Launch Pads, Space Shuttle and Public Outreach

Gagarin MonumentBaikonur, 20 December 2011 – After breakfast at our hotel we are greeted again by our guide Elena and driver Said. The uncomfortable van is heated up and waiting for us, this time with the Tsenki security lady already inside. When we leave she hands us two “cosmodrome rules” forms and asks us to sign a list with our names on it. No idea why this was not needed yesterday, but we happily comply. We are waved past the city exit checkpoint, and easily pass the cosmodrome entrance checkpoint. Then again a long empty road to the cosmodrome facilities. This time we go straight on, towards the far end of this middle section at site 250. This launch pad is no longer active, but of great historical importance, as it was built for the Russian space shuttle Buran in the 1980’s.

At least half of the Baikonur launch pads are no longer active. There is so much physical space that it is easier and probably cheaper to just build a new pad than re-use the old ones. This creates a messy impression, but is great for history preservation. All historic launch sites are still there, either still in use like Gagarin’s pad, or abandoned and left to the elements, like pad 250 that we get to see today.

Energia-Buran – the Russian Space Shuttle

The Buran space shuttle program was initiated in 1974, after the US announcement of NASA’s shuttle program. But where the American program became very successful, the Russian program went through a lot of trouble, leading to only a single successful mission in 1988. The Buran program lead to the biggest workforce increase in Baikonur’s history. A whole new part of the city was built to accommodate thousands of additional workers. During this period Baikonur reached its peak population of well over 100,000 inhabitants (69,000 today).

The Buran space shuttle was launched in combination with a new powerful launch system, Energia. In contrast to the US system, the Energia launch system was not exclusive for the shuttle. Instead, it could be used for all kinds of different payloads, attached to the side of the rocket. Another markable difference with the US STS system was the placement of the engines on the centre stage rocket, leaving the payload without launch engines. The Energia system was in a way the heavy load successor of the failed Soviet moon launcher N1.

Many of the facilities that were built for the N1 rocket were re-used for Energia-Buran. The vehicle assembly building 112 was constructed for the tall and wide N1, and were perfect for the massive Energia-Buran. The heavy-duty launch pads at site 110 could also perfectly be reused. The four failed N1 launches in the early seventies here had not damaged the pads beyond repair. Still, a separate launch site was constructed north of pads 110. This new pad was designated number 250. Ultimately only a single launch of Energia was to take place from this pad: in May 1987 the very first Energia super booster 6SL carried the military Polyus spacecraft on its side into orbit. After a successful launch and payload separation, the Polyus spacecraft malfunctioned in its first orbit and crashed into the ocean. The famous ‘other’ Energia launch, bringing an unmanned space shuttle Buran successfully into orbit, took place from launch pad 110 in November 1988. The Energia program was stopped shortly after Buran returned from space, due to the political situation in the Soviet Union and later Russia.

Energia launch pad 250So although abandoned in 1987, launch site 250 is still well secured and guarded. Upon arrival we had to wait in front of the gate. Our security guard filled out a few sheets of paper and after 10 minutes a young non-uniformed guard removed the chain. Only at that point we learned that photography was perfectly OK at this launch pad. And both the security guard and our guide throught is was too cold to venture out with us, so they stayed in the warm van. On our own we walked underneath the permanent launch structure onto the steel bridge over the deep and wide launch pit. A massive concrete hole in the ground, stretching out into three directions in a star-shape. The bridge had railway lines for the moveable service structure, that was rolled away to a location 250 meters from the launch pit. Careful not to slip over the slippery steel plates of the bridge and avoiding obvious holes in the structure, we crossed the pit and walked towards the 75-meter high rolling service tower. Some parts of the facility were totally rusted over, other parts, clearly made of stainless steel or freshly painted, looked brand new. Very exciting to be allowed to walk around this historic place all alone. Almost underneath the moving tower we crossed an open fence and heard someone shouting. After a few seconds we noticed a person standing all alone on the rusty tower, making wild gestures saying ‘no no’. Hmm, apparently we had crossed the border of our freedom to roam, so we turned around. That security guard must have the loneliest and coldest job in the world, guarding an inactive platform in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter. I hope he felt useful after sending us away.

