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Captain's log

Mark Shuttleworth - March 11, 2002: Grooving in Gagarin - A friend accused me of writing “sentimental drivel” in the last Captain's Log. That's sadly true. The thing is, there is simply something about Russia that invokes the sentimental in me. It's an emotional place - where people have an ancient history that's in places still medieval and in other places literally space age. It's a place where people will celebrate great happiness then drink themselves to tears and to death, where grown men will hug and cry openly but where they will also go to excruciating lengths to avoid certain subjects in conversation. It's much like South Africa in the way it brings together enormous challenge and enormous potential, first world and third world, prosperity and adversity.

Also, as we get closer to the flight, I'm finding it hard not to savour every taste in life. Every sense is slightly elevated. Just a hint of green underneath the melting snow brings a rush of spring-headedness. Maybe I'm seeing the world through rose-tinted lenses. Fortunately, a lot of the classroom work is over because now all I want to do is experience everything the day and night have to offer. The simulator and practical sessions are fine - even the exams are thrilling because of the edge they bring - but thank God we don't have tons of bookwork any more. I imagine it's like being out of prison for a month. I'm craving sensory stimulation and interaction with real people.

The work rate has continued, even increased. We've had two tests covering ISS life-support systems and the ham radio system. The ISS life-support system is of course much more complex than that of the Soyuz, but we only have to know it as users instead of as the prime crew, so the tests were quite straightforward in the end. It's enough for us to be able to work with the system and keep it functioning in 'nominal' operating modes. The prime station crew will handle any failures or off-nominal situations. The test covered the toilet, water, food and fire systems.

Breathe easy

Something that struck me as new was the fact that they have systems to screen and remove something like 90 microcontaminants and impurities from the air. The problem is simple: the air up there will be recycled, sort of, for 15 years. Any impurities are there for good unless they are actively removed. So everything that is produced by humans, or any of the equipment, or any of the experiments, or by any emergency or fire or leak, has to be filtered or circulated for 15 years.

To a certain extent, the people up there act as human filters too (just think about that for a minute). And oxygen will continually be generated from water on the station. But there are all sorts of oddball gases and contaminants that they need to filter - ammonia, methane, carbon monoxide, and a very long list of others. This is especially true if there is a fire, at which time there may be a huge flood of microimpurities that need to be cleared quickly to avoid having to abandon the station altogether. Fortunately, we just need to know how to turn that sort of system on and off, and not exactly what it does or how it does it.

We also had a series of Soyuz sim runs, one if which was a duzi. The drill was a launch simulation, and things started to go pear-shaped pretty quickly once we were up there. It seemed as if sensors were failing left, right and centre. At first it was straightforward, but pretty quickly the “off-nominals” piled on top of one another till it became virtually impossible to DO anything.

Each time something broke, we had to try to use an off-nominal procedure to work around it that usually ended up requiring that we use some system that had already broken. There were sirens and blinking lights all over the place. We learned a few new Russian words that day. It's the first time I've seen Yuri flummoxed in the sim. Fortunately, they didn't throw a fire at us, and the only depress was right at the end during descent as expected.

And as I understand it, things didn't go entirely titsup. The parachutes did in fact deploy, and we did sort of make Kazakhstan, which is altogether a good thing. It turned out that the whole thing was a trick by our crafty instructors, who simulated a mistake by TSUP (Mission Control). The folks on the ground control some of the operating parameters of the Soyuz by command radio link, and they simulated an error where TSUP failed to set one of those parameters correctly. As a result, the Soyuz thought it was operating in one mode, and in fact it was in another, and voila, pandemonium. As if it isn't enough to track everything going on inside the capsule, we have to check everything sent up by Tsup too.

Celebrating women

As an example of the sentimental heart of Russia I have to explain Women's Day, 8 March. I think this is an international day in the sense that it's recognised all over the world. But in Russia, it's a public holiday and cause for endless celebration. Flowers are everywhere, and the day before nothing gets done because all the men are taking chocolates and flowers to all the women with whom they work. People go to great lengths to celebrate and congratulate the women around them.

Now, flowers in Russia in March are not cheap - it's hard to grow anything at minus 10 degrees - but that doesn't stop everyone from splashing out on the women in their lives. It's a big deal. It's important. And it feels wonderful to join in. Yuri invited me along to follow him as he went around Star City presenting flowers and chocolate and it was one of the loveliest days I've had in Russia. Toasts, speeches, and lots of hugs and kisses.

