Dr Adrianos Golemis is an ESA flight surgeon, monitoring the health of European astronauts before, during and after spaceflight. He was in Baikonur, Kazakhstan for the launch of Luca Parmitano where he supported Luca through a period of medical quarantine ahead of his launch to the International Space Station. The following post was written by him as a firsthand account of his experience.
Date: 20 July 2019, afternoon (Launch Day)
Location: Korolëv Avenue, Tyuratam
There is a poltergeist in the hands of every watch that slows time on certain days and speeds it up on others.
In our guarded solitude within the Kazakh steppe, our few get-away moments were morning runs dominated by the feeling of aridity and heat. In the middle of those runs, we had the chance to gaze upon the sparkling surface of the Syr Darya river, the only source of humidity and life.
This mighty stream was historically known as Jaxartes. Alexander the Great fought one of his strategically brilliant battles on its banks. Baikonur is positioned near the western end of Syr Darya, not far from the sadly dwindling Aral Sea. On the eastern side and near the source of the river lies the ancient location of Alexandria Eschate (Αλεξάνδρεια Εσχάτη), the last city that Alexander founded amid his conquests. I am not at all a supporter of wars and conquerors, but one can take note that some historians acknowledge his vision of a united humanity.
Baikonur, our space programme enclave on the Syr Darya riverside, was not much more than desert, antennas and power lines. Still, it was exciting in its uniqueness.
As launch day came closer, we began to realise the importance of the moment and date. The Chinese Space Station, Tiangong-2, would just have finished its pirouette – re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in the early morning hours. More famously, 20 July 2019 would also mark the 50-year anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon. “We came in peace for all [hu]mankind”.
The poltergeist in our watches began to shiver. Gradually the long “groundhog days” of Baikonur transformed to short hours, full of activities. We exited our “quarantine”, in a controlled way, to support the crew in performing a second fit check. We also visited Platform 112 at the МИК, the assembly and testing facility, where the astronauts and cosmonaut observed the Союз МС-13 – their very own Soyuz vehicle. A spacecraft built for them, destined for the ISS.
The hands of the watch sped up again on L-3 (three days before launch), as the families of the crew and other guests flew down to Baikonur. All had to pass a medical check before stepping into the quarantined zone and even then, they mostly saw the astronauts behind a glass wall, a last precaution to prevent the potential spread of disease that could hinder the launch.
18 July, the day of the rollout. It was absolutely fascinating to see the locomotive-driven rocket make its way to the launchpad, then watch it rise majestically to claim its spot on the same ground that Yuri Gagarin launched from, 58 years ago.
Then suddenly, it was launch day. Short sleep, quick breakfast, preparations. Double-checking, correcting, triple-checking. All the medication we could possibly need was packed and stored on the bus. Rescue scenario meetings were held in case of an emergency. There were small details to take care of, an infinite amount. Everything needed to work as a finely-tuned watch. Like the one whose hands I raced to catch up with.
The traditions were observed as the crew toasted to their loved ones and signed the door of the Cosmonaut Hotel. A priest spread holy water on their heads. You may know about a certain fourth tradition too…
There and then, we started living in an alternate reality. We picked up the pace as we followed the crew strolling among the crowd and media that came to see them off. We hardly noticed the thousand flashes and clicks happening around us. Under the sun, we felt a sense of pride and a focus on responsibility.
The walk to the bus is almost psychedelic. People were shouting “Luca!”, “Drew!”, “Sasha!” and tears came to eyes on both sides of the ribbon that separated them from quarantine. Still, everyone looked happy. The astronauts passed through a sea of smiles. Something deep stirred within the people that joined in this moment. To me, the feeling of unity had rarely been stronger.
We traversed Korolëv Avenue, on the way to Building 254: a familiar ride to the site where the crew were to suit up. My watch showed 16:00, yet I felt as if it was 07:00. No fatigue, no post-prandial sleepiness. Seconds, minutes and hours no longer mattered. We were part of a timeless sensation.
Policemen and firemen stopped and saluted the bus along the way. A ladybird landed on my hand for good luck. Once inside the building, Luca passed me his flight suit and backpack with his belongings as he doned the Cокол suit before walking out again. I took the chance to tell him that it has been a privilege.
It was the last time I would see him. Next stop, Beyond. ҉
Ϡ SkyToucher, by Glitch Mob – dedicated to Luca: