Monday, September 18, 2006

Baikonour, We Have Lift Off!

The culmination of our work catapulted into space today. This day began at 4am. After 2 long days of work finishing with the hand-off of the packaged hardware at 8pm the night before, fatigue was showing on everyone's face. We made a pact to wake each other in the morning as we weren't confident that even our excitement for the launch would get us up once we fall into sleep.

We were in for a special treat. We were going to meet the 3 cosmonauts in a small send-off ceremony before the launch. There were no more than a hundred people in the conference hall. The cosmonauts have been quarantined for days already as a safety measure to prevent the spread of infection in space. They sat separated from the crowd behind a glass barrier. All personnel behind the glass wall with them were wearing face masks and sterile gowns. The cosmonauts were already in the full get-up of their spacesuites and spoke to us through microphones across the glass. Anousheh Ansari, the first female space participant, looked radiant as she thanked everyone for helping her achieve her dream. She looked as if she couldn't wait to get to the launch pad. Miguel Lopez-Alegria, the American astronaut, was calm and smiled gently. The Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin's young son, no more than 6-years-old, went right up to the glass wall to say goodbye. He was obviously so proud and in awe of his father in his spacesuite. Likewise, the glass wall was no barrier to the love Tyurin had in his eyes for his boy.

The delegation then moved outside the building. In the dim light of sunrise, standing well away from them, we watched the cosmonauts board the vehicle that would take them to Gagarin's Launch Pad, named after him because it was the pad used to launch the first manned spaceflight.

We had a quick breakfast before heading for the launch viewing platform only 600m away from the launch pad. We were there early enough to get front row standing room right against the railing. The platform soon filled up with family, friends, all the ground support crew, and the press. There were still 30 minutes before the precise launch time of 10:08am, calculated so that the Soyuz would meet the space station orbit. Periodically, loudspeakers around us boomed out announcements in Russian and these became more frequent as the launch time approached. We positioned our cameras and camcorders to capture the moment we've all been waiting for and felt our hearts beat a bit faster with each ticking second. There was no countdown over the loudspeakers, but at the precise designated time we saw the gantry fall away. A plume of smoke eminated from below the rocket and this became ablaze. The huge fireball lifted the rocket straight up into the clear blue sky. We, on the platform, felt the vibration and heard the roar of the launch. The power that was propelling 3 human beings into space was awesome. The rocket quickly became only a fiery dot in the sky and out of sight. The loudspeakers reported that all systems were normal and, moments later, that the Soyuz had successfully entered orbit. Only then, as with tradition, did people break out in applause, cheers, and congratulations for a truly beautiful launch.

We were invited to the official celebratory party in a large reception hall filled with good food. There were many speeches and hurrahs, many toasts with cognac and vodka. Everyone was in high spirits, more from the picture perfect launch than the alcohol. The party was especially fun for us when it became a lively trade and exchange of Energia and NASA issued pins. Millie, Chai-Fei, and I made off quite well with our acquisitions.

After the party, we picked up our personal luggage as well as all the lab equipment and supplies to bring back. Exhaustion was starting to set in but we still had a lot of traveling to do. Our plane would leave Baikonour at 6pm and we wouldn't reach our Moscow hotel until midnight.

I looked back while walking up the steps to board our plane and saw one of the many Baikonour launch pads in the distance. The clouds were just starting to break after a short burst of rain. As our plane took off over the flat barren desert, the sun broke through, lit up the launch pad like spotlight and cast an arcing rainbow over it. There was no better statement than that image for all we saw, did, and experienced that day.

In 10 days, the Soyuz will return somewhere in the northern Kazakhstan desert. Our samples will be on board and make their way back to San Francisco. Months and months of experimental analysis will follow. But for now, our experiment is in the hands of the cosmonauts and astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Launch, Minus 18 Hours

Tensions are starting to run high in the laboratories. Launch minus 14 hours is the final deadline for handover of the samples. Everyone is working against the clock. Yet, everything must be done with the utmost care since no step can be done over again. The T cells are loaded in their hardware cassettes. The syringes, marked simply as “activator” and “fixative” for easy identification, are filled and sealed. Everything is clearly color coded and labeled with numbers or letters to eliminate confusion for the astronaut who will perform the final step of the experiment in space. The European Space Agency (ESA) safety manager and the Russian Baikonour science safety officer must inspect each component of the experiment package. All must be cross-referenced and be in accord with the initial protocol agreements. There still seems to be more paperwork to complete as the scientists load the samples into the containers for Soyuz. At least there haven’t been any major glitches in the timeline. All the planned experiments will make it on to the rocket.

