On 2 June, I travelled more than 4,000km to Baikonur, a Russian-run city in the middle of Kazakhstan, for my very first rocket launch.
But it was also a chance to watch our very own European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, Alexander Gerst, lift-off to the International Space Station (ISS) with his crewmates Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Sergey Prokopyev.
Baikonur is a fascinating city, located in south Kazakhstan, but rented and administered by the Russian Federation to serve the cosmodrome spaceport nearby.
The area is steeped in space history, where launches of the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1), the first human spaceflight (Vostok 1) and the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova) occurred.
The cosmodrome is vast, measuring more than 5,000 sq km in size across an arid steppe desert, and is equipped with launching facilities for both manned and unmanned spacecraft.
The main pad used for launching astronauts and cosmonauts to the ISS is pad number one, also known as ‘Gagarin’s Start’, after Yuri Gagarin’s historic launch on 12 April 1961.
Baikonur Cosmodrome enjoys its traditions, and this launch was no different.
Two days before launch, the Soyuz MS-09 rocket that would launch the Expedition 56 crew to the ISS rolled out from its processing facility at Site number 112 on the cosmodrome.
Given the enormity of the cosmodrome, we headed off that morning in our mini-van to for the 7am reveal of the rocket. But we underestimated the distance we had to travel across this vast steppe desert to reach the facility.
When we arrived, out we jumped, armed with our cameras to catch our first glimpse of it all.
It was difficult to fathom that this seven-tonne monstrosity would house three people in the tiny white tip at the very top of the rocket in just two days.
It’s quite a spectacle as it rolls past you on the railway line, thronged by its engineers standing proudly on the special carrier that takes it slowly to its final destination at Gagarin’s Start for Alex’s ultimate launch.
Arriving at Gagarin’s Start
The same group of about 200 or so spectators was facing the rocket a mere 20 metres away from us as it was slowly hoisted vertically.
People all shared any space available to take pictures; everyone feels a sense of involvement in this celebration. When it was hoisted up, everyone dispersed.
It was lunchtime by this point, so we returned briefly to the hotel and there I meet ESA colleagues from the Astronaut Centre returning from the launch pad who I worked with in the last year while on my brief sabbatical there.
In the afternoon, we headed off in the bus again across the cosmodrome, this time to the launch site for the Proton rocket. It takes over an hour to get there, but was well worth the trip.
By this point, it had been a long day. I was very hot and jet lag was starting to kick in, but I was beaming from ear to ear from the incredible day that had just gone down.
Wednesday: Launch day
6 June was launch day and, as with all launch days, it began with the three astronauts leaving the Cosmonaut Hotel where they have been quarantined for the past two weeks.
They walked down ‘Cosmonaut Alley’, surrounded by a laneway of trees, all planted by every astronaut and cosmonaut who has launched from there. Valentina Tereshkova – whose tree I had visited – walks behind the delegation. Despite being 82 years of age now, she insists on attending every launch ceremony.
A Russian song played over the loudspeaker. It’s the same one played each time and I’m told that it’s a tradition to sing along to wish them a safe mission.
Gerst, Auñón-Chancellor and Prokopyev board their bus that takes them to Site number 254 and we waved them off.
Afterwards, I walked back through Cosmonaut Alley and found Tereshkova’s tree, Gagarin’s tree (this first one, obviously) and the tree planted in 2014 for his ‘Blue Dot’ mission.
I also check out the Cosmonaut Hotel, where only a few hours previously Gerst and his crewmates waited patiently for his day.
Time to say goodbye
A few hours later, and we were lucky to get access to site number 254, where the final walkout of the astronauts – now in their spacesuits – was taking place.
Gerst, Auñón-Chancellor and Prokopyev saluted the senior officials and then they were off in a bus to the launch pad. All three had peculiarly bent postures, caused by the straps needed to make them comfortable in the capsule.
The doors of the bus closed and everyone surged forward to wave them goodbye. Family and friends are now surrounded by reporters, people were coming from everywhere. Being their last glimpse of each other in a very public place, Gerst gestured a heart sign to his family.
Three sets of white gloves touched the glass from the inside of the bus as it drove away to take them to Gagarin’s Start. And then it was back in the van and off we went to site number 18 to view the launch a mere 800 metres away.
There was a big screen to my left streaming a live feed of the interior of the Soyuz.
An extraordinary sight
It was hard to realise that they were straddled to the top of this rocket and were about to reach speeds of almost 30,000kph to achieve orbit. That’s about twice the length of the Spire in Dublin cleared in a second.
The screen to my left started counting down to the last 20 seconds. Then, there was a rumbling sound and sensation in my body and a bright flash from the rocket, and up they went.
There was only silence, apart from the extraordinary sounds of the rocket with everyone transfixed. It was out of sight within a minute and soon after, we saw two puffs of smoke letting us know that the first stage of the rocket had deployed.
We wait eight minutes for confirmation that they have reached orbit. Everyone whooped and cheered when it was confirmed.
Gerst, Auñón-Chancellor and Prokopyev are no longer on our planet. If we were to try to find them, we couldn’t.
By Dr Niamh Shaw
Dr Niamh Shaw is an engineer, artist and performer who is determined to achieve her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, which she spoke about during her talk at Inspirefest 2017. You can read more about Shaw’s trip to Baikonur in her series of blogposts on her website and you can also follow her on Twitter.
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