Here in Star City, 8 March is followed by another very big day, the birthday of Yuri Gagarin on 9 March. Traditionally, the cosmonaut corps visits Gagarin's home town, now called Gagarin. This is something of an adventure. I'd heard about it and was dead keen to be there, but our flight surgeon was very concerned about the unnecessary risk of exposure to people outside Star City so close to our launch. In the end, I managed to get permission to be on the bus, and it turned out to be a great experience.

From parade to parody

We start out at 07:30 in the morning at the statue of Gagarin on the grounds of Star City. There are always fresh flowers in front of the statue. Most of the cosmonauts arrive in full military dress to lay wreaths and flowers at Gagarin's feet. Gagarin's wife, Valentina, who lives here in Star City too, is there, along with a variety of local dignitaries and a military band.

In true Russian style, a serious occasion can descend into parody with sublime ease. We had assembled in front of the statue for a photograph, and the mood was very somber. Then the governor of the region, a woman, made a short speech. Finally, it seemed that some of the locals were going to give her a few presents. Naturally, they each had to say a few words before doing so. When they were done, they'd turn around and give this woman the present, and as it was being handed over the bandmaster would strike up a quick tune. This was fine for the first one, even the second, but quickly the poor woman was drowning under books, boxes and flowers, with no free hands to accept the gifts as they kept coming, and of course the tune was wearing thin.

Then this man came up and presented her with a series of gifts - making a speech before each one, and as each one was handed over the band dutifully struck up the same tune. I'm not sure who he was but pretty quickly the cosmonauts figured out he wasn't going anywhere in a hurry and started to rearrange themselves and get ready for departure, but he just kept going irrespective of the fact that the meeting had all but dissolved around him.

Eventually, it was all over and we climbed onto the bus for the three or four hours to Gagarin. Two NASA astronauts and myself were the international contingent; everyone else was local. On the way there, we tried to sleep as much as possible, since word had it that we'd be back late. At the border between the Moscow and Smolenskaya regions, which is about two hours outside of Moscow, we were met by a group of girls in traditional Russian dress with presents of bread and salt.

High spirits

From here on out, we had a police escort everywhere. The police car was a bright purple Hyundai Accent festooned with blue and red lights. Within the hour, we arrived at Gagarin. Our first stop was at the cemetry to lay flowers on Gagarin's grave. Then on to a city parade for more speeches and flowers and another band at a statue of Gagarin in the town square.

And then the vodka started to flow, and pretty quickly the speeches were toasts to everything from the Soviet Union (which doesn't seem to have ended once one steps outside of Moscow) to beautiful women (since we're only just past Women's Day). It was not even lunchtime and already everyone was fairly festive.

Those of us who had never been out here before were bundled into a bus and taken to the tiny village where Gagarin was born and grew up. We were greeted by a group of schoolchildren in traditional dress, singing songs about Gagarin and his flight. They were described as “pioneers”. In the old days, being a “pioneer” was the first step to membership in the Party. Next thing, we were waltzing in the street with the girls in traditional dress, while the bus driver burnt newspaper under the fuel tanks - lord alone knows why. I did think it would be a unique way to go, getting blown up in mid-waltz on Gagarin's doorstep.

Gargarin’s house was tiny and wooden, without plumbing or electricity back then, with an outside well and long drop. According to tradition, we drank from his well and used his long drop, and visited the tiny earthen bunker at the back where he and his family were forced to live during World War II, while his house was occupied by the Germans. Tradition dictates that we be given earth from his plot, together with a spoon. So there we were, on our knees, digging up his back yard with spoons.

Next up, we went to his school to lay more flowers at his statue, and finally, thankfully, to be fed lunch. And more vodka. By now things were getting very festive.

Rock and roll, Russian style

Once back in the town of Gagarin, we rejoined the main group for speeches, traditional dancing and song. In the middle of some very serious presentations, things again descended to hilarity with a Laurel-and-Hardy act where Laurel couldn't help but read out the ENTIRE certificate for each award - even though they all said basically the same thing - and then plant a huge kiss on the lips for any hapless lady lucky enough to be getting an award.

