Leroy’s Launch

To watch a friend begin his expedition to the International Space Station, our correspondent travels to emptiest Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz lifts off on October 14, 2004, bound for the space station. Bill Ingalls/NASA

WHEN THE ALARM GOES OFF AT 3 A.M., it’s still ink-black outside, and the wind is audible through the window. Turn up the room thermostat to warm the blood, shower, dress, and head down to a brightly lighted dining room. The Sputnik hotel here in Baikonur, in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, is part of Starsem, a Russian-European consortium that provides Soyuz launch services to customers around the world. The hotel is modern, nicely appointed, European in style, and well run.

After breakfast it’s time to head to the cosmodrome. This morning Leroy Chiao will launch from there with cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov to begin Expedition 10 to the International Space Station.

After boarding a big, Euro-style tour bus with huge windows and reclining seats, we leave Baikonur behind and drive through the darkest night there ever was, with no visible landmark, just diamond-hard points of light that could be a hundred miles across the steppe. The bus turns and a different beacon looms: a diesel locomotive’s headlight. Time and miles pass. Finally, dark buildings become barely visible in the murk, and we appear to be passing through some vast abandoned facility. The bus pulls into a yard with cars parked every which way. Mercury floods shed a metallic light in bright patches. A sign in Russian reads “Energia,” the company that operates Russia’s space program. Inside one of these buildings, Leroy has spent hours preparing for the flight, getting into his suit, and readying himself to meet a commission of state officials for a ritual pre-launch interview.

Along for the ride with Chiao and Sharipov, who hails from Kyrgyzstan, is Yuri Shargin, a Russian and relatively recent addition to the cosmonaut corps. He’ll go up with the Expedition 10 crew and, while Leroy and Salizhan settle in on the station, come back a few days later with the returning Expedition 9 crew. Rumors circulated that the Russians had sold the Soyuz’s third seat to a wealthy civilian but that he was either too big to fit in the capsule, too nervous and jittery, or involved in something shady. Whatever the reason, Shargin got his ticket.

On the bus we are waiting to view the official interview of the Expedition 10 crew. NASA representative Phil Cleary explains that we will be allowed to enter in small groups and that we should head for the left side of the room and make our way as far to the front as we can. It’s a mildly tense atmosphere; we have a feeling that we’re not terribly welcome here, that we’re testing the limits of some rule. We’re on Energia’s turf and we’re way down at the bottom of their list.

About a half-hour goes by as groups of five to seven are dispatched from the bus to disappear through a lighted doorway. Finally the last of us are sent in, and our group is met by a guy in a black leather jacket with a walkie-talkie. He holds up five fingers: Five of us may enter. Then another guy approaches us and holds up three fingers. This happens two or three more times with different guys and different numbers of fingers, but we still haven’t moved. Eventually a woman we recognize as one of NASA’s Russian staff gestures to us, and we follow her into the building to a room that’s jammed with Russian space agency officials, hangers-on, Energia customers, their sisters, their cousins, their aunts…. The mission crew is separated from the crowd by a large glass partition. We squirm between packed bodies to a rear corner of the room, where the crowd thins just enough to allow us to make our way forward along the wall. We can see the partition and hear the amplified voices of the state commission members. And finally, bodies part, and there he is: Leroy, seated to the left of Sharipov. Leroy’s smiling, but then it seems as if he’s always got a beatific grin. The commission members are wishing the crew a safe journey, and he’s nodding in reply.

I first heard of Leroy Chiao in 1989, when Air & Space/Smithsonian began developing a story about the selection process that astronaut candidates go through in Houston; the piece, published in the Apr./May 1990 issue, was entitled “The Class of 1990.” Leroy Chiao, Ellen Ochoa, and Bernard Harris were among the candidates portrayed, and we soon learned that the three had been among those selected that year to be astronauts. Chiao graciously agreed to give some talks to groups the magazine hosted at the National Air and Space Museum, and as we got to know him, we began to see why NASA had selected him.

He’s a chemical engineer with a doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an expert in composite materials, besides being fluent in Mandarin and Russian. He worked on advanced materials at the Hexcel Corporation before moving on to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

When Leroy went shopping for an airplane, he and I exchanged e-mails; he settled on a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger, a 180-horsepower, four-seat, single-engine light plane like one I’d owned. He bought a house in a suburban Houston airport community, where he counted among his neighbors Dave Brown, a fellow astronaut who was later lost on the shuttle Columbia, and airshow performer and writer Debbie Gary (see “Along for the Launch,” below).

Leroy made his first spaceflight in 1994 on the STS-65 mission aboard Columbia; the crew set a record for spaceflight duration: 15 days. STS-72, flown in 1996, provided his first extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalk; the two EVAs he made on the mission gave him a total time outside of almost 13 hours. But the high point of his astronaut career, he says, was in 2000 on STS-92, when a crew of seven commanded by Brian Duffy installed key elements of the International Space Station, including the Z1 Truss and Pressurized Mating Adapter 3.

