I knew it would be impressive and loud – that much was clear. After all, I had seen the Space Shuttle launching from Cape Canaveral into the night sky years before. However, these impressions seem to fade away.
As a geophysicist and volcanologist who has worked on volcanoes for years, I thought to myself that seeing – or rather feeling – another rocket launch could not be more impressive than a volcano erupting at close quarters. But I had overlooked something.
If you are in a team, training for a mission to the International Space Station, you automatically become the backup for the crew flying six months earlier. For this reason, last November I flew to Baikonur with my two teammates, Max and Reid, in our capacity as backup crew. Two weeks before the launch of the main team, the Prime Crew, you have to go through the same quarantine and preparation programme, to be ready to become the substitute team in the event of an emergency.
You become very good friends with the Prime Crew through years of shared training. All this is intensified by the unique experiences shared shortly before flying into space, leaving this planet behind for half a year. The time spent in isolation in Baikonur is used to prepare mentally for the launch, to finalise your procedure books, to go through the final training exercises, to inspect the spacecraft and to attend to any last ‘earthly’ matters that one might have missed during two and a half years of intensive training.
The prime and backup crews part ways just two hours before the launch, after the prime crew has put on their space suits and you are driven to the launch pad of the Russian Soyuz rocket, which looks almost unreal in the glaring floodlights. This is the place from which Yuri Gagarin became the first human to leave Earth.
In this place, right in front of the launcher, I said goodbye to Misha, Rick and Koichi with a handshake, and watched my friends as they climbed into the spacecraft. At that moment, it became clear to me how different it would be if it were me who was going launch on this rocket with 26 million horsepower and fly into space within just eight minutes. The people on board are my friends – those with whom I had breakfast this morning and I have just helped into their space suits will have dinner on the Space Station tonight.
And this very fact is an aspect of the rocket launch that I will never forget. The memory of the plume of fire, the deafening rumble and the tremendous vibration of the launch are already a little faded in my mind. What remains is the memory of the stunning feeling that three people are sitting on that rocket, on their way to space.
It was very quiet on the bus during our return from the launch site to Baikonur. Such an event apparently makes us humans thoughtful – in a positive sense. There are probably too many events to process in too short a time. What caught me off guard was the welcome we received as we arrived at our accommodation in Baikonur: “Welcome to the new Prime Crew”. It was at that moment that I realised – next time, I’ll be the one on the rocket.
This blog entry was translated from Alexander Gerst’s original text in German.