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‘Every launch is like the first one’

As the next crew bound for the space station prepares to lift off, Jim Oberg recalls what it's like to watch such a launch.
Russian Soyuz TMA-7 space vehicle caryin
A Russian Soyuz TMA-7 space vehicle blasts off the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Oct. 1, 2005.Yuri Kadobnov / AFP/Getty Images file

The sun had risen an hour earlier, in the east where it was supposed to, and it was shining normally off to our right. But now a very convincing replica was rising with startling speed directly in front of us, accompanied by a very un-sunlike thunder of a thousand waterfalls that rattled the coins in our pockets and made impossible any verbal communication of our sudden awe.

We were standing on the dusty ground of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and had traveled there with the express hope of seeing the phenomenon now before us.

It was a Russian rocket launch, the blastoff of Soyuz TMA-7 towards the international space station. And although we had been thoroughly briefed about what to expect, all thoughts of "first stages" and "swing-back gantries" — even a realization that three men whom we had seen at close hand only a day before were actually riding atop that roaring mock sun — fled from our conscious minds under that sensory assault.

I hade been here before, for other Soyuz launches, all of them in much worse weather than the gentle, mild breezes that accompanied this October morning. Long ago, I had stood on a wintry Florida beach and watched a Saturn-V head for the moon, and later had experienced space shuttle launches from close hand. But as our Russian guide Igor had explained, "Every launch is like the first one." He was right: although intellectually I realized that all of this was familiar, emotionally I kept asking myself how on Earth I could have forgotten how overwhelmingly amazing the experience would be — again.

My ticket to this space ride was as guide and "resident space expert" for an educational program sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and its tour operator for Russia, MIR Corporation. Fourteen experienced and mature (but at this moment, very awed) travelers, together with the program's small staff, had been pioneering a project called "Earth Orbit" that allocated more than two weeks of visits to space facilities in Washington, Cape Canaveral, Moscow and now Baikonur. In each location we had been given direct access to high-level experts and to the top facilities, with the intent of developing a perspective on the contrasting technical, human, and operational approaches to space developed in both countries.

At Baikonur we had been housed at the Kometa Hotel at the west end of the cosmodrome, in the area that handled Proton rockets made by the Khrunichev firm in Moscow (where we had visited), and we saw hardware that directly paralleled the new Atlas-V and Delta-IV launch facilities we had visited at the Cape. As the only guests at the most comfortable hotel within hundreds of miles, we were given free rein to wander around the installation that only a few years before had been a tightly-controlled military base.

Two launch pads could be seen directly out our windows, about a mile away. We visited another Proton pad that was being converted to handle the new Angara carrier rocket in a joint Russian-Kazakh project, and walked right up to full-scale mockups of the future booster.

Nor was space history overlooked. We had made the obligatory visits to the small houses where early space pioneers had lived, and to the cosmodrome museum, recently renovated for last summer's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the space base. Although abandoned pads and buildings still abounded, and the roads were still moonlike in their cratering, operational buildings had been freshly painted — so freshly that traces of the blue paint could still be seen on the sandy ground in front of them.

Two days before the launch, we had attended the ceremonial roll-out at dawn of the rocket that would carry the crew — spaceship commander Valeriy Tokarev, station commander Bill McArthur, and privately-funded researcher Greg Olsen — into orbit. This occurred at Area 112, a few miles west of the pad and some distance from the original booster preparation building.

Area 112 was quite literally a recap of the past, present, and future of the cosmodrome. Built to prepare the giant N-1 moon rockets racing futilely against Apollo in the 1960s, it saw the disappointment in the Moon Race replaced by the brief euphoria when the Buran shuttle and its new generation super-booster flew successfully in the late 1980's — only to be canceled by a terminally bankrupt Soviet Union. Not long ago, the rotting west hall of the building collapsed, crushing the space-tested Soviet-era shuttle to scrap metal, and the jagged edges of the collapsed walls were starkly visible to us against the sunrise skies.

But inside undamaged halls on the east end of the building, a probe to Venus was in the final stages of preparation, in world-class payload processing "clean rooms" built and operated by a commercial partner of the Russian space program, STARSEM. The Soyuz spacecraft made its stately roll out of an adjacent hall, and although it took longer to make a circuitous rail trip to the pad than the direct route from the former hangar, it got there safely and just gave us more time to drive ahead of it to a new area where we could watch it pass so close it cast shadows on our faces and echoed back our shouted greetings.

Two days later, it was launch morning — 9:54 a.m. local time — and we mingled with a throng of spectators at a communications site south of the pad. Several concrete viewing stands, roofed against the summer sun but also provided with a thick-walled ground floor against the winter winds, had seen many launches, and the growing crowd was in a carnival mood. There were cosmodrome workers and their children, and military personnel who helped run the base, and then busloads of bigwigs who had bounced and creaked their way up the long road from the city twenty miles to the south.

About fifty Americans wearing blue jackets stating "I'm a friend of Greg Olsen" arrived, along with some of his family members. Bill McArthur's family was hosted by NASA astronauts, and Tokarev's family, by tradition, had stayed in Moscow, we had been told. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin came to see his first Soyuz launch, along with the new Russian Space Agency chief, Anatoly Perminov, until recently a three-star general and head of the Russian Military Space Forces, who probably had seen more than a hundred launches.

But as we had been told — and as my own experience verified — each launch is like the first. The dazzling light — too powerful for any televised or even IMAX experience to adequately convey — blotted out all other thoughts until astonishment took over, as the rocket climbed up, you'd swear straight up, its five engines by now "merely" a pleiades of smaller suns above us. After a puff of condensation passing through a particular atmospheric level, it began tilting towards the east and within three minutes was out of sight even to binoculars.

On Earth we are each of us treated to a single sunrise per day, and aboard a spacecraft, travelers experience sixteen, as they whirl around the planet at orbital velocity. Our own speed and altitude was somewhat lower, but on this one day of our lives, at least, we had broken the limits of ordinary life — and had seen our second sunrise.