Niamh is sharing with us her recent trip to Baikonur for ESA’s Alexander Gerst’s launch to the International Space Station which took place on June 6th. Here’s her first instalment.
June 2nd Frankfurt Airport Terminal 2 – 6.30pm. Frankfurt to Astana departing 7.40pm
This kid has completely captivated me. I think he (or maybe she) is about 14 or 15 months old. He has a gorgeous moon face with big bright smiling eyes. He looks Kazak, and he’s carelessly wobbling around the waiting area. His mother seems distracted, she’s been consistently on the phone since we got here, and seems to be travelling solo with him. He’s wandering around where I’m sitting, looking around at everyone with this big friendly grin on him. I want him to see me smiling back at him and he does. He beams back, and from then on I cant keep my eyes off him. I’m already knackered. I’ve been hanging around Frankfurt airport all day. I got an early flight from Dublin, but this little fella is giving me oodles of energy. He’s one of those kids who is fearless, walking up to everyone to say hello. He’s cracking me up. I’m keeping an eye on him too, so his Mum can have her phone chat in peace. But I should probably head back over to the group because I see that our final fifth member has arrived. I really would prefer to sit here, but I daren’t. What would my travel companions think of me? I want to make a good first impression and I’ve only just met them.
I’m not sure if I’ve made the right decision in coming on this trip. Work is incredibly busy, I’m already behind on 2 big project deliverables. I could get back on track if I just stayed in Ireland this week and got stuck in to finishing them. I dont feel prepared for this trip, I haven’t had the time to study Baikonur enough, I have to buy ink for the printer for my boarding passes. Packing is a disaster, I was working late Friday evening and I haven’t backed up my cards or drives in advance. Everything is taking way longer than I had thought. I have a shower, and set the alarm to get up in 2 hours time for the Aircoach bus to the airport.
I know Andreas, we’ve been consistently skyping since the Zero G flight last August, he’s been a great support to me in realising the big dream to get to space. He seems gruff when you meet hm first, but he’s sound and I’m happy that he’s here. He’s never fully seen my playful, spontaneous side and I’ve decided to keep it under wraps for this trip as I want to reassure him that I’m a solid person, a fully fledged responsible adult.
I’ve been in Stefan and Steffen’s company about 30 minutes now. They’re German. Earlier we were all hanging around the check-in counter for Andreas to arrive and I could see that we all seemed to be waiting for the same person. So when Andreas turned the corner sweaty and little flustered, our group was immediately formed. Steffen is a chemist, you can tell that he is fastidious in everything he does, so this guy achieves anything that he sets his mind to. He’s told me that he’s a pilot too, that he wanted to apply to be an astronaut and wants to see the launch to make sure that Alexander does a good job. This guy is the real deal and I’m super impressed. Stefan and I have bonded over language and the way I confuse the meanings of German words. He’s worried that his English isn’t good enough, and I reassure him that I can keep up with a conversation in German ( I soon learn to regret that when a German TV company interviews me some days later!). I haven’t had time to ask him too much about why he’s coming to Baikonur, but I know that I’ll have lots of time in the days ahead to get to know him.
Vasily is the last to join us. He seems flustered and I think that maybe he’s had a stressful journey in getting here. I introduce myself to him and decide its the right thing to do to stand with them all, other than return to my seat were the cute kid is. I’m not really listening but I hear the odd word. Concrete is coming up a lot, I think its something to do with Vasily’s job. So while I’m standing there, I go back to watch the kid, see what he’s up to.
Dublin Airport 5am
It’s also a bank holiday weekend and the first weekend since the schools are off for the summer. Which means that most Irish families are heading off on their holidays and that there will be long queues through security and at the gate. As predicted the 4.35am Aircoach is jammers. Everything is telling me that I shouldn’t have booked this