Vehicle assembly building 112

After taking dozens of pictures we got back on the van to drive to the next site. Our program said we would visit the Cosmodrome Museum at site 2 now, right in the heart of the cosmodrome. So the van drove us past the long-secretive pads at site 110 and past the collapsed building 112. But instead of driving to the museum, we turned left towards building 112 and stopped at the gate. We were let through and we parked in front of the non-damaged part of building 112. Still thinking this was sort of a pre-museum check we were led inside and were told to wait for a guide. We were also told absolutely no photography’, which sounded strange for a museum. Roughly 10 minutes later a man in a suit shook our hands, introduced himself in Russian as our guide and led us inside the building.

And there we suddenly were. Right in the middle of Soyuz assembly building 112. The very building where the TMA-03M rocket had been assembled only days before. Our guide told us about the N1 and Energia history of the building, and introduced us to the French-Russian Starsem joint venture, that assembled rockets and payloads here. He showed us the cage holding the Globalstar-2 satellites for the December 28 launch. He also showed us two complete but still disassembled Soyuz rockets, that had been delivered from Samara. One Soyuz-2.1 rocket for the Globalstar launch, the other a Soyuz-U for the Progress M-14M launch on 26 January 2012. And after showing that we knew the historical importance of this building, and started asking very detailed technical questions, he told us that ‘photography is OK’. What a treat! Inside the VAB, standing between factory new rockets, being allowed to take pictures and ask anything we liked. Space heaven! Totally unthinkable at other launch sites in the world.

Soyuz assembly building 112

Cosmodrome Museum

So half an hour later, still impressed, we drive a few hundred meters from building 112 to site 2, where the museum is. Like at the city museum we seem to be the only visitors. Surprising, a day before an important manned launch. Especially compared to the crowds at Kennedy Space Center visitor center a day before launch!

Although it is very cold outside, the museum feels as if a rocket engine test has just taken place inside. It must be at least 28°C. This museum is a gem for spaceflight enthusiasts. Everything you always wanted to know about Russian spaceflight can be found here. Engines, models, patches, many unique photos of equipment and crews, most autographed. But also old launch control systems, ballistic missile launch keys (scary) and memorials to failed launches and other disasters that took place here. The museum has one Soyuz capsule, although it remains a mystery which of the over 60 2-crew capsules it is. It also has the ejection seat of one of the first manned launches in the early 60’s. During the first Vostok missions the cosmonauts ejected from the capsule in their seat, minutes before landing. The most important artifact is the orginal capsule that carried space dogs Belka and Strelka, accompanied by a rabbit, a few rats and mice into orbit in August 1960. All animals survived their full day in space. The rabbit, a rat and two mice were stuffed later and are now displayed in the capsule in the museum.

Belka and Strelka's capsule

Buran OK-M – one of Russia’s ‘Enterprise’s’

Outside the museum is another great gem: one of two Buran space shuttles that are accessible to the public. The one parked here is the OK-M/OK-ML-1 temperature and structural test shuttle, similar to the US Enterprise shuttle. The other Buran accessible to general public is located at the Technik Museum in Speyer, Germany. This is the OK-GLI flight test model. I am not sure about the status of the third model OK-TVA that was on display in Gorky Park in Moscow.

Throwing my coin

The OK-M shuttle is parked a few metres outside the museum entrance, next to some other large spaceflight objects. The staff had opened it especially for us, and we could visit it unaccompanied. The entrance gateway leads into the cargo bay, where pictures and small objects are displayed. It also holds a large mock-up satellite, its solar arrays neatly folded. A sawn-in doorway leads to the lower deck crew area, where airline-style seats face an LCD screen. A small ladder next to the escape hatch (fitted with a round window for light) leads to the upper deck. At the upper deck the cockpit has been recreated, and you can sit in the captain or pilot seat. I am not sure about the authenticity of the controls, but it all looks very real. Control yokes and levers are all mechanically connected and seem to work fine. The front windows are frozen thick, but roof windows provide some light and another window looks into the cargo bay. A wonderful experience to sit in a real (or at least very realistic) space shuttle cockpit! Again a treat that would be unthinkable in the US orbiters!

Behind the wheel of Buran OK-M

For the tourists

Halfway the afternoon we get back into our van to drive back to the city. But first we will see the famous Gagarin and Korolev summer houses. We drive about 20 yards from the museum gate to reach the freshly painted houses on site 2. We are led out of the van to take a few pictures. We cannot get inside, as the houses are closed to the public in winter. We take a few mandatory snapshots and quickly get back into the warm car. A little touristy, as Gagarin only slept here for one night before his famous flight in 1961.

