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Launching Into Space – A Tale by an African to Russia’s Cosmodrome

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For the past 43 years space flights inspired us, and young and old alike hailed astronauts as heroes and celebrities. I remember when I was in middle school; writing that I wanted to be the first African woman astronaut… Well I never did become an astronaut, I chose instead to become a journalist, but through my work I have been fortunate to live out some of my dreams.

So when the call came that my next assignment was heading out to Baikonur’s Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, for the launch of Expedition 32/33 in the Soyuz TMA-05M spacecraft launching to the International Space Station (ISS), I was ecstatic. I was transported back in time to that little girl from the dusty streets of South Africa, who dreamed of discovering places unknown. If I couldn’t be an astronaut, at least I’ll get to see a live space launch!

I got to know the international crew, which was made up of Flight Engineers Sunita Williams of NASA, Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Yuri Malenchenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). They all started their testing and training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia, and Yuri Gagarin whom the centre is named after, was the first human to journey into outer space.

Originally the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre was a secret Air Force facility, it has now become Russia's only "school of cosmonauts" and one of the most enduring symbols of the nation's quest beyond Earth. The small town housing the incognito centre echoes Soviet nostalgia and is called Zvezdny Gorodok; which the locals, fellow astronauts and cosmonauts have dubbed rather suitably as Star City or Starry Town.

Star city training facilities consist of full-size mockups of all major spacecraft developed in the former USSR, from Soyuz to Buran from TKS to Mir and ISS; zero-gravity training aircraft for simulating weightlessness, a medical observation clinic and testing facility. There’s also a planetarium built in East Germany, capable of projecting as many as 9,000 stars. For a bit of history there’s the original office of Yuri Gagarin and a number of monuments. This is where the astronauts have to complete all the required pre-launch training in both the Soyuz spacecraft and the Russian Segment of the International Space Station. They get briefed on the status of the Space Station, the scheduled flight plan, and some of the experiments that will be conducted on board and importantly a backup crew trains side by side with the main crew so nothing is overlooked.


On July 1st I ventured out in the early hours of the morning to the Russian Mission Control Centre (MCC), which manages space flight missions, located in Korolev city (Moscow Region). MCC is the most modern centre for processing information and managing space missions from the point of a launch until mission completion.

Everyone gathered nervously during the two and a half hours of the free flight of the Soyuz TMA-03M and its three International Space Station Expedition 30/31, hoping not to turn this into an Apollo 13 movie scene or far worse the misfortune of Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia.

However Commander Oleg Kononenko and Flight Engineers Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers were able to safely land back on Earth at the Steppes of Kazakhstan to a big round of applause.

I could feel the uneasiness of the crew piercing through the control screen, as cameras were shoved in their faces, medics and officials asking questions and poking them, all the chaos around them made them look rather bewildered and confused. That’s not how I pictured a welcome home from space moment. I wondered if any of them even knew where they were after spending 193 days in orbit, it must have been surreal for them.


After a four-hour flight with one of the shakiest airlines I’ve even flown in. I touched down on July 13, to the scotching heat of Baikonur in Kazakhstan. Upon arrival and inspection of my special permits by officials (you can make an unexpected visit to Baikonur without permission as it is military controlled), I also had to sign a decree citing I will not go beyond the base town unaccompanied or take pictures without permission. This is when being journalist helps, as a few rules can be bent. This deserted and dry looking city houses Russia’s Cosmodrome, where the Soyuz, the manned shuttle would take of in 48 hours.

The Cosmodrome was built in the 50’s and extends for 85 km from North to South, and from 125 km from East to West, a territory as great as Moldova. Aside from dozens of launch pads it includes five tracking-control centers, nine tracking stations, and a 1500 km rocket test range. It’s also the oldest space launch facility in the world. Vostok 1, the first manned spacecraft in human history, was launched from one of Baikonur's launch pads, which is presently known as Gagarin's Start.

Baikonur, resonates with reminders from the “glorious” past. The people are genuinely curious and their smiles are infectious. I had some time to venture into their world, from the colorful markets to the fairground and having candy-floss while strolling along the cool streets at night. I was never left alone, locals wanted to take pictures with me and wanted to know more about where I came from, they were just lovely people to be around.


On the 13th of July, the crew made their final appearance to the media behind a glassed room, also known as the quarantine room. This is done so that the crews don’t catch anything in their final days before the launch.

Appearing calm as if they were only taking a road trip around Europe, they all seemed to be in smiles and cheery mood. When asked what their theme song for the trip to the ISS would be, Sunita Williams, the flight engineer and only woman in the team said her song was the Black Eyed Peas “Let’s Get It Started”. It was a befitting song especially for the occasion at hand. Sunita who is American, holds the record for longest spaceflight by a woman. Yuri Malenchenko, the cosmonaut said he’d be taking his daughter’s teddy bear to space. He was also happens to be the first person to marry in space, on the 10th of August 2003.

Early on Saturday the launch assembly vehicle was moved to the launch pad on a horizontal railcar. The transfer to the launch zone occurred two days before the launch, during which time the vehicle was erected and a rehearsal performed, including activation of all electrical and mechanical equipment. Once it was the clear the mighty rocket was ready for lift off, the excitement level went through the roof.


According to NASA, “The expedition mission would see significant changes in science experiments conducted for current and future generations”. The international crew were to test materials in the harsh weightlessness environment of space to find the best way to create materials so that you and I, should we ever afford it, be able to travel to space. They also carried out scientific experiments; some may even save our lives one day.

Now space exploration is becoming a dream for the layman and the history of space flight is experiencing a turning point of space shuttles being funded not only by governments but also by private companies. It is important in my humble opinion that the Russian Space program, which has recently been engulfed in unfortunate internal problems, should take advantage of this area, make strides and continue to be the leader in international space missions to the ISS.


At 2am Sunday morning we all gathered at the Soyuz-Progress spacecraft’s assembly building to bid the team farewell but it would be another five hours before they blasted off into orbit.

My mind wondered off to South African Mark Shuttleworth, the first African and second space tourist to launch to space. He launched from Baikanur too and in true un-bashful show of wealth, he came to Earth after his 10-day space mission and purchased a mock-up of the "Soyuz TM-33" descent capsule, which had successfully delivered him back to Earth, as well as his space suit.

After sunrise, I was ready for the countdown. As the countdown ended Sunita Williams, Akihiko Hoshide and Yuri Malenchenko, and I, Thabang Motsei, called out the two magic words “lift off” and watched rocket science at its best.
It was nerve wrecking, body rocking, unimaginable sight for a minute and half, holding my breath, in amazement. Imagine, three people sitting on one million gallons of rocket fuel, re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere at 1,870 miles per hour, in a capsule, with nothing to stop them! Flames ballooning from the rocket as it shots up to the heavens. It was phenomenal and even today, now, while writing this, I can still feel the vibration of the rocket beneath my feet, making my knees weak, my mouth half opened, hands clasped together with two fingers crossed for good luck and my heart skipping a beat.

After 8 minutes it was announced the crew were in orbit, it will be another two days before they docked at the ISS, we all took a breather and applauded! It was the most high-pressured nine and a half minutes of my career and the most exhilarating for the little girl in me who wanted to be an astronaut.

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