July 28, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 4: live Soyuz rocket launch

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Today's the day!  Scratching an itch and ticking an item off the non-existent bucket list by watching a live rocket launch at Baikonur!  It's gonna be an exciting day!  But first, some breakfast back at the canteen...

Fruit cake with raisins (кекс творожный с изюмом) - these were pretty dry and hard, but flavor-wise they were OK.

New day, new porridge. Today it seemed to be semolina porridge (каша из манной крупы), and the texture reminds me of liquefied polenta or grits, with a grainy texture on the tongue.

I also grabbed a plate of these blinis with berries, served with sour cream. Soggy and mushy.

Our first stop of the day was the Baikonur Cosmodrome Museum, which was literally steps from our hotel. They’ve got a Soyuz spacecraft right outside.

We got a good idea of the layout of Baikonur with a 3D model of the area.  It turns out that our hotel in Site 2 is pretty close to Site 1 - the platform for today's launch.

In terms of the history of Baikonur, there’s a decent amount of overlap with the Palace of Culture we visited yesterday.  There are a lot more actual historical artifacts here, though... including a capsule similar to the one that sent Laika (Лайка) up to become the first dog in orbit, as well as a bigger capsule which later housed other dogs who survived their orbital missions, like Ugolyok (Уголёк) and Veterok (Ветерок) who hold the record for longest space flight by dogs.

There was a display of the different types of food cosmonauts eat in space.  There are apparently 16 different menus to choose from, and the recommended daily intake is 3,300 kcal for men and 2,800 kcal for women.  I asked, and was told that all the food was produced in Russia.  Now this was interesting, because I was told by Alain Ducasse during our dinner earlier this month that he had designed menus for the astronauts on the International Space Station.  And indeed he has, but perhaps the Russians aren't ordering their food from him...  So I guess my hopes of buying some of Monsieur Ducasse's space food while I'm here has just been dashed...

Having finished with the tour at the museum, we went outside to check out the restored frame of the Buran (Бура́н) space shuttle.  This wasn't the actual Buran as the real deal that flew and recovered was destroyed in an accident in 2002.

I took a little time to do some more shopping at the museum souvenir shop, picking up more T-shirts, trinkets, as well as 2 tins of Russian space food for about USD 20 each.  Damn...

Next stop was Gagarin's House, which is the place he slept in before the launch.

Our final stop before lunch was Site 31, which is the other launch pad currently being used to launch the Soyuz rocket.

We got up close and personal with the launch pad, supervised by two members of staff, of course.  Funnily enough, the staff only decided to tell me and the others to stop taking photos after we've spent about 15 minutes walking around the pad, taking videos and selfies...

One can see the massive yellow counter-weights which tilt the supporting arms backwards just prior to launch via mechanical controls.

We head out to Baikonur town for lunch, and end up eating in a place called Norgul (sp?).  The place seemed to be decorated for a wedding...

Borscht (борщ) - I was pretty happy to have finally been able to eat this dish.

There was a nice basket of nan, which I used to dip into the borscht.

We also got the usual salad...

Plov (Плов) - this was pretty good.  Always happy to have plov!

We had some time to kill before our next scheduled stop, so we went to the local post office to mail ourselves a letter with a Baikonur stamp.  I also bought myself a first day cover of the commemorative stamp issued for the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historical space flight.

The cosmonauts were scheduled to depart from their rooms at the Cosmonaut Hotel at 4:00 p.m., so we got to the site at least an hour early and I lined up outside the iron gate.  At first I thought we would only be able to take pictures from outside the gate, but they actually let all of us inside the parking lot, not too far away from the buses.  After an hour of being under the scorching sun - during which time I was almost sure that the Continental rubber on the sale of my Adidas sneakers actually started to melt due to the high temperature of the asphalt beneath my feet - the three cosmonauts finally emerged to the crowd's cheers.

After the cosmonauts left, we strolled around the Avenue of the Cosmonauts behind the Cosmonaut Hotel.  Yuri Gagarin began the tradition of planting a tree here before his mission, and every cosmonaut has followed in his footsteps ever since - planting either elm or poplar. Naturally, most of the tourists want to snap a picture or two in front of Gagarin's tree... which is the oldest and tallest.

Our next stop would be Site 254, which is the facility in which the cosmonauts are given a final health check and eat their last meal before launch.

Here they don their suits, then walk out to deliver their report to the State Commission in view of the public, before boarding the bus which would take them to Site 1 - Gagarin's Start.

There was now nothing for us to do until the scheduled launch, so we parked ourselves in the parking lot just outside the viewing area, where we quickly devoured our dinner from takeout boxes containing "bangers and mash" along with fresh and pickled vegetables.

When we finally got the go-ahead, we simply walked down a road towards a tent that has been set up for the occasion.  The tent usually accommodates around 150 guests or so, but even though there were more than 400 tourists here tonight, most people would be outdoors on the sandy patch to watch the launch...

Fellow traveler Kevin took the advice from our guide Anya and BYO'd a bottle of Russian sparkling wine purchased earlier in the day at the museum, and it's been chilling in the hotel fridge for a few hours.  Anya had told us that since Tsenki's director doesn't drink alcohol, she has banned the sale of alcohol at the observation site.  So BYO was definitely a good idea!

Abrau-Durso Semi-Sweet - definitely tasted the higher sugar levels.  Very pleasant to drink.

There was still a couple of hours until launch, but I decided to set my tripod up in a good position outside, with my beat up Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L mounted, and the 1.4x and 2x extenders at the ready.

Much to my surprise, Tsenki had provided free Wifi in the tent - after blocking everyone's mobile internet connection for the last few days before launch.  Unfortunately there were simply too many people tonight, and I was also a little too far from the tent.  So while I had good connections and was able to do a short test when I first arrived, my plans to stream the launch via Facebook Live ultimately did not succeed.

9:40 p.m. Almaty time finally arrived, and the Soyuz rocket successfully lifted off - to the delight of the crowd. Even at a distance of 1.4km - supposedly the closet of any launch site - the noise and the tremors in the ground were awesome.

The sun had finally set by this point, and twilight provided us with some beautiful colors tonight.  What a way to end such a great day!  I'm so glad I made the trip for this launch.  It's an experience I will always remember.

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