Mark Shuttleworth - April 07, 2002: Final exam - After months of training, everything came to a head on Friday, with our “Komplexnaya Examinatsionaya Trenirovka”, which translates loosely as “Bolshoi Certification Test”. This is an eight-hour session in the simulator, with experts from every division of the Soyuz programme present to throw systems failures and sneaky glitches at us, and to evaluate our performance in the minutest of details. And I do mean minute.
And of course, in true Russian style, it didn't rain, it poured. The night before, under strict instructions to get a good night’s rest (and fully intending to do so), we had a series of contractual issues blow sky-high with regard to our science programme, the flight contract, and the work we hope to do with NASA. So instead of sleeping well, it was a
late-night marathon with enough blood pressure in the room to drive a steam train to Pretoria. I slept fitfully, not wanting to oversleep, and was feeling pretty beaten up at the breakfast table at 7am.
I guess that's a good preparation for the real deal, however, since I've no idea how I'm going to sleep the night before liftoff. Best to prepare for the worst and face the exam exhausted. But I was glad to see Roberto looking fresh, since he and Yuri would carry 90% of the load in the sim.
We arrived at the sim to get suited up at 8am. Already the brass were assembling - experts from the military; from Energia who designed and built the Soyuz; from Star City, who handle the training; from Tsup (Mission Control in Moscow), who will monitor every stage of the flight; and from a variety of agencies and departments. Add to this the flight surgeons who would monitor our heartbeat and breathing rate. Everyone was there, from the comic general who runs Star City to the instructors who had spent the past eight months briefing the crew - especially Roberto and I - about every system in the Soyuz.
Quickly we donned our pressure suits and walked out into the glare of a pack of journalists, mainly Russian, who traditionally congregate to record the start of this session. We spent a few minutes sitting on the steps answering their questions... it was surreal to watch two of the journalists nearly end up in a fistfight jostling for a good camera angle, when all we wanted to do was climb into the sim and start. Eventually, that was all over and we could board. Roberto went in first, then me, then finally the commander, Yuri.
So far, so good
We started out with a pressure test of the Soyuz, and our suits. Then we started testing the initial settings of all the systems, making sure that the Soyuz was primed and ready for launch, which the Russians call “insertion” (from “insertion into orbit”).
As the clock moved towards our launch time of 9:12am, the tension in the capsule was palpable. Then we were off, and the conversation between Yuri and Igor Ivanovich, our prime instructor, was terse. “Thirty seconds, nominal flight.” “Received.” “One minute, all nominal.” “Received.” We passed the three-minute mark, when I had to switch camera views in the cockpit, and still everything was fine. Then, during the insertion, we had our first hint of a problem: an alarm telling us there was something wrong with the atmosphere in the capsule. Yuri silenced the alarm, noting that it was because the oxygen was slightly elevated above nominal, and stating that this was probably a result of the suit-leak test, which pushes pure oxygen into the capsule through our suits.
And then we were in orbit, and started testing our systems. Pretty soon, however, it became clear that the level of oxygen in the capsule was rising when it should have been static. Yuri and Roberto figured out that there was a slow leak in one of the pipes, so we shut down the automatic supply of oxygen and from then on had to keep remembering to open the oxygen supply every now and then to replace the oxygen we consumed.
The next failure was in one of the control systems, and it meant that Yuri and Roberto had to keep remembering to use the backup of that system every time the flight procedures called for the unit to be activated. We went through the normal two-burn manoeuvre that raised the orbit of the Soyuz, then we jumped forward in time to the third day of the flight, when we would rendezvous and dock with the station.
The approach profile they had given us was a fictional one (it couldn't exist in reality) that was much faster than the normal approach. We started about 50km away, instead of 400km. Pretty quickly, one of the guidance systems failed, so Yuri had to switch to manual mode, guide the Soyuz into the station, and dock manually. All of this he did superbly, without forgetting to use the backup units or to keep topping up the oxygen levels. I was tracking our orbits and comm sessions, turning the radio systems on and off, and watching the cycles of day and night as we orbited the globe.