Leroy wrote me an e-mail about that mission: “As we drifted away from the station, we watched it, with the Earth in the background. We could see the Z1 Truss with the Ku antenna [for streaming data to the ground] deployed and the PMA underneath. We had installed and connected all of that equipment flawlessly. What a great sense of relief and accomplishment! We were the last crew onboard, before the launch of the first ISS crew, two weeks later. We had left the station in perfect shape, in exactly the configuration that it was supposed to be in, all ready for them.”

Leroy had invited me to two previous launches that I couldn’t make. Last summer he once again invited me to watch him depart for space, this time from Baikonur cosmodrome, and I thought the third time could be the charm. After I agreed to go, NASA staff in Houston sent me various scary medical advisories about all the diseases, insects, parasites, and fungi that could beset a Westerner in Kazakhstan. But the big worry was the visa.

You need a visa to get into Russia, of course, and NASA was kind enough to handle that exercise. I filled in the paperwork, sent it to a nice lady at the Houston center, and sat back and waited. And waited. Finally, the day before I was supposed to depart, a NASA courier met me in the elevator lobby outside our office suite and handed me the visa with my passport.

We arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in rain. Passengers on Delta’s Flight 30 from New York deplaned in lethargic disorder, clutching immigration forms and customs declarations, and slogged for a hundred yards past empty halls until we ended up in a cavern-like grotto, where immigration officers in glass-walled booths would examine our paperwork. It’s a humorless process. Russians have had more than their share of terrorism’s violence, and the look the officer shot me after peering at my photo stifled any urge to make cheery small talk.

Outside, NASA astronauts Nicole Stott and Kevin Ford, here to escort Leroy’s invitees, were waiting in the crowd with a handwritten sign, and they spotted me instantly. (I would learn quickly that Americans stand out starkly here.)

After a few days in Moscow spent adapting to the eight-hour time change, we were joined for the flight to Kazakh-stan by a group of high-ranking NASA officials from Houston and Washington led by deputy administrator Fred Gregory. At a security baggage inspection station at the gate, a female inspector X-raying carry-on bags detected a pair of scissors in one and proceeded to ream out its owner in a voice that carried through the whole gate area. These people do not mess around.

A bus pulled up to transport us to a three-engine Tupolev Tu-154 operated by Karat Airlines. The -154 is a 1960s-era airliner resembling a Boeing 727. We clambered aboard and wedged into cramped seats, stuffing carry-ons into any crevice we could find. The old airplane complained mightily on its takeoff run, but once at cruise, the cabin was notably quiet. Soon green Russia gave way to the rusty red soil of Kazakhstan. An hour passed with no sign of civilization below, not even a road. When the airplane started its descent, I checked again and saw a pipeline—there’s oil in Kazakhstan.

The airport has one long runway and a small terminal building, and the Tupolev simply turned around at the end of its rollout and taxied back up the runway to parking. No taxiways. But then, there isn’t much traffic here either.

At our hotel in Baikonur, various groups made plans to walk downtown to a pizza restaurant. Toward evening, a rumor circulated that Leroy, housed next door, would be down to talk to all of us through a fence separating the two areas. Instead, his flight surgeon approached us whispering apologetically that about 10 minutes ago Leroy put his head on his pillow and seconds later was sleeping like a baby.

The Soyuz TMA manned transport spacecraft got the “A” in its model designation from the word “anthropometric.” If you’ve ever noticed that a lot of the early cosmonauts were on the compact side, it was because the Soyuz cabin is a tight fit. When the joint missions to space were planned, both the U.S. and Russian sides noticed that the Yanks tend toward the XL size. When ISS planners selected the Soyuz as the vehicle for rescuing station crews in an emergency, the Russians had to move stuff around to make room. At the same time, landing velocity was reduced and the custom-fitted seats that cushion the landing impact were made cushier. The rescue Soyuz docked to the station is replaced at regular intervals because its systems gradually deteriorate. Replacements carry crews up, and the old Soyuz vehicles return crews to Earth, along with trash from the station, which burns up in the portion of the spacecraft that is jettisoned on the return flight.

A Kurs radar system provides for automatic docking, but the craft has a system that enables complete manual control, and the crew members spend a lot of time learning how to operate it. The training would pay off for Chiao and Sharipov. The spacecraft is a stack of three modules: the orbital module on top, the descent module beneath it, and the service module—with propellant, instruments, and electronics—at the bottom. Sharipov is commander of the Soyuz, and Leroy would take over as commander once they began the ISS mission. With each crew change, the ISS mission command changes too, alternating between astronauts and cosmonauts.

The booster they’ll be riding is a Soyuz FG rocket. Four lateral assemblies, each with a four-nozzle RD-107A engine and propellant tanks, create a flared skirt at the base of the vehicle. These separate laterally and leave a central stage with one engine, which continues to burn. A third stage is built around a four nozzle RD-110 engine. All stages run on kerosene and liquid oxygen, and the four main nozzles on each engine are fixed. Smaller steering nozzles, pointed by hydraulic actuators, direct thrust in order to maintain control. Leroy’s Soyuz has been hauled like freight to its launch pad on a railroad car in an unceremonious crawl and now stands upright just a few miles from here, awaiting fueling.