We must clean and pack up the entire lab tonight. Launch is tomorrow, September 18th, at 10:08am local time. Four hours later, we are due on chartered plane back to Moscow. There will be time to take a breath then.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

International Research Teams

Project LEUKIN (T cells) - From left to right, Tammy Chang (USA), Chai-Fei Li (USA), Isabella Walther (European Space Agency team leader, Switzerland), Grazie Galleri (Italy), Maria Antonia Meloni (Italian principal investigator), and Millie Hughes-Fulford (United States principal investigator).

Project BASE-A (Bacterial Adaption in Space Environments) - From left to right, Annik Dams, Natalie Leys, and Max Mergeay (sitting, principal investigator).
Project YING (Yeasts In No Gravity) - Continuing from left to right, standing, Geert Toye and Ronnie Willaert (principal investigator).
All researchers are from Belgium.

European Space Agency engineers and managers - From left to right, standing, Mikhail Malyshev, Arno Buechel, Peter Nobmann, Markus Poetsch, and Alexey Savchenko. Sitting from left to right, Hans-Georg Kolloge and Jason Hatton.

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.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Hello, Baikonour!

The cast of characters of our Soyuz mission gradually gathered in Moscow. We were a group of scientists and engineers assembled from Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States. In addition to our T cell project, which was an international collaboration with investigators from Italy and Switzerland, there was a core group of European Space Agency (ESA) engineers and two other research teams from Belgium. As we slowly got acquainted, we were also given a timeline of the order in which we were to prepare our experiments. Because laboratory equipment was limited at the Baikonour Cosmodrome, we all had very rigid time constraints. Blood draw of our donors would occur at launch minus 60 hours, the sterile laminar flow bench turned over to us at launch minus 48 hours, and the packaged experiment due for loading on the Soyuz at launch minus 21 hours. We inhaled deeply and started to cold sweat. This wasn’t very much time and left no room for error. As researchers, we knew that laboratory work, even for tried and true protocols, could be filled with unexpected complications; these were not allowed with this timeline. But it didn’t compare to our alarm when we heard that the other two research groups were working with yeast and bacteria and we would be sharing the same lab space. Yeast and bacteria were two of the worst feared contaminants for a cell biologist working with tissue culture. We now had to work side-by-side with them!

The morning of launch minus 5 days, we flew to Baikonour, Kazakhstan, on a private plane owned by Energia, the Russian company that approved and coordinated all Soyuz launches. Baikonour was a major launch site for the Soviet Space Program. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Baikonour became part of Kazakhstan, outside of Russian controlled territory. As the solution, Russia leased the area immediately around the Cosmodrome and recently extended the contract to 2050.

After a 3-hour flight, we touched down on a flat arid desert. There were no trees and only the rare thorny shrub. Even monotonous clay-colored land stretched as far as the eye could see. We saw no nearby buildings or surrounding cities to suggest human civilization. We squinted toward the distance and thought we may have spotted the launch pad. The Baikonour Cosmodrome was an oasis created by the Soviet Space Program, and now Energia, in a place where there was nothing. To facilitate travel, Energia not only had their own airplane, but also a private airport in Moscow and in Baikonour. One set of train tracks led directly to the Cosmodrome complex for supplies. They even had their own internet connection beamed from their own satellite. But the Cosmodrome was also still a military base for Russia. Our group had to stay together and be escorted everywhere. One must ask permission for almost everything, including the privilege of taking pictures. (There will be no accompanying photo with this entry.)

After a short rest in our hotel comfortably converted from barracks, all the scientists were eager to check out the lab facilities. There were a couple of surprises, both bad and good. We had no vacuum suction and the carriages for the centrifuge could only spin 50ml tubes. But there were now also two separate laboratory rooms instead of one! We quickly suggested that the yeast and bacteria groups be in the other lab away from us. No offense, of course. Regardless, one Belgian investigator told me that the facilities were much improved from before. When she was here for a previous flight experiment several years ago, she prepared her experiment in the bathroom underneath a tent using an oil lamp as a Bunsen burner. The conditions may not be ideal, but our Russian hosts really try to get us what we need, she said.

