A Sunrise Roll-out
Launch minus 52 hours, we woke up in the early morning and everyone again gathered in the hotel lobby 10 minutes before the appointed time. It was still dark outside and we were warned that it would be bitterly cold this morning. We piled in our now familiar bus with our Russian “escort” who held the name card that magically opened gates and got us pass checkpoints. We were going to the roll-out.
We were quiet during our ride. Some of us were still waking up from the revelry of the night before. We had found a billiard table in our hotel of the Russian variety, involving a very large table with very narrow pockets. After a couple of hours and many missed shots, three Russian officers, who arrived at base for the heightened security measures, joined in and showed us how it was supposed to be done. A few rounds of beers later, a guitar appeared and, with beautiful baritone voices, they graciously entertained us with old Russian folk songs late into the evening. But mostly we were quiet with anticipation. For many of us, it would be the first time we would see a roll-out of a Soyuz rocket. There was no counterpart in the United States; for long a long time now, NASA has not let even a selected public so close to a space shuttle right before launch.
We stepped out into the cold tart desert air by the side of a large warehouse with train tracks leading right into it. A locomotive engine was backing up inside and with several loud clicks engaged its special cargo. There it was, facing us, the bottom of the Soyuz rocket filling the entire space of the four stories tall warehouse. The train engine slowly pulled the Soyuz toward us and displayed the fullness of its might. The rocket seemed close enough to touch but far too massive to reach. The habitation module at the top sported both the Russian and American flags to reflect the 3-member crew: one Russian cosmonaut, one American astronaut, and an American space tourist, the first female space participant ever. There was a roll-out tradition in which the gathered spectators would place coins on the tracks for good luck. The old Belgian professor of our group ran out in front of the tracks to put a couple of Euro coins. Later, he showed us the thin flattened ovals with a chuckle.
The train and Soyuz continued on toward the horizon where the sun was beginning to rise. The bottom of distant skies showed its first tinge of orange and threw some highlights on the rare low-lying cloud. Warm light illuminated the Soyuz as it pulled away from us in the direction of the launch pad a few kilometers away. There, it would be erected into its upright position and readied for space.
We had a long day ahead of us as well. Today we would begin preparation of the T cells. Blood would be drawn from donors from our own team. Activity within the Baikonour compound was quickening with the approaching launch. In the past few days, centrifuges, incubators, freezers, and sterile hoods were set up and calibrated to specification. Solutions were pH balanced and aliquoted. All equipment meant for loading on the Soyuz were checked and re-checked by the safety inspectors. Our project had already passed one of two leak tests, which ensured that the hardware containing our experiment would be airtight through spaceflight. We were poised for the frenetic schedule of the final two days.