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A space reporter's trek to the highly remote frontier

Visibility nil: 'Go' for launch!

Soyuz rocket on rocket pad
Launch Pad One stands ready for the Soyuz launch  
  INTERACTIVE
 

BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan (CNN) -- The Soyuz rocket that would carry the first International Space Station crew to their home-far-away-from-home was out there somewhere, fueled-up, filled-up and sealed-up, we were assured.

And yet, even though the viewing site for the pad that launched the world into the space age is much closer than the press perches at the Cape, a thick blanket of fog made it impossible to see a thing. It would not have been a day to light the candles at the business end of a shuttle. An emergency one-eighty to the Shuttle Landing Facility would have been problematic, to say the least.

No such thing as a missed approach in the world's most complex, costly glider. Nope -- terra-firma and orbiter-fragilus will meet the first time -- every time -- at the sweaty-palm end of a precipitous dead-stick descent. On the centerline -- at the threshold -- of a long runway is where you would like this convergence to occur, with no margin for error.

But for the Soyuz: nyet problemski. If something goes wrong as it carries the fire to orbit, the commander just pulls the abort handle; the rockets on the escape tower start firing; the Soyuz capsule breaks free of the 163-foot stack; parachutes unfurl and the capsule wafts to Earth. Any old spot on the planet will do.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

Of course, that makes it sound a little more benign than it is. Ask Cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov. Back in September of 1983, the Soyuz that sat beneath them on the same pad started leaking fuel about 90 seconds before ignition. Just as things started getting hot, the boys in the bunker hit the "Mr. Wizard!" button and the capsule was lobbed out of harm's way -- the pair taking a gravity-times-17 wallop along the five-and-a-half minute ballistic road to redemption. They were sore, but they lived to fly another day -- Titov twice to Mir on that finicky shuttle.

And so, with nary a concern for siroccos in Morocco or clouds in California -- and none of the suspense-building prelude Americans associate with rocket-launchin' (who needs a broadcast countdown with commentary anyway?), at the very second they said they would, the Russians mashed the button that sent the station-keepers off on a TDY to write home about.

Satellite shots on the sly ...

I was far from the madding crowd at that moment, linked to Atlanta through the good graces of an Inmarsat satellite telephone. The Russians are none too keen on these devices (a residue of Bad Old Days, methinks) and so we used it -- and the even more conspicuous "Videophone" -- with as much discretion as a TV crew can muster (which is to say: not very much).

Nevertheless, with some strategic site selection on the peripheries of the action, Moscow-based Producer Ryan Chilcote and I were able pull off several voice-only or "Max Headroom-vision" live reports from this cloistered Russian-leased piece of formerly Soviet Kazakhstan.

So picture this: At T-minus-0, I was sitting on the pavement in the parking lot, wedged between the press buses, telling the world what I knew about a launch I could hear and feel but not see at all through the pea soup (or was it Borsch?).

Desperately seeking a runway...

launch pad on steppe
Launch Pad One juts above the steppe - after the launch of the Soyuz carrying the Expedition One Crew  

I learned later, while we were setting up our gear at the launch sites, the plane carrying all the heavy-hitters from the U.S. and Russian space programs executed two harrowing missed approaches in near 0/0 visibility at the landing strip in the nearby Leninsk. NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin and his delegation -- replete with some of the best stick-and-rudder jockeys in the world -- had some real white-knuckle moments.

Former NASA astronaut Joe Engle -- the man who flew the X-15 to the edge of space three times, conducted two shuttle drop tests and flew two shuttle missions -- reportedly told the group he would have scrubbed and pressed on to an alternate field. But the Russian pilot "busted minimums" and laid some rubber on concrete on the third approach. The international brass breezed into the viewing area a scant 20 minutes prior to launch -- Dan Goldin none too pleased that he was unable to bid adieu personally to the crew.

One of the Russians mused that, in the Soviet days, they perfected a way to command the fog on and off at will -- so as to foil U.S. spy satellite reconnaissance efforts. And then minutes after the Soyuz ascent, as if there was a kernel of truth in his humor, the sun burned through and the Soyuz-less launch pad instantly appeared on the horizon -- clear as a bell.

Clearing the air ...

You don't have to be looking for symbolism to find it in that moment. With the space station now embarked on its occupied era -- eight years after the audacious multinational idea was hatched -- the cloud of uncertainty that dogged it from the outset seemed to evaporate.

And as long as we are in the symbolism department, let's take a stroll down the aisle of irony: The Soyuz rocket was initially designed in the mid-'50s by the Soviet's Werner von Braun -- Sergei Korolev -- as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Matter of fact, it was the Russians who first put the "IC" in ICBM.

So NASA astronaut and former Cold Warrior Bill Shepherd -- a Navy SEAL with some tales that would curl your hair -- if only he could tell them (he really would have to kill you) -- shoehorned himself into the tiny capsule where, under other circumstances, a New York-bound nuclear bomb would sit. Shoulder-to-shoulder to his left: two former adversaries, Cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko.