Our diverse group of international scientists and engineers have in common a passion for our work and a fascination with space. (The general level of excitement was demonstrated by the fact that whenever we were told to be somewhere, everyone would be there 10 minutes early. If you were on time, you were late.) And we are all dreamers. We dream that our discoveries and the fruits of our labor would one day help extend our human presence into space.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Vostok, Soyuz, the Real Deal

(From left to right, Jason Hatton, Millie Hughes-Fulford,
Tammy Chang, and Chai-Fei Li in front of Gagarin's capsule.)

Behind a set of nondescript doors, off an unmarked turn-off from the highway approximately 40 minutes from Moscow, there’s a treasure trove known only to a few. Set in the town of Korolev, named after the mastermind of Russian space engineering, is Energia, a corporation now 50% privately owned and heir of the master engineer. Korolev was single-handedly responsible for the Soviet space program. He was behind the design of the Sputnik, the Vostok, and the Soyuz, among others. But because space technology was highly classified during Soviet times, his identity was largely kept secrete. And despite his genius and immense contributions to his country, Stalin had imprisoned and tortured him in a gulag for 6 years on trumped up political charges.

Energia inherited what Korolev had given to the world. They manufacture the present day Soyuz rockets and coordinate all Soyuz launches. And by appointment only, one may be lucky enough to visit their museum. We had that good fortune through our connection to the up-coming Soyuz mission. Even then, it took several emails and phone calls to the European Space Agency (ESA) Moscow office to make sure that all pre-arrangements were appropriate and all relevant personnel were notified.

A very knowledgeable guide who spoke perfect English met us at the entrance to the compound and escorted us through the grounds. No photography was allowed until inside of the museum building. When she opened the doors to their exhibit hall, our jaws dropped. Our mouths remained agape for the reminder of the two-hour tour with astonishment and disbelief at what we were seeing and what we were allowed to touch. Before us, displayed on two levels of a large brightly lit warehouse, were the original back-up copies of Sputnik I, the first satellite, and Sputnik II, in which Leika, the first spacedog, became the first casualty of space flight. The pride of their museum was the actual Vostok capsule that Gagarin returned from space in. It wasn’t a model. It wasn’t a replica. It was the real deal. Gagarin sat in that thing. It was in space and came back. The shell of the capsule was burnt brown by the atmosphere and one saw where it was violently disrupted upon impact with earth. There were no lines we couldn’t cross or glass case we had to peer through. We were free to probe and prod this historic vehicle. The absolute kicker came when we were invited to enter a real Soyuz capsule. It was a Soyuz-T3 that went up in 1980. We climbed in, the commanding officer in the middle and two co-pilots on the sides. It was a very close fit for three. The reclined seats cupped the entire body and forced the legs into a tight fetal position. We were beside ourselves. We were three adults, laughing, looking about, curiously touching this or that like 5-year-old children. It was entirely amazing and we relished in it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Launch, Minus 8 Days

If you have been following news coverage of the space shuttle Atlantis, you many have noticed that reports kept repeating that the window for the Atlantis launch was narrow in order to avoid a cosmic traffic jam. The reason is that the Russian Soyuz carrying our T cell experiment is scheduled to launch September 18th and only one spacecraft can dock with the International Space Station (ISS) at a time. The original launch date for the Soyuz was September 14th. It was pushed back to the latest possible date, the 18th, to accommodate the Atlantis mission. The Atlantis launch had been delayed for weeks, first from weather (Hurricane Ernesto) and more recently over safety concerns of the fuel cells. Yesterday was the absolute last day Atlantis could launch, complete its mission, and still allow the Soyuz to launch as scheduled. The Atlantis lifted off and entered orbit beautifully. Its mission would last 11 days. This means the Atlantis will be leaving the ISS just as the Soyuz arrives. What a busy day that will be for the Space Station!

