alexpgp: (Visa)
The Federal launch this morning ended poorly. Almost immediately, it was apparent that something was wrong, and within several seconds, this huge rocket was flying pretty much upside down in the sky.

Clip-130702-094914


The flight ended a few seconds later.

Clip-130702-095019


The shock wave took out windows locally. The images above were taken from the video I shot, which will likely get posted once I get somewhere where there's connectivity.

Impromptu "armchair" analysis—while seated on a bus—of photos taken by various campaigners suggests a problem occurred with one of the engines shortly after liftoff. (This is speculation, of course... it'll take some time for a failure commission to determine what actually happened.) Still, the thought crosses one's mind: whatever it was, it could have as easily occurred in a different spot on the rocket, and as a result, the rocket might well have headed in our direction instead of out into the desert.

Something to think about, or to try not to, as we contemplate the likelihood of going home (as in "home-across-the-ocean") early...
alexpgp: (Baikonur)
My end client realized, a couple of days ago, that social events had not so much been relegated to the back burner as not even put anywhere near the stove (if I may abuse a metaphor), so a barbecue was arranged for yesterday evening.

Accommodations have expanded somewhat since the last time I was here. In addition to the Fili, Polyot, and Kometa hotels I was familiar with from previous campaigns (named after a neighborhood in Moscow, the word "Flight," and the word "Comet"), a hotel named "Cosmos" has been put into service.

The Cosmos came about as a result of renovating the building that stood next to the Fili, and the result is handsome-looking. There are green areas in front of both the Cosmos and Fili, and gazebo-like structures in both areas that were constructed just for events like barbeques.

Besides the barbecue, there was a launch planned for last night. Not our launch, of course, which is still over three weeks away, but that of a Resurs-P1 satellite for the Russian government, aboard a Soyuz launch vehicle.

The folks that wanted to attend the launch boarded the bus at around 8:40 pm, which got us to the launch site, over at pad complex 31, in plenty of time for us to wait around for nearly two hours before liftoff. According to Google Earth, from our vantage point we were a little over 2.5 km (1.6 mi) from the launch pad. Had we attempted to cut our arrival any closer, there was a chance the traffic controllers working the roads around the launch site would've halted us somewhere rather more distant from the launch pad.

Russian launch procedures involve a countdown, just as U.S. procedures do, but there's no emphasis, no attempt, during the final seconds, to count backward out loud, along the lines of 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Ignition!... Liftoff! Nor is there any kind of clock you can look at, as I recall being the case at the viewing area at KSC. You have to be listening to the control room exchanges from operator "one" (other operators are assigned other numbers) that are piped out to the viewing area, allowing the spectators to eavesdrop on the proceedings. The effect sounds very much like the public-address-like announcements that sounded so hokey in any Bond movie involving missiles (Dr. No and You Only Live Twice come to mind... "Astronauts, report to dressing rooms!").

In any event, I managed to get my Bloggie into the recording mode just as I heard "Пуск!" ("Ignition!") from the loudspeaker.

Attempting to photograph or video a night launch is, basically, a waste of time (but I do it anyway, go figure). What you end up with is a frame with a bright light inside the borders, unless the shot is taken close to the ground. I extracted the image below from the video I took.

Soyuz liftoff, 25 Jun 13

After about 60 seconds of flight, the rocket entered a cloud layer that hadn't been there two hours earlier, and disappeared. Folks back at our hotel complex who didn't attend the launch said they were treated to an impressive plume display as the rocket gained altitude and entered sunlight (we are fairly up north, and the solstice was just a couple of days ago).

More later...
alexpgp: (Default)
In 1955, the site of what was to become the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan was selected because it was remote, close to railroad transportation, remote, situated near a major river, remote, in a seismically stable region, remote, and enjoyed around 350 days of sunny weather annually. Today, all of that is still true, especially the "remote" part, so in planning to spend any length of time at Baikonur—as I do, from time to time, as part of my work as a translator and interpreter—you must bring along whatever you'll need, improvise, or do without.

One April evening a couple of years ago, the setting sun was turning the sky all sorts of pretty colors as our little group emerged from our hotel's dining room to sit in the garden out front and talk, have a drink, and maybe even smoke a cigar. A group of technical specialists had arrived earlier in the day, and it was time to renew old acquaintances and make new ones.