More Baikonur city

We arrive back in town for a late lunch at our hotel before we have more ‘free time’ in the city. Yesterday we agreed to meet the press for a few interviews, so we head into the direction of the main hotel complex near the town security gate. Along the way we visit the large Gagarin monument, a Soviet-style concrete statue of a 6-meter tall Gagarin, holding his arms in the sky. We take a few snapshots and walk on towards the hotels.

Cosmonaut hotel

The main hotel complex in Baikonur consists of three hotels. This is a special place, as the cosmonauts stay here prior to their launch. So today the TMA-03M crew is actually at their hotel, preparing for their last night on earth. Traditionally the crews stay at Hotel Cosmonaut, on the banks of the river. Behind the hotel is the famous cosmonaut park, where all departing crew members plant a tree. While crews stay in the city, the hotel is tightly sealed off to the general public. All gates are closed, although we can see the Russian, US and Dutch flags flying in front of the main entrance. The second hotel in the complex is Hotel Baikonur. This is where all officials get to stay at the time of a launch. Close to the cosmonauts, but in a different building. This building is also not accessible this week.

The third hotel is the largest. Hotel Sputnik, on the main road, in front of the other two hotels, houses more officials, crew families and some press. It is the only four-star hotel in Baikonur, and definitely the best option to stay at if hotels Baikonur and Cosmonaut are closed. This is where we will meet the press later that afternoon. We are a little early so we sit down in the lobby to read and type this blog. We hoped for free wifi, but that luxury is not available to passer-by’s like us. After about half an hour we hear children coming off the stairs, speaking Dutch. To our big surprise we see André Kuipers’ kids coming down, holding a half-finished banner saying ‘Bye bye daddy’. The two small kids are accompanied by one of their older sisters. Later we see André’s wife and mother following their kids through the lobby. Moments later a few Dutch guys sit down with us in the lobby seating area. They introduce themselves as André’s good friends. They travel in a small group with André’s family, and have a special VIP program (and badge). This meeting suddenly brings the reality and emotion of the situation very close by. How often would ‘space tourists’ like me get involved with the cosmonauts family and friends? They seem as surprised as we are about that, never expecting ‘tourists’ to travel to Kazakhstan to witness the launch. They also seem positively surprised about the fact that we have been able to get permits in the first place. Nice people!

Astronauts and officials

Once the family and other personal VIP’s have gotten into their bus to go out for dinner, the lobby fills with NASA and ESA officials. Once again we catch a glimpse of Bill Gerstenmaier. Moments later we are joined by former ISS commander and ESA astronaut Frank de Winne, who if friendly enough to say hi and shake our hands. Then we see Jean Jacques Dordain, the Dutch ambassador to Russia and many NASA, ESA and other foreign officials I don’t recognize. A few minutes we find ourselves right in the heart of human spaceflight. Neat! Then the large press contingent enters the lobby.

Spacetweeps for public outreach

A few minutes after the press enters the hotel we are greeted by the reporters we talked to at the yurt the day before. Three of them want to do interviews with us ‘space tourists’. We start with the Dutch national television station SBS, that sent a presenter and cameraman to Baikonur. I get equipped with a small microphone and transmitter and we go outside. They want to do a short interview in front of the gate to the crew hotel. We are accompanied by an ESA official, ensuring we won’t be sent away from the gate. The sun is setting and it is bitter cold, so we don’t spend too much time preparing. They take a few shots of me at the gate and then ask me a couple of questions. Obviously they want to focus on the human side of the story. “How do you feel a day prior to launch?” and “The crew is inside that hotel over there, how does that make you feel?”. I briefly share my spacegeek feelings (I am mostly just feeling cold and excited about being able to talk about spaceflight on national TV… :-) and we go inside to finish the interview in the warmth of the hotel lobby. Immediately after the TV interview, Dutch national radio takes over, asking slightly different questions about why I am here, how I got my permit and how I feel about the launch.

Spacetweep doing public outreach

Finally we sit down in the lobby for a national newspaper interview. A nice reporter asks us – again – why we are here, what attracts us in space exploration, how we got our permits and how we feel about André Kuipers going up tomorrow. It is great to be able to add my public outreach two cents in all these interviews. To tell my story is one of the reasons I went to Baikonur!

After the interviews we walk back to city center to try out the ‘other’ restaurant from our travel guide to Kazakhstan: Pizzeria Palermo, at the end of main street. The restaurant is pretty full and we are happy that they actually have a no-smoking section. They also have an English menu, so we are quickly able to select a pizza and a few beers. A great way to end a great day, once again filled by many highlights!