Astronauts of the Atlantis will perform 3 spacewalks to install two new solar panels on the ISS. This is the first mission to continue construction of the Space Station since the Columbia tragedy 3 years ago. In strange parallel, this coming Soyuz launch will be the first time T cells return to space since Columbia. As part of ongoing efforts to understand immunosuppression in space, Columbia had carried the same T cell experiments on board. Those experimental samples, and the lives of of entire crew, were lost when the shuttle broke apart on re-entry.

I could remember exactly where I was when I heard the Challenger exploded soon after lift off in 1986. It seemed unbelievable. Just when going into space seemed as easy as going to the corner store, seven lives were lost in a flash in that effort. Years later, Columbia was another painful reminder that space flight, like any pioneering endeavor, was dangerous and had no guarantees.

The lives of the scientists involved in the original T cell experiments on board Columbia were personally touched by the tragedy. Perhaps so, they were more determined that the work must continue. Perhaps there was a sense that the significance of what the crew did must now justify the loss of their lives. The pursuit of the answers they sought should not perish with their vessel. The science they were performing should not be allowed to disappear without conclusion. Indeed, we may not be able to prevent all the unforeseen disasters or predict all the potential failures, but we can make space travel as safe as possible with the science and technology at our disposal. Understanding the biology of the immune system in space and why it may not function properly is an important part of keeping astronauts safe in long duration space travel. For the scientists of the T cell project, finally having an answer to those experiments will be the best tribute to the brave men and women of Columbia who lost their lives as pioneers of our age.

And so, with such emotions, we await our launch.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, but Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. In being proud of our own accomplishments and excitement over Armstrong's famous words as he took those steps, we seemed to have forgotten that President Kennedy mandated the race for the moon only after we lost the race into space. The Soviet Space program was as illustrious as ours, filled with heroes and heroic deeds. Among the "firsts" they claimed were: first artificial satellite in space (Sputnik I, 1957), first man in space (Yuri Gagarin, 1961), first woman in space (Valentina Tereshova, 1963), and first space walk (Alexei Leonov, 1969). Before the International Space Station, there was Mir. For 15 years (1986-2001), Mir was our human outpost in space and hosted both Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts. Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov stayed 438 days on board Mir, the record for any human living continually in space and long enough for a journey to Mars. The depth of Russian knowledge of navigation and human physiology in space could only be imagined. Their contribution to the human race's eventual conquest of space was immeasurable.

Space exploration and travel have always brought out my innermost child and unleashed my most repressed aspirations. So it was with wonder and ineffable anticipation that I went to the Cosmonaut Museum in Moscow. I had felt the same way when I went to visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center at Houston. When I stepped out of the metro station, the Cosmonaut Museum was easy to spot by the 100m soaring silver tower capped by a model of a rocket. But as I walked closer, I wasn't sure whether I came to the right place. The grounds of the museum seemed to me no more than a junk yard. It was surrounded by wire fences that did nothing to keep anyone out. The silver tower and the building underneath which housed the museum were covered with graffiti. There were broken beer bottles and litter everywhere. Skateboarders and teenage kids with trick bikes tried to scale the slope of the tower and perform stunts coming down. The only explanation was the museum was closed for renovation, but I couldn't appreciate much activity toward achieving that end.

Depressed by the sight, I strolled through the nearby USSR Exhibition Center. It was built in the 1930's to tout the successes of the Soviet economic system. For the first time in Russia, I felt that I was in the "former Soviet Union." I thought about our former rivals and what happened to them. Might not the Cosmonaut Museum be a metaphor for the disintegration of the Soviet Union? In our rivalry, as Americans, we liked to think of ourselves as the underdogs. The Soviets were the aggressors, stronger, meaner, and ready to destroy us. But with our will to win and our American can-do spirit, we would beat this insurmountable force. In the end, we were the insurmountable force. Through our arms race and space race, they were bankrupted and we became the only remaining superpower.

The irony is not lost upon us that a Russian Soyuz is going to launch an experiment by American scientists on to an internationally sponsored space station. Our competing space programs have become collaborators. Perhaps this is the naivete of an optimist, but if this is an example that science can bring together former enemies, then maybe the human race can transcend the hatred and suspicion we have for each other on this earth and look collectively toward the sky.