Having docked, we broke for lunch. Everyone was upbeat, we thought we'd handled well so far. We still had the return flight, though, which is usually the toughest portion of the test. As we climbed back into the sim, Yuri reminded us that we are now flying a new craft - our one is being left behind on the station, and we were flying the older one back home. We had to forget about the old failures, and start afresh.
Almost immediately upon undocking we saw an alarm, again about the composition of the atmosphere in the capsule. The oxygen levels were rising, and this time it was clear they were rising fast. This is one of the worst things that can happen, because it can create a deadly fire hazard. If the oxygen level reached 40%, we would have to depressurise the capsule. And it was rising fast.
We immediately began the process for an automated-emergency descent. We had very little time, though, before we had to initiate the computer sequence that brought us back. Things were getting heated in the cockpit, and I missed my timing on the navigation viewfinder by nearly two minutes, or 800km. Fortunately, this was the least of our concerns, since we would not be using that given the fact that we are already in an emergency descent mode. But I'm still kicking myself for being distracted. And of course, when Yuri pressed the button that should kick the Soyuz into the predefined emergency descent mode, it didn’t respond.
So now we were in manual emergency-descent mode, which is basically an attempt to do manually what the computer should do for us, but simplified, and probably a bit less comfortable. The workload in the cockpit was now very high, but Yuri and Roberto didn’t miss a beat. Yuri was completely in command, even though he took time to discuss the
issues as they arose. It was marvellous to watch these two professionals at work, particularly since I could see how fast Roberto had learnt his responsibilities in the months since we first hesitantly climbed into the sim.
The final few anxious moments were spent waiting for a thermal sensor to decide that we were hitting the atmosphere, which would trigger separation of the propulsion and habitation modules from the descent module. We could not know exactly when that would happen, we just had to wait for it.
Finally, we saw the lights flash and extinguish that indicated a clean separation on both fronts, and we re-entered the atmosphere. The tiny screen changed to show Yuri where we were in the descent... but a voice came over the air to say we were finishing before parachute deployment. The lights came up, and we were done.
We emerged from the capsule, Yuri smiling from ear to ear. There were handshakes all round, but that was not the end of the story.
We sat down on three chairs, and the entire panel of instructors, chiefs, experts and engineers pulled out its collective notes and observations. Yuri had to describe the entire flight, from memory, giving the time of each observed failure, and justifying his actions. He spoke for ten minutes, giving a detailed analysis of the failures we were given. And then the comments started to fly. Each expert chimed in, criticising the tiniest details. Irina whispered in my ear that “this is the usual way, the more Yuri argues, the better our mark will be”.
They grilled all of us, including me. At one stage, I turned a radio off three seconds before the comm session was supposed to end, after the ground controllers had said goodbye. One mark deducted. Every action, down to the second, was criticised, and defended. It got quite heated. Eventually, the chief of the examination congratulated us, and
then there were smiles, hugs and handshakes all around the room.
Next, we all headed across to one of the halls, which had been laid on as a feast. Karen and the SA team had pulled an amazing effort at short notice to put some lovely snacks on the table, which was a good thing because until that point there was only vodka - a bottle per person, it seemed. And then the toasts and speeches started to fly... the occasion was festive and tearful, with emotional speeches from everyone present that has helped get the crew this far.
It was quite a sad moment for me, knowing that this celebration marked the end of my training at Star City. From now on we are in pre-flight preparation, much of which will take place elsewhere. This is as far as this wonderful crowd of veterans of the Russian programme can take us - from here on, we are in different hands. And it has been a wonderful experience to live and train here.
Needless to say, there wasn't anything or anyone that was going to stop the flow of vodka, despite our very concerned flight surgeon, who was keeping a very close eye on the crew, especially as we navigated some sets of stairs. Thank goodness for Sasha, because without his close observation things could have been even worse. But as always we were in safe hands, at least allegedly, because I really don't recall very much after the first round of speeches. The bits I do recall are best relegated to the bin of delirium. I hope there are no photographs.
The weekend was spent feeling very ginger, and trying to catch up on the minor mountain of email and paperwork that has built up over the past three weeks. I don't think there's too much time left for this sort of thing, as we are going to be shepherded from place to place pretty much full-time. This week we have a three-day break, just the crew and family. And then over the weekend we are headed to Baikonur, to meet our Soyuz.