This year I gave myself the best birthday gift ever. I turned 27 in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, and watched a live rocket launch that sent 3 humans to the International Space Station.
I was also there to do a few stories for the Dubai-based newspaper I work for. Below are some of the photos I took for work and this blog! I strongly suggest you visit Baikonur at least once in your life.
I was one of the first few journalists to interview UAE’s astronauts, Hazza Al Mansoori (left) and Sultan Al Neyadi (right). Al Mansoori will be heading to the International Space Station (ISS) on September 25. We went to Baikonur – the city where astronauts launch from – for another crew launch on July 20 to report on the routine Al Mansoori will also have to follow before going for his eight-day journey.
Baikonur is a city in Kazakhstan that has been leased to Russia until 2050. Kazakhstan was under the Soviet Union and when it collapsed in 1991, Kazakhstan gained its independence. However, Baikonur holds great significance for Russia as that is where they developed their first space port and launched the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space in 1961. Russia, reportedly, pays $115million annually to Kazakhstan so it can continue using Baikonur for its space launches. No one is allowed inside without a permit from the Russian government. However, tourists often purchase guided tours that come with a permit and a hotel stay.
The first order of business for the Russians before any liftoff is to ensure an Orthodox priest has blessed their Soyuz spacecraft – currently the only rocket that send humans to the ISS. However, there have been a few Muslim astronauts before who’ve been to the ISS and, reportedly, a mufti is also called on to make prayers ahead of the launch. It hasn’t been confirmed if this will happen for Al Mansoori’s mission, however, there is a mosque right on the border of Baikonur (a five-minute drive from the Cosmonaut Hotel – required accommodation for astronauts), where he is likely to pray prior to the launch.
The astronauts and cosmonauts go to Moscow about three weeks prior to their launch. They lay flowers on Gagarin’s monument to honour him and sign a wall that is dedicated to astronauts. Five days ahead of the liftoff, they arrive in Baikonur. Their first task is to be quarantined in this building – the Cosmonaut Hotel. This is to ensure they aren’t exposed to harmful bacteria. This is a tradition that goes back to the Soviet Space Programme days. Space history shows that cosmonauts and astronauts would often wave goodbye from the windows of their hotel room as they were kept away in quarantine. Family members, space fans and press would gather outside of the gates, desperate to get a glimpse of the astronaut. Now, most official buildings in Baikonur are covered with tall trees and bushes and are heavily guarded.
A day before the launch the astronauts carry out a press conference to talk about their mission and answer any questions the press has. Here, American astronaut Andrew R Morgan (left), Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov (second to left) and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano (third to left), spoke about the unique coincidence that their launch date was on the same day of Apollo 11’s – the moon landing – 50th anniversary. About six hours after the launch, the space agency holds another press conference to update the media on how things went.
On the day of the launch, the press, family members of the astronauts and tourists gather outside the Gagarin Research and Test Cosmonaut Training Centre (right next to the Cosmonaut Hotel) to wave the astronauts goodbye. These buses take them to another building, about 25 minutes away, so they can put their space suits on.
This is an emotional moment for the family members of the astronauts as it’s the last time they’re allowed to touch them before liftoff. Here, astronaut Andrew R Morgan holds his relative’s hand tightly before boarding the bus.
Russian military guards this building where the astronauts and cosmonaut have been taken to. After putting their suits on, they do a final walk through that door and give salute to the chief of Roscosmos (the Russian space agency).
Parmitano’s family members and fans were in high spirit, but also emotional as he boarded the bus for the liftoff on July 20. This was the last time they’ll see him for six months. He nearly died in his previous mission in 2013 after a water leak in his helmet almost drowned him in the midst of a spacewalk. Here, he waves goodbye to his daughter.
And liftoff! Emotional family members watch from a 1.5km distance as their loved one takes off in this Soyuz rocket. Khaleej Times was onsite for this launch (also 1.5km away). This is also the exact launch pad that will be used to send Al Mansoori and his crew mates – Jessica Meir and Oleg Skripochka, off to the ISS. The impact of the rocket launching off is so strong, the press felt the ground shake beneath them and the lights from the liftoff were blinding. It lit up the night sky almost as if it was day time again. (This pic is by Roscosmos)