Release 0.9: Simonyi launch tour - Baikonur

Release 0.9: Simonyi launch tour - Baikonur
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Continuing the saga of the Simonyi launch tour...[See previous post for context.]

Thursday: On-bus networking: the quiz

It was so absorbing that I didn't want to take the time out to write while it was happening. But I did post some photos, and I'm putting up more. You can see them on Flickr.

And besides, I'm writing about it partly as a review - how did Space Adventures make the experience memorable? - rather than as a blow-by-blow.

In that vein, I forgot to mention that as we returned from Star City, Space Adventures pulled one of those clever little tricks that separate the professionals from the amateurs - and that almost made up for the missing name badges! We were going back into the Moscow city center through fairly heavy traffic, and we were already delayed in leaving - long lunch, gift shop, etc. Being an old Russia hand, I had of course discounted their promise to get us back into the city by 3.30 - but I *had* made an appointment for 5 pm. In the end, we got back around 5.10 pm.

So, we're sitting on the bus and Chris Faranetta, vp of flight operations, and Akane McCarthy, director of program operations, announce a quiz. Papers are handed out; teams are formed. (Thus I got to know the Danish couple sitting just ahead of me.) The quiz was pretty simple-minded; all the questions - the staff claimed, anyway! - had been answered in the day's commentary and presentations. Cheating allowed; it was fine to look into the commemorative booklet outlining the context and plans for Charles's launch. What are the names of the two cosmonauts accompanying Charles into space? How long until he gets weightless? How many nations are partners in the International Space Station?

I had listened fairly intently, but the quiz also impelled me to riffle through the book. Without really noticing, I learned a lot. In the end, our team came in second - and all members of the top three teams got memorial Matryoshka dolls of the three cosmonauts: Soyuz commander Oleg Kotov on the outside, Mission commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and, nested inside, Charles Simonyi.

Friday: Baikonur here we come

The next morning we headed to Vnukovo Airport, the third Moscow airport and the one least used commercially. The bus took a wrong turn and we had various other minor misadventures, but we got there in the end, into a crowded waiting room that clearly wasn't meant for a group our size. Our plane was Soyuz-Atlant, a three-class 70-seater that belongs to the Mayor of Moscow. He rents it out often, apparently; we aren't *that* special! (He is known as the Mayor Daley of Russia.)

Once landed in Baikonur and past various security checkpoints, we headed straight to the launch site, where we were able to get so close to the already-standing rocket that it far exceeded the viewing angle of my camera. We milled around taking pictures against a magnificent stormy-looking sky; nothing was forbidden. The Americans wanted snaps with Martha; the Hungarians wanted snaps with Charles's brother; everyone wanted snaps with the tower looming behind them. Even one formerly gruff security guy now let me snap him in his splendid hat. Just as we were about to leave, the skies opened and it started hailing. But before we could all get herded onto the bus, the hail stopped, the sun came out and a brilliant rainbow appeared, framing the launch structure. As I said, Space Adventures has good connections!

Visiting Charles

After checking into the Sputnik hotel - which was much nicer than SA's description of it as "clean and comfortable"! - we walked around some barriers for a scheduled visit to see Charles in quarantine. "Don't touch the cosmonauts!" was the reminder of the day.

This was mostly a photo op and we were divided into two groups. At this point we saw what Space Adventures had presumably been seeing all along: absolutely arbitrary officialdom granting access on a whimsical basis. The guards stopped us at the gate, made us wait, counted off heads, made us wait some more, and then waved us through impatiently. This gave us a sense of how much prep SA must have done to arrange our outings: Their job was to make it all look smooth, but on occasion the cracks showed through. Every hour of "experience" took about two elapsed hours to happen - and probably took days to arrange.

I was in the second group of two, with Martha Stewart, so we also got the majority of the cameras - and Charles and Martha mugging for the cameras. It was lots of fun, but very brief. Charles said he felt great, had been sleeping well... and looked terrific! I showed off and spoke a couple of words in Hungarian; Martha mentioned the Alain Ducasse on-board dinner she had organized.

Then we had a nice Russian-cafeteria-style dinner in the hotel, which had a bar that by all accounts stayed lively until 3 am - but without me.

Saturday: the pool

I got up around 7 (5 am Moscow time) and went to the front desk for the key to the pool. Its official hours were 6.30 pm to 11 pm (i.e.4.5 hours out of 24). But that brings to mind a famous saying: "The severity of Russian laws is mitigated by the fact that they are rarely enforced." In other words, if you smile nicely rather than complain, the authorities will most likely accede to your wishes.

The Kazakh "cultural event"

After breakfast, we went out to the lawn behind the hotel (through the hotel's electrical generator room) for an hour or two of singing, dancing, camel-riding and other festivities. It was oddly charming and at the same time painful, because so much of it was patently fake. The loudspeaker was turned up to ear-splitting levels, and there were a couple of Soviet-style speeches and poems - first in Kazakh and then repeated in Russian and English - about culture and friendship and the wings of freedom. Cynic (or disappointed idealist) that I am, I found this uplifting material a bit hard to take, and I spent most of my time taking photos not of the performers but of the backstage: the kids' teacher/choreographer in her high-heeled boots and short skirt; the proud parents, distinctly unmodern; and finally, when it was over, the kids in their street clothes carrying their ethnic costumes.

That was when the real fun began: After their performances, the kids still had lots of energy and began chasing each other around, showing off their gymnastics and getting us to play with them. David Mohler, an orthopedic surgeon best known as Heidi Roizen's trailing spouse in Silicon Valley, showed off his prowess at acrobatic dance. Tamas, Charles' brother, played ring-around-a-rosie with three gymnasts, two in shiny uniform and one in jeans and a sweater. I demonstrated various contortions that the gymnasts politely applauded. The parents were proud; the teacher hugged her charges with obvious affection; the camel kept taking turns around the garden with a tourist rider astride. It was tremendous fun and it had nothing to do with space travel... or with modern Kazakhstan. But I hope it provided a little boost to some of the local economy.

As it happens, I asked three of the gymnasts what they wanted to be: a model, a dancer, and a translator. None of them mentioned science or industry, though they came from Baikonur, where the economy revolves around the space program. Eventually we went inside to hear Greg Olsen talk about his own experiences aloft, as the third private space traveler (and SA's third client). This was great stuff; he had videos and slides and a dry sense of humor as he gave us a tour of his days aloft - and a preview of what Charles is experiencing even as I write this. I couldn't help wishing that the kids outside had been invited to this part; perhaps it would have raised their aspirations.

As I mentioned, I'm an investor in Space Adventures, so I'm biased. But that also means I have some influence: Maybe someday SpaceAdventures will sponsor a contest in science and English proficiency, and let the winners attend a lecture by Charles Simonyi along with a tour group for the seventh or eight space traveler...

Okay, cut to the chase

After that, things sped up. We crossed the barriers between the Sputnik and Cosmonauts' Hotels again to stand outside the Cosmonauts' Hotel again and watch the cosmonauts come out and board their bus. It was a slow madhouse - and an excellent opportunity for bonding with rest of the group, with press people, with a Harvard alumni group led by Walt Cunningham if I heard right.

It was all a curious mixture of the formal and the homespun. Various unknown (to me) people emerged from the hotel, carrying champagne in plastic shopping bags, briefcases stuffed with important documents (or perhaps with sausage). They all pretended to ignore the waiting hordes...and of course we hordes were interested only in the cosmonauts. Finally, a cleric in robes came out, and then the cosmonauts. They hurried to the bus, pursued by camera men and waving wives and plaintive children. Off they went!

Next: Back to the launch pad

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