"So, I had no idea how international this project is," said Sven, an engineer from Sweden who was in Baikonur for the first time. "Russians, Kazakhs, Americans, French," he extended fingers as he counted, "Germans, British, an Italian, and me, the Swedish contingent—quite a collection!"

"Yeah," said Eddie, a veteran member of the propellant team, "and to think we're all here to put six metric tons of satellite into an orbit that takes exactly 24 hours to complete, allowing it to remain forever above a point—uh—" He paused and raised his eyebrows in puzzlement.

"Somewhere in Africa," said a voice, "right on the Equator."

Wendell, the campaign safety engineer, took his cigar out of his mouth and sighed. "You guys think on a whole different plane," he said, and held up his drink, which looked like a wine glass filled with water. "Me, I'd really like to be able to enjoy my martinis properly, in a martini glass." He took a sip.

"Just a couple of hours ago you were telling the 'fresh meat' the water was safe to drink and not to step on manhole covers," said one of the security guys, referring to what Wendell had said to the newly arrived campaigners during the mandatory safety briefing. "This ain't Kansas, y'know."

"I am most definitely aware of that," said Wendell. "In fact, I am reliably informed that the 'middle of nowhere' is ten clicks thataway." Wendell waved a hand in the general direction of the horizon.

"So what's the complaint, Wendell? You want eggs in your beer?" said one of the satellite technicians, with a laugh.

"No," replied Wendell, in mock seriousness. "I'd just like my martini in a martini glass."

About a week later, during the next trip into town (the city of Baikonur, which is located about 60 kilometers from our work area), I ran some errands and then stopped by my favorite eatery—a restaurant that bills itself the "Palermo Pizzeria"—and happened into Wendell, who was just sitting down at one of the outside tables. I joined him and we placed our orders.

As we ate, Wendell told me of the latest excitement, involving a member of the French team who had escaped injury earlier in the afternoon when a leg of the plastic chair he had been sitting in at a café down the street had collapsed, spilling the unfortunate Frenchman to the ground, along with his stein of beer.

"There was broken glass all over the place," said Wendell, finishing the tale, "but the main thing is, nobody got hurt."

"Did the management ask the guy to pay for the stein?" I asked.

"It's funny you should ask," said Wendell, "because the owner did want the poor guy to pay for both the stein and the chair. What's with that?"

I explained how, in my experience, it was common for restaurants and hotels in former Soviet countries to be fairly aggressive in having customers pay for damaged items. "Back in the mid-70s, when I first started working with tourists in the USSR," I said, "one of the people in my group was climbing into his tub to take a bath and leaned on the bathroom sink while doing so. The sink fell off the wall, broke into pieces, and cut the guy on the leg. Believe it or not, the hotel wanted him to pay for the sink."

"That's crazy. What happened?" asked Wendell.

"I told the hotel manager the same thing, that he was crazy, and that if anyone should be made to pay for the sink, it was the crew of incompetents who installed it, along with the staff of the hotel that allowed such a hazard to remain unaddressed."

"So how'd it all end?"

"Our group left without paying. When we got back to Moscow, the powers-that-be told me that I had been out of line, and that things weren't done that way, but that was it."

By this time, our plates and glasses were empty and our stomachs were full. Wendell glanced at his watch and motioned to get the attention of our waitress. "We better get going. The bus back leaves in about a quarter of an hour."

Our waitress, who had served us many times before and whose name was Nargul (which means 'flower of light"), came to the table and asked, in Russian, if there was anything else she could do for us. I asked for the check, and then, struck by a sudden idea that popped into my head, added: "Listen, if I were to break a dish or a glass here, would I have to pay for it?"

Nargul didn't quite know what to make of the question. "I—I guess so. Why? Did you break something?" There was anxiety in her voice.

"No. But if I did break something, like, say, one of the martini glasses you have in the rack above your bar, how much would I have to pay for the damage?" Nargul looked at me as if I was crazy.

Seeing Nargul's reaction, Wendell shot me a quizzical look. "Is there a problem?"