After the mob scene with the commission, the crew is scheduled to walk out to a bus and head for the launch pad. It is said that on his way to the launch that made him the first man to fly in space, Yuri Gagarin stopped to relieve himself, so it has become traditional for all crews to follow suit. Our own bus, too far behind on the bumpy road to the pad for us to witness the traditional pause in transit, eventually lurches into a densely packed unpaved parking lot.

Above us, dozens of spotlight arrays bathe the rocket in brilliant white. Incandescent light bulbs on the scaffold around the rocket glow like amber gems, lending the scene the ambiance of an amusement park. As the crew members step off the bus, officials swarm them, wishing them well and patting them on the butt the way athletes do. The riotous and energetic celebration could not be more different from the relatively sterile atmosphere on the pad at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center before a shuttle launch.

The first light of day reveals high clouds and good weather for the launch, which is scheduled for 9:06 a.m. Because the Soyuz capsule does not have the steering capacity of the shuttle, it must be launched at a precise time in order to rendezvous with the space station. With about a half-hour before liftoff, we clamber aboard the bus again and head out to the observation site, which is surprisingly close to the slim little Soyuz, perhaps half a mile away.

The Russian words coming over a loudspeaker are indecipherable to me as the crowd spills over and around the viewing site, finding perches everywhere among the bleachers. Then, as the voice on the loudspeaker counts down in Russian, we see a flicker of light at the pad and some smoke as an umbilical swings away from the rocket. The sound takes a couple of seconds to reach us; then the roar turns to a crackle as the engines come up to full thrust, which takes a few more seconds. The hold-downs release and the Soyuz rises on a flame as bright as the sun. A plume of translucent light, blue and orange, like a huge veil as long as the rocket is tall, flickers and dances beneath the brilliant white hot spot. This really is the sports car of space vehicles. Look how fast it’s accelerating, I’m thinking; I have to force myself to remember that Leroy is aboard this thing, which is now, after maybe a minute, way up there, just a dot. He’s on his way, and the track begins to arc away from us. People are hooting and cheering, and then I can’t see a rocket anymore; I can only hear it and see its trail of white vapor.

Two days later we arrived in early morning darkness at the mission control center in the village of Korolev. In the control room a handful of technicians presided over banks of computers, and on one of the screens, we could make out the blurry image of the station getting closer. It’s hard to say exactly when we began to sense that something wasn’t right. Although there was never any excitement in the control room, we gradually became aware that the station seemed to be getting closer rather quickly. Too quickly.

Then the station receded on the screen. Within minutes, NASA officials reported that the closing velocity had been too high and that Sharipov switched from the automatic docking mode to manual, backed off, and then flew the Soyuz to a successful docking. A week later an Energia official explained that one of the Soyuz’s thrusters was functioning at only 30 percent of its rated thrust while, at the same time, a control system that measures acceleration had malfunctioned, together producing the incorrect high closing rate. An alarm had tripped at about 50 yards, he said.

Once the docking was completed, it was only minutes until video from inside the station showed the three Soyuz crew members floating through the open hatch. Leroy would be up there for six months.

Sidebar: Along for the Launch

As Leroy, Salizhan, and Yuri walk from the crew bus to their spacecraft, we stand nearby, close enough to see Leroy grin through his bubble-faced helmet. The morning is black and cold, and the rocket is lit up like a tower in a prison yard. We watch them climb the ladder up to a platform at the rocket's side, as if they are going over the wall. We are left behind, intoxicated by the privilege of being here and a little envious of their imminent kick-in-the-pants ride, the stomach jolt of weightlessness, and their god’s-eye view of Earth.


I met Leroy Chiao a few years ago, the day I moved into a house across the runway from his in an airpark near Houston. He and a friend came by to welcome me to the neighborhood. He was already slotted for a mission to command the space station and had spent a lot of time training in Russia. It was wonderful there, he said, and he loved the people.

I asked him about survival training in the snowy wilderness. “It's not really wilderness,” he said. “The instructors were in a nearby motel, drinking vodka and talking to us on the radio. Everybody drinks vodka over there.”

Well, I hate vodka, but when we finished the beer at my house, we walked across the runway for vodka shots at his house. Most of us in the airpark have airplanes, so the usual barriers to friendship slide away like hangar doors opening. We fly together, and when a neighbor launches into space, we come to watch.

When the rocket lifts, I snap pictures and cry, but not because I'm scared that they won't come back. I am simply overwhelmed by the bravery of leaving behind fresh air, open doors, and the freedom to change their minds.

The rocket climbs, then disappears, leaving behind a C-shape cloud. We dub it the Chiao cloud and climb back on our bus to celebrate with vodka shots and hearty cheers.

—Debbie Gary

The Soyuz lifts off on October 14, 2004, bound for the space station. Bill Ingalls/NASA

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