Tim from Australia shares his view of the Baikonur adventure this May

G'day Alex,

Sorry I've been a bit too preoccupied in Ukraine to chat to you since we left Baikonur. Alex, I just wanted to say that the Baikonur trip was the highlight of my 2 month Russia & Ukraine adventure. Thank you so much for looking after me, not only in Baikonur but also all of the military museums around Moscow. 10 out of 10 for everything! I've attached my travel diary that includes our stay in Baikonur.

Thanks again Alex and keep in touch!

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Elderton's diary. It has been slightly edited to fit on this page, however all text remained unchanged.

Hello again family and friends and welcome back to incredibly hot and dry Baikonur in Kazakhstan, where the temperature is
38 degrees, the humidity is only 12% and even the camels are hiding in the shade! This small closed city in the dessert has a very high number of monuments and rightly so when you discover what goes on here.

One of the main monuments in town is the steam loco (top photo) in front of the bustling railway terminal (second photo) a big difference to the crowded terminals of Moscow. In the background is the local power station that belches out black smoke 24 hours a day. The monument in the third photo will give away what this town is famous for. This is a Soyuz
rocket for launching cosmonauts into space, and the Baikonur
Cosmodrome is the main launching and tracking centre for "Roskosmos”, the Russian space agency, being the Russian equivalent of NASA.

There are unmanned “Proton” supply rockets blasting off
to the International Space Station (ISS) about every month, but once every 3 months a manned “Soyuz” rocket is launched
with three astronauts for a crew change at the ISS. The town is full of international press & dignitaries, for tomorrow night at 02:32 a Soyuz rocket will blast off with one Russian, one American and one Italian astronaut.

I was one of a group of 40 privileged tourists to pass the KGB
clearances and to tour the launch facility and witness the launch. But first we toured the town and its museum, then
visited the museum at the Cosmodrome launch facility, about 20km out of town. Here we could climb inside the “Buran”, Russia’s only space shuttle. It flew 1 unmanned space mission
before the project was canned due to lack of funds and the break up of the Soviet Union. There’s a great display in the
cargo hold, including a real satellite (on photos). One of the photos shows what is left of a Soyuz rocket after the 1st and 2nd stage boosters have separated. The green bit is the power plant and rockets; the spherical bit is the living area and the brown bit is the command capsule that returns the crew back to earth.

Half way between the town and the Cosmodrome we passed the
tracking station (Photo with antennas) and then we reached
the launch pad. There are many launch pads here, but this launch pad is the most famous, dating back to 1955 and having sent up “Sputnik” the first satellite, the first 2
dogs in space and the first man into space, Uri Gagarin. The
rocket arrives to the launch pad by train, is erected into the vertical position, then fuelled with liquid oxygen and kerosene; a safe mixture compared to the other carcinogenic rocket fuels used in other rockets. The fuel is also transported by train and when you see the state of the roads you can understand why! The launchpad photo shows us casually walking around the launch pad whilst the rocket is being fuelled. This is unbelievable; nowhere on earth can you do this, particularly at NASAs’ Cape Canaveral, where the closest you can get is 5km away! To the right of the middle photo you
can see the cradle rail wagon used to transport the beast
the 2km from the assembly plant in the background to the launch pad.

Three hours before launch we witnessed the pre-flight report, where the astronauts in their space suits, officially reported fit for duty to Generals and Officials of their respective countries after clearing medical examinations by Roskosmos surgeons.

And now the moment we’ve all been waiting for! At 02:28 we saw the ISS pass by in orbit directly overhead and four minutes later our Soyuz rocket blasted off in
close pursuit of the ISS. Just a short 6 hours later it will dock with the ISS, much quicker than NASAs’ 2 – 3 days!

I have to ask you, where else in the world can you see a sight like this? Two locomotives hauling hundreds of tonnes of rocket and a cryogenic liquid oxygen car in the middle of the dessert!!! Is this extreme “Big Boys Toys” or what?!!!

Just like clockwork, bang on time at 02:32… BLAST OFF!!! Our viewing area was just 800 metres away. Had something gone wrong we would’ve been instant burnt toast, but after many decades the Ruskies have got this down to a fine art. The deafening roar and shockwaves from 8 million horsepower of rocket engines shook my body and the glare of the engines turned night into brightest day as the rocket broke the sound barrier many times as it accelerated to 25,000km/hr in 2 minutes.

This was truly a most awesome event and reality doesn’t get any closer to sci-fi anywhere else! I apologise for not taking more photos of this special event, but in the heat of the moment I was just too awestruck to do anything! After a few hours sleep and breakfast we were taken to a park, where there are 3 avenues of trees,
each planted by an astronaut before shooting off into space. The first tree on the left is Uri Gagarin’s. The other thing the astronauts leave behind is their autograph on a large poster at both museums and on their hotel door.

For the record, this mission was Soyuz TMA-09M, being the 118th manned Soyuz flight since the first in 1967. The Soyuz will remain docked to the space station during Expeditions 36 and 37 to serve as an emergency escape vehicle should one be required. Undocking and landing is scheduled for November 2013, carrying the same
three cosmonauts who were aboard for launch.

After lunch the coach took us back to the airport but as we passed the town entry sign we noticed a few camels, so we stopped for a photo. This Baikonur sign at the entrance to town is also known as the “Fishermans’ sign” by the locals… how big?!!

And so we boarded the same old clapped out small Soviet airliner, with the same Russian crew. This plane seats 120 passengers (minus one for the travelling fitter) it’s like a cross between a 717 and a Learjet but has three noisy whistling jet engines around the tail.

On arrival in Moscow I was whisked away from the airport by transfer car back home to the Hotel Cosmos for the last time. I spent a day and a half catching up on sleep and the dirty laundry.