L. Phillips on the right.
Around them, the activities were gaining momentum. Two hours before leaving, the crew once again performed a check of the communication systems. The hatch was closed and space got even closer as the Soyuz spacecraft was pressurized. Last checks ended just one hour before the launch.
Fifteen minutes later, the on-board computers were loaded with the flight programme, the spacesuits underwent a final check for air tightness and, finally, the launch site was totally evacuated.
It remained only to wait for the launch itself. In Baikonur there is no display counting down to “zero”. Suddenly the Russian night lit up and the Soyuz lifted off into space.