The International Space Station (ISS) has been orbiting our planet for almost 20 years. When astronauts and cosmonauts start their space adventures by leaving Earth on a Soyuz rocket, this is the result of years of work by a large collaboration of international teams from the space agencies ESA, NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA and CSA as well as commercial space companies, such as Telespazio VEGA Deutschland.

On July 28th, Paolo Nespoli started his 3rd space mission by launching on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. He will spend about 4 months on the International Space Station as a member of Expedition 52/53. The launch campaign preparation started months in advance and it included taking care of all the logistical aspects, the experiments he will perform on orbit, the PR activities both before and during the flight, and of course the visit of family and friends during his last days in Baikonur before the launch.

Our colleague Serena Bertone has been working for over five years as a Columbus instructor at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne to prepare astronauts and cosmonauts for their missions to the ISS. She also regularly supports real time operations working as Eurocom (European Communicator) within the Columbus Flight Control Team. This summer, Serena had the privilege to be invited to participate in the launch campaign of Paolo Nespoli, Italy’s most experienced astronaut, as family support.

Read her report:

“The task of escorting the family and friends of European astronauts to Moscow and Baikonur is shared between the EAC Crew Office and other EAC teams. A member of the Crew Office takes care of the immediate family of the astronaut and a second person, chosen directly by the astronaut and usually of the same nationality, takes care of his friends. During his last trip to Cologne, when I trained him about a new robotics experiment, Paolo offered me the possibility to accompany his friends and to be their guide through all the events of the launch campaign. It goes without saying that I was overjoyed and I immediately said yes!

After the rush of the last minute preparations for the trip, which had to be accomplished within less than 2 months - instead of the usual 4 months because of a number of delays - I met Paolo’s friends in Moscow. The first guest arrived early on Sunday and we had a chance to explore the Capital with Telespatz, our company mascot, who particularly enjoyed the Bolshoi Theatre in the centre of Moscow.

On Monday, we travelled together to Star City for a visit of the training facilities of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC), where all the astronauts and cosmonauts receive training before their ISS missions. Families and friends do not have the possibility of visiting the training facilities when the astronaut is in training, so this is their chance to see where the astronaut spends over a year before the flight.

At GCTC, we visited the Soyuz training facilities, the mock-ups of the Russian ISS modules and the exhibition with many images of Gagarin, the mock-up of the MIR Station and the flown Soyuz 2 capsule. The biggest long arm centrifuge in the world, which is able to spin around four different axes at the same time to simulate the Soyuz re-entry into the atmosphere, was particularly impressive, but not something any of us wished to experience after a meal!

Soyuz training facilities & Soyuz 2 capsule

Gagarin Gallery & Centrifuge

Paolo’s family and two more of his friends joined us on Monday night. We all met for breakfast on Tuesday morning to introduce ourselves and prepare for the travel to Baikonur. Later in the afternoon, we flew to Baikonur and as soon as we arrived we had our first chance to meet with Paolo and talk to him through the glass, because of the quarantine, bring him the greetings of all the people that couldn’t make it to Kazakhstan and listen to his stories about the last few days in Baikonur.

The following morning, on Wednesday, we woke up before sunrise and travelled to the Baikonur Cosmodrome for the first time, to see the Soyuz rollout. When the rocket appeared on the train in the distance, everything became real for the first time: we were going to see a real space rocket and we were as excited as kids. The Soyuz arrived on the same launchpad from which Gagarin launched to space in 1961 and was lifted upright in less than two hours, while temperatures started to hike up to the high 30s and the sun shone from a perfectly blue sky.

Soyuz launcher arriving on a train

Soyuz lifted upright on the launch pad

In the coming days, Paolo’s friends and I braved the sweltering weather to visit the city of Baikonur on foot and discover the many monuments dotting the town, such as the monument to Gagarin.

The press conference at the Cosmonaut hotel was crowded with journalists, families, friends and tourists. It gave us a chance to listen to the crew describe their expectations for their mission and see their excitement for the upcoming adventure.

Prime crew from left: Paolo Nespoli, Sergey Ryazansky and Randy Bresnik and Backup crew Norishige Kanai, Alexander Misurkin and Mark Vande Hei

After the press conference, friends and families attended the traditional Shashlik party with Paolo and his crew. Although direct physical contact was not allowed by the quarantine doctor, this was possibly the event that Paolo’s friends cherished the most.

The day of the launch started early in the morning with a quick meeting with NASA and Roscosmos officials, to finalise the preparation activities and with a quick briefing with Paolo’s friends to discuss the events of the day.

The crew left the Cosmonaut hotel on the traditional Zviosny bus just before 4 pm, cheered on by a large crowd of families, friends, fans and journalists. Next stop: Building 254 in the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where the crew donned the Sokol suits and performed the routine leak checks. We last saw Paolo and his crew in their Sokol suits when they left Building 254, saluted the State Commission and boarded the bus for the trip to the Launchpad.

While the crew completed the final checks in the Soyuz, we had dinner at the Seven Winds Hotel inside the Cosmodrome. Later, we visited the Cosmodrome Museum, where we had a chance to take selfies in the cockpit of the Buran and admire the vast collection representing the entire history of Soviet and Russian space flight, from the launch of Sputnik and Laika’s capsule to the current ISS experiments.

The Soyuz of Paolo and Expedition 52 launched at 21.41 Baikonur time, just after sunset, in a perfectly blue and pink sky. We watched the launch with the other families and friends and with the backup crew, which will launch in mid-September as Expedition 53. Being less than 2 km away from the Launchpad gave us a prime view of the launch and we could feel the ground shake below our feet.

The Soyuz ignited and lit up the Launchpad, the four mechanical arms opened and finally the rocket slowly left the ground and shot up into the sky. About two minutes after launch we saw the boosters and fairing separation and we could follow their slow fall to ground as a bright constellation for a long time. About six minutes after launch, we saw the second stage separation and the plume of exhaust becoming wider. After about eight minutes we lost sight of the rocket over the horizon, which by then had reached the eastern part of Russia. After less than nine minutes, the Soyuz achieved a nominal orbital insertion and the crew was in microgravity.

When the Soyuz docked with ISS at 3.55 am Baikonur time, we were all awake and ready to watch and cheer at the Agat Hall, an old Soviet military theatre in the centre of Baikonur. Two hours and many toasts later, at about 6.00 am the Soyuz hatch opened and the new crew was welcomed on ISS by Fyodor Yurchikin, Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer. As it is traditional, the new crew made their first ground call from the Russian Service Module and talked to their wives, children, parents and friends. Paolo’s friends could not wait to talk to Paolo on space to ground and share their joy of having witnessed such a beautiful launch.

Five hours later, our plane left Baikonur for Moscow, carrying an exhausted, but happy bunch of space enthusiasts. Paolo’s friends had never met each other nor me beforehand, but after spending such an intense week together and sharing such awesome experiences, it felt as if we were all a big family.“

More impressions on astronauts, astronaut training and launches? Check out these links

EAC Website

The Launch of Soyuz MS-05

Vita: Launch, docking & hatch opening

Paolo Nespoli’s Twitter

VITA mission on Flickr

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