"No, no problem. But I'm working on solving one of yours." Then, to Nargul, again in Russian: "Could you bring me a martini glass and find out, please, how much I would have to pay if, by some misfortune, it were to be broken? And please bring the check, won't you?" Nargul smiled uncertainly and left.

"What's going on?" asked Wendell once Nargul had gone inside.

"You know how you're always complaining about not having a martini glass and how they don't sell any here in town? Well, I'm finding out how much I'd have to pay if I broke one of the bar's martini glasses." Wendell started to say something, but I held up a finger to pause our conversation as Nargul came back with a martini glass and the check.

"The fine for breaking a martini glass is 150 rubles," she said, as we paid the bill. About five dollars, I calculated mentally. I took the glass from Nargul and gave it to Wendell.

"Due to our clumsiness, Wendell," I said, in my best nudge-nudge-wink-wink voice, "that martini glass you're holding right now fell on the ground and shattered into a million pieces. Nargul just told me her boss requires reimbursement for the broken glassware, in the amount of 150 rubles. Why don't you dispose of that glass—say, by putting it in your bag—and then pay the lady?"

Wendell carefully laid the unbroken glass in his bag and reached for his wallet. "Please convey my apologies for being such a fumblefingers," he said. There was a big smile on his face and proper martinis in his future.


alexpgp: (Default)
The video guys came by a little while ago and gave me a copy of some of the footage that they had taken during the campaign. Here's a screen capture of the moon rising on the night between the night of haze and and the night of the post-launch party. The alignment was pretty much spot on.

Moonrise Behind Pad 39


It's got all of the nasties associated with a screen capture of a video frame, but still, I think it's a nice image.

Cheers...
alexpgp: (Default)
Yesterday's trip got off to a slow-ish start as the head count of people on the bus didn't jive with the count of circled names on the list of campaign participants. Finally, I grabbed the list and we did things the old-fashioned way: I called out people's names (stumbling over one or two) and eventually, the one person whose name was not circled was revealed. The delay itself was no big deal, but the air conditioner on the bus doesn't work unless the vehicle is moving, which is a big deal, because the bus wasn't going to move until the paperwork was right.

About the only living thing seemingly not affected by the heat is the ubiquitous dragonfly. Go outside at any time during this part of the year and they seem to be swarming. They appear unaffected by the heat, but then again, maybe I'd not pay much attention to the heat if I found myself in a 24-hour smörgåsbord featuring mosquitoes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between-meal snacks. They're also not much intimidated by humans, as witness this specimen, who stayed put for nearly 10 minutes, and left only because the wearer of the hat got inside the bus:

This is MY hat!

As we came to the main city checkpoint (Baikonur is, basically, surrounded by a high wall interrupted by two or three police checkpoints) I could see some changes had occurred in the vicinity of the town: the commuter rail station at Toretam, just ouside of town, had been renovated, and the commuter line checkpoint that sits on stilts next to the track at the city boundary had been repainted in navy blue.

As usual, the bus's first stop was across from the town market and we all agreed to meet back at the bus after about an hour, at 12:45 pm. I made my usual pilgrimage to the back of the market to seek salted mushrooms and chechel, a string cheese that looks somewhat like a pigtail of hair, which gives this cheese its second name, kosichka.

With those purchases in my rucksack, I asked about kombucha (чайный гриб). People knew what I was talking about, but couldn't direct me to anyone who sold it. Apparently, kombucha is something you'll find only among the wares of individuals who show up on a casual basis to sell a few things off the top of a cardboard box or a sheet of outstretched plastic.

On the way back to the bus, I and one of my fellow interpreters - also named Alex - had just enough time to duck into the Vostok cafe for an ice cold Shymkentskoye draft beer, which was pretty much the first beer I've had since starting the campaign. It was refreshing interlude, because it was well and truly hot out, although in counting one's blessings, the humidity was negligible.

On the short walk back to the bus, we spied a procession of campaigners trailing a cart that had emerged from the courtyard of the local bottled goods warehouse. I quickly unlimbered my camera and took a few shots "blind," without stopping to line up the frame or anything, as I was crossing a busy street and had one eye on approaching traffic. Here's the best image:

Beer Run

The beer was quickly stowed in the belly of the bus, we all boarded, and the vehicle drove off to a restaurant that had only been described to me as "The Yurta" (the name of the traditional "portable" residence of nomadic Kazakhs) for a specially ordered meal.

