Karen Sharwood - April 30, 2002: Rollercoasters and Rockets - Rollercoasters and Rockets
To try and put down the feelings and emotions that we have all experienced over the past week would be close to impossible. It really has been a most unforgettable time – a total rollercoaster ride, but one that will stand out in my memory for a very long time.
Mingling with Mark’s friends and family has been lovely. I have never met a bunch of more genuine people all at once. Every single one of them had their own unique connection to Mark and radiated love and pride when telling us how they knew him. We all spent a great couple of days together acting like real tourists and taking photos in as many places as touristy-possible. Even after completely losing my voice (one too many woo-hoo’s), there was absolutely nothing that would keep out spirits down.
Instant Visa SA style
In between the entertaining and tour guide training, I also fulfilled one of my diplomatic duties and organized an emergency visa. We had decided that it would add a more informative angle if we could send an experienced cosmonaut out to South Africa to document everything that would happen before and during the launch. Tuesday morning saw me charging into Moscow to collect an invitation from the Russian minister of foreign affairs in order to obtain the South African visa. We arrived at the foreign affairs office at approximately 13:02 only to find that it had closed at 1 for an hour lunch. Hmmm, would have been fine had the South African embassy not closed at 12, had we already collected the tickets and had Sergei (the cosmonaut) already been at the airport. Alas, was not so. Anyway, the South African embassy performed yet another marvelous feat (in true SA fashion of course…) and arranged for an emergency visa in 20 minutes flat. This left just enough time for us to collect the tickets from a travel agency (conveniently located directly on the opposite side of Moscow) and meet up with Sergei at the airport who flew out an hour later. Nothing like cutting things fine.
Our flight down to Baukinor left at 12:10am Thursday morning, which was quite an experience in itself. Not your average international long haul flight, especially not for your average tall person. I literally had to sit with my knees bent at about 190 degrees, but after 3 hours and all the feeling had gone, things did feel a bit more comfortable… We arrived early Thursday morning only to find a pretty much deserted town in a place previously described by our own friendly cosmonaut as “the Karoo without the koppies”. Other famous descriptions include “the village of the damned”, coined by Dale, and “prison” by Wayne. I would sum it up by combining all of the above. It took forever to get through customs (yes, believe it or not, we had to go through customs with declaration forms too noggal) and were piled into a bus which drove us off to the thriving metropolis which is the center of town (had a good game of spot-the-person along the way). Our 3 course breakfast that had been laid on for us was very short lived as we were informed we had exactly 4 minutes to get back onto the bus (note: not 5 minutes, not 3, but EXACTLY 4 minutes). So off we went again.
We arrived just in time to wave goodbye to Mark, Roberto and Yuri as they greeted the General and hopped onto the bus to go off to the launch site. All 3 looked awesome – nice and healthy and ultracool in their suits walking out in a real Top Gun rendition. There were heaps of people there to say goodbye, and we were all in top form waving mini flags and shouting for Mark. And then they were gone. It was a bizarre feeling – a mild state of panic, but also a deep sense of country pride and excitement for all of them. The next couple of hours kind of dragged on a bit while we did some sight seeing on our way to the viewing spot. I managed to wangle my way down to the prime viewing area where I watched the launch with previous and soon-to-be cosmonauts. The lift off was possibly the best thing that I have ever seen. I was just incredible. I feel as though I could ramble on for hours about just how amazing it was, but we seriously could be here for a while. The most memorable thing for me though I suppose, would have to be the sound. Even from a kilometer away, the noise as they went was absolutely deafening and so incredibly powerful. The sky was perfectly clear, so we were able to see the rocket for a fair while before we lost sight. There was a color monitor inside one of the viewing bunkers that showed the inside of the Soyuz and the 3 cosmo’s. It was awesome to catch a quick glimpse of them in the real thing after having seen them on the same screen for so long during all of their simulation sessions. The mood after lift off was something else, and none other than utter celebration. Have to admit the champagne went down a treat and the nerves were well numbed after a couple of toasts. I can’t describe the relief - that ton of bricks disappeared with the utmost of gratitude from my own cardiovascular system – should have been me that I was monitoring!
After the launch we all stumbled back onto the bus and were driven off to a 3 course lunch . At least we had a little more time to enjoy it this time. There were the traditional toasts and speeches until it was time for us to drudge off to the customs line again. There it was team photo after team photo and then onto the plane-with-no-leg-room and back to Moscow. The flight home was relatively quiet and most people tried to catch up on the sleep that they had missed out on the night before.
The launch and the lead up was something that I will always remember. This past week has been one of the best that I have ever experienced and I will honestly treasure it forever. I am so grateful to have been able to be involved in a project like this and to have been right there to watch and witness sending our first African into space!