Then it was time for the banquet, a huge feast with more speeches, vodka and more dancing. Sh'verri feshtiv now. The whole crowd, of all ages, was boogying to contemporary music. I think we rocked and rolled with all the grannies of Gagarin, and they were still going strong when we staggered out to the bus in the midst of swirling snow at 10pm to start the (festive) ride home. And here's an amazing thing: one of the NASA astronauts had a chest cold and had been coughing through the speeches early in the evening. A lady in the row in front of her had tried to explain to her a traditional cure for a cold involving a local honey. When Tracy emerged from the party to the bus, she found that same lady waiting patiently for her several hours later at 10 at night, while we'd been celebrating inside, to give her some of the cure that she'd mixed up specially. The sheer generosity of our hosts can be overwhelming sometimes.

At 11pm we stopped, again at the border of the Smolenskaya and Moscow regions, for a traditional 'last' (ha!) drink to Gagarin. I have an abiding memory of toasts at the roadside in the pitch darkness, with only the lights of the buses lighting up a table covered with salami, apples and vodka, with heavy snowflakes emerging from the darkness. Amazingly, it seems that there was still some vodka left on the bus, and there seemed to be a need to finish it all before we arrived at Star City.

Pretty soon, the boys who'd been dancing hardest were passed out at the back of the bus while some of the rest were singing Russian army songs and making toasts. I think we arrived, after several stops, at about 3am, at which time some of us headed up to one of the apartments to continue the evening. The adventure finally ended at around 06:30am on Sunday morning, with the sun practically up, and I guess it's fortunate that the lake is still as solidly frozen as ever. Luckily there's only one Gagarin birthday a year.

Cosmonaut corsets

From the 'sexy kit that will never make it to my ready-to-wear collection' department this week comes the Kentavr, basically a cosmonaut corset for those too lazy to actually work out. It's designed to help your blood remember to visit your brain during the G-load of descent and immediately after landing. Basically, it's the world's tightest underwear that squeezes your tummy, ankles and most everything in between. We are supposed to put them on before descent and wear them for a while after touchdown. I suspect it also will cunningly remove all feeling from the lower back to reinforce the myth of the soft Soyuz landing.

In the fitness department, we have unfortunately run into a problem. Actually, we haven't run into anything, let alone a running machine, in the past few days, which is the problem. Our whip-cracking fitness fanatic Karen returns on Wednesday, so Dale and I will no doubt be back on the treadmill soon. Our gym has moved from the corridor to the bar (no kidding) downstairs.

In the science department, we have learned that we have to use something like 200 needles to finish the stem-cell and embryo development experiment. Now, working in a glovebox for the first time, in weightlessness, with needles, is going to be a whole whack of fun. I'm especially looking forward to discovering the first-hand effects of space-reduced hand-eye co-ordination (it was never that good to start with) on my needlework. We may as well add blood samples to the protocol now.

And finally, from the things-the-Russians-learned-from-the-Spanish-Inquisition department, today I passed the two-hour seat test in a pressurised suit. This time, things went much more smoothly than the first fitting. Last time, after 20 minutes under pressure I'd pretty much lost all feeling in my feet, meaning that there wasn't any circulation at all. It also felt like a little gnome with a scalpel was having a go at the soft bits behind my knees. Anyhow, they seem to have tweaked the suit nicely, because while it felt like my bones were on fire after an hour I could at least still FEEL those bones, and move them around, and we made it all the way to the mandatory two hours. Not agony, but it was one of the most uncomfortable things I've had to do so far. As they say, comfortable isn't a word to describe a space suit.

On Friday, we'll repeat the test, but I'll be in a hypobaric chamber and they'll suck out 99% of the air. It simulates being at 37km altitude, three times the height of a jetliner. This adds a little edge to the game, as well as increasing the heat load (since there's no convection in a vacuum and they stop the ventilation of the suit). If the suit pops open, or fails catastrophically, or more likely if I do something stupid, I'll look like the dude in the Bond movie who has a bad day in a decompression chamber. Apparently it's more a psychological test than a physical one since they will let you pop your feet out of the chair to ease the pain in one's legs. Hmm ... things for geeks to do in their spare time.

Landing Countdown to 05:51 05 May

Landing Complete!

The Team
Mark Shuttleworth
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10/06/2002: Ticker-tape parade today
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04/05/2002: Mark talks to learners in Khayalitsha
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Next-generation Soyuz TMA Cockpit

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