"The space station is a hood ornament , if you will, for how we need to get along in the post Cold War world," Shepherd told us.

My, how times can change.

Beautiful Baikonur

shadow on steppe
Miles O'Brien's shadow cast by the afternoon sun across the barren steppe at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan  

And how they can stay the same. The Baikonur Cosmodrome is a crumbling time capsule (if you will) of Soviet success and failure in space.

I knew we were headed to a desert, but on final approach to this compound the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, I was stunned by the bleakness of it all. Flat, featureless, red soil stretched to the horizon in all directions -- interrupted only by gantries that look like oil rigs and hulking, crumbling monuments to architecture, Soviet-style.

As it turns out, the Russians didn't have to go to the moon. They had a little piece of it right here, three-and-a-half hours by air from Moscow.

Inside the Soviet space program, this Cosmodrome was known as Tyuratam. For public consumption, the Soviets referred to it as Baikonur -- an effort to confuse the Americanskis and send any real-life Slim Pickens off-course. The real Baikonur is actually a few hundred miles away. But the decoy name has endured. Remember, some things don't change.

'Buran'-out of rubles

Our charter Yak-42 touched down on the runway that was built for the Soviet shuttle knock-off -- the Buran. It exited the atmosphere only once -- unmanned -- on November 15, 1988. Buran lapped the planet twice, and then landed automatically in a 40 mph crosswind.

building 254
The Energia Building #254 at Baikonur Cosmodrome is analogous to the Operations and Checkout Building at Florida's Kennedy Space Center  

It was an amazing feat, but sadly, a singular one. With the hammer and sickle headed for a meltdown, the Buran was destined to die on the vine, never to fly again. Today, the flight article sits in a vehicle assembly building at Baikonur covered with bird droppings. One of the mock-ups sits unsheltered -- within site of the runway -- rotting on the steppe. The other is now an amusement ride on the banks of the Moscow River, in Gorky Park.

When space station crewman Sergei Krikalev added "cosmonaut" to his resume in 1985, he was tapped to be among the vanguard Buran crews. Instead, his first flight on a reusable spacecraft was aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1994. He was the first Russian cosmonaut to strap into an U.S. orbiter. Remember, some things do change in unpredictable ways.

On the surface, Baikonur's sprawling facilities are abysmal. Rocket launching detritus is strewn all over the hardscrabble plateau. Many buildings are abandoned, with broken windows and crumbling walls -- decaying, just like the Buran. But behind some of the fading facades there is some evidence the Russians are spending money where it really counts.

But the trains run on time ...

I guess the real proof of the pudding is the rollout. In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, the Soyuz backed out of the horizontal assembly building precisely on schedule. It rolled down the tracks to Launch Pad No. 1 at a surprisingly fast clip. The 163-foot rocket was hydraulically hoisted toward the heavens and locked down little more than an hour after it rolled out. Here, the trains always run on time.

It was a stark contrast to the bone-rattling, rock-crushing, lumbering lollygag of a stacked shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pads 39A/B. Remember, the Soyuz was designed as an ICBM, where there is a need for speed on the ground as well as in orbit.

An eclectic, multinational crowd congregated at the base of the launch pad as the ground support team started attaching the umbilicals. Cosmonauts past and present, Russian military brass, engineers, people near and dear to the crew -- even Dennis Tito, the California millionaire who has paid $20 million for a Soyuz ride to Mir -- were all there chatting, posing for pictures, pausing for interviews and savoring the historic spectacle.

Bill Shepherd's wife, Beth, who works for a NASA contractor as a fitness trainer for astronauts (her husband among them), was there as well.

"This would never happen at Kennedy (Space Center)," she said as the crowd milled and the rocket was readied. "But I think it is really great that you can come out here and watch them do that -- with the speed and efficiency it is just incredible. I can't believe it."

High above the madding crowd ...

Miles O'Brien and Ryan Chilcote
Miles O'Brien and Moscow-based CNN Producer Ryan Chilcote at the top of the gantry, near the Soyuz capsule  

The incredulity of the moment reached a personal zenith for me -- figuratively and literally when we were invited by the ground crew to scale the gantry for a close-up view from the top. In an instant, we were on the elevator, rattling our way to the platforms at the pinnacle.

We gathered some footage of workers deftly scurrying about and I was able to shoot a "standup" right beside the nose cone that protected the Soyuz capsule during ascent. No one seemed to care that we were there. I took a few moments to scan the bleak horizon and ponder my place.

It is a different world -- in more ways than one.

CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien is a regular columnist for CNN.com.
E-mail: miles.obrien@cnn.com



RELATED STORIES:
First space station residents speed toward new home
October 31, 2000
Crew blasts off for International Space Station
October 30, 2000
First residents of space station raring to go
October 27, 2000
Russia plans to dump Mir space station
October 23, 2000

RELATED SITES:
International Space Station
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