Although neither of us interpreters or our Khrunichev security escort (whose name, as it happens, was also Alex) had been part of the group that had reserved lunch at The Yurta, we were invited to participate in a meal of бешбармак (pronounced "besh bar MOCK"), a traditional Kazakh and Kyrgyz dish that translates as "five fingers" and consists of meat - whatever is available (beef, lamb, horse, and in the west of Kazakhstan, near the Aral Sea, fish from the sturgeon family) - on a bed of what amounts to homemade pasta squares. I found it tasty.

The meal also included an assortment of appetizers, a dish that reminded me a lot of pork fried rice, and a curious dish that - as I found out later - consisted of an assortment of organ meats (e.g., heart, liver, kidney, and lung) cooked with potatoes and onions. I found it particularly tasty, though I don't think I've ever eaten lung before.

Did I mention that I fell off the wagon yesterday, diet-wise?

After lunch, we wandered over toward the town's square, where a statue of Lenin still stands, hogging dominating the southern end. As we walked, I spied three Kazakh boys hauling a cart loaded with watermelon. They - or at least one of them - were pulling their wares through the neighborhood, making their presence known the traditional way, with cries roughly equivalent to "Watermelon! We've got your watermelon here!"

Watermelon Capitalism

Our group finally ended up at a place called Ахтамар ("akh ta MAR," where the "kh" is an aspirated "h" sound), which, if memory serves, is a reference to an Armenian tale of star-crossed lovers (as well as the name of an island once the home of Armenian royalty).

The owner of the place is, not surprisingly, an Armenian. In addition, it so happened that both of the other Alexes knew him. After exchanging pleasantries, we three Alexes sat in the shade of some well-placed trees and drank some of the proprietor's hot green tea, and it turns out that this practice, which appears so counterintuitive to your typical Westerner (and particularly to your ice-cube gobbling American), does make the heat more bearable after a little while.

In the end, however, on the way to the bus, during a stop at a small grocery, I did revert to type and buy a (relatively) cold bottled rooibos tea before settling in for the drive home, during which I slept, mostly.

I retired early after our return, after a very light dinner, and slept right through until just before 7 am this morning. My assigned work doesn't start today until after lunch, and although there will doubtless be a Bastille Day celebration this evening, it will likely involve work for the interpretation staff. Speaking of July 14, it also occurs to me that this is the third Bastille Day in four years that I've spent in Baikonur. Go me.

On that note, it's time to go down and walk the treadmill, then come back, shower, police the area, and get ready for the rest of the day.

Cheers...
alexpgp: (Fueling)
...as I post this, and there's not much time left to write, as I still have a bunch of things to do before trying to get a couple of hours sleep before reporting for work at the Polyot Hotel.

Yesterday started out slow and then sped up, especially near the end of the day. What capped the day was one of those strange gatherings where people gravitate together and suddenly realize that they've got hardly any time at all to get rid of the food and beverages they've been keeping in their rooms. Suddenly, you've got a table full of various goodies (foie gras, sprats, pickled mushrooms, beer, vodka, etc.) and folks are having a pretty good time without it being a formal party of some kind.

The latest scoop is that we're going to try to get out of Baikonur on the 10th, in the afternoon, instead of the 11th. This won't affect my itinerary at all, as I had intended to spend some time with Galina's mother and sister before going home on the 14th, but it does sort of cut one day's pay from my invoice. I plan to make it up with the outside job I have waiting for me (though I was able to get a chunk done yesterday - part of the speed-up I mentioned - today was one of those days that required complete attention be given to the job at hand).

It's been a pretty smooth campaign so far, and blessed with very good weather. That changed today, as we got hit with cold, windy air and an interruption in commercial power (fortunately, all critical launch components are running on uninterruptible power, so we weren't affected, except emotionally, waiting for word).

A tradition among the people who launch rockets is to write some kind of personal message on the fairing, which is the part of the rocket that goes around the payload, up on top. I seem to recall "dedicating" the rocket I helped launch during my first campaign to Huntür; this one, I'm "dedicating" to the new kid on the block, Matthew.
061108-BAI-FairingSigning

Cheers...

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