There were only two things we knew about Kazakhstan before we got there; the bulldog cyclist Alexander Vinokourov originated from there and the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, was launched into space from there.
If this exposed gaps in our knowledge, this would be true. As we exited Uzbekistan and forged across no man’s land to the Kazakh border, we got our first surprise. They wanted us to reverse into the country. After Nickiy chatted briefly with the Kazakh border guys, the loudspeakers crackled “Meester Australia….turn regeestration to camera”. This was slightly inconvenient but as usual, the computer says no if it can’t read your license plate. A few minutes passed. The loudspeaker sparked on again “Good luck meester!” and the barrier rose ahead, or rather, behind me. This was our welcome into Kazakhstan.
One of the things I like about the aerospace industry is its perfectionism. In a world of jugaad lash-ups, a quick inspection of anything involved in space flight reminds you of how good things could be. The attention to detail and the thoughtfulness behind every single part of every piece of clothing, equipment, vehicle, food and process is astounding. Millions of man hours have been spent in the designing, fabricating and testing cycle of say, a tiny switch or a buckle for some gloves. There are no second chances in space, so we humans have to go to the limits of our ability to withstand the rigours of the black nothingness.
The things we knew about Kazakhstan were about to change. Mainly because they weren’t really true. Vinokourov is basically Russian, so Kazakhs don’t look anything like he does. The launch zone for the cosmonauts is also basically Russian. They have leased the whole cosmodrome and town area inside Kazakhstan until 2050. In the words of Boney M “Oh, those Russians!”
Our route through Kazakhstan would take us past Baikonur, or Star City as it also known. This is now the only place that resupplies the International Space Station with people and consumables. By a certain fluke there was an unmanned launch in just a few days and we could be there!
Thankfully you no longer need a Russian visa to enter the city or the cosmodrome, but you do need a load of permits. To get these you get background checked by Roscosmos in Moscow as well as the Kazakh FBI (KGB) and the Russian FBI (KGB). So they know all our secrets. Great.
As we toured the town’s monuments and entered Cosmonaut Alley, Nickiy’s grin got larger and larger. This was the nearest she had come to a childhood dream of being in space. The alley is where every space-bound cosmonaut plants a tree before blast-off. This is a pretty sweet system because the size of the tree immediately informs you how long ago it was! When we bumped into five time cosmonaut legend Fyodor Nikolayevich Yurchikhin next to Yuri Gagarin’s tree, Nickiy nearly wet herself.
The cosmodrome is vast and a rambling mess. This was definitely not the immaculate area of space. Often you couldn’t tell if a building had been abandoned decades ago or was still in use. You couldn’t always take pictures in every direction, but they did let you play with all the control panels for the Energia rocket, so that made up for that! The cosmodrome museum contains an astounding array of objects and, because they couldn’t fit it inside, one of the eight Buran reusable vehicles sits outside. Say space shuttle, in Russian. You got it!
Then of course at 03:51 we stood about 6km from pad 41 and experienced the launch of the monstrous Soyuz rocket. Perched on it’s nose was the Progress MS-09 grocery delivery vehicle. Using a new trajectory and precise sequencing, Progress planned to dock with the ISS in record time, less than 4 hours later. As the night sky went orange and the air ripped and crackled, the Soyuz slowly arced upwards through the clouds. It was out of sight after about a minute. Seconds before launch you could have heard a pin drop next to the spectators. Seconds after launch the din was replaced with clapping and cheering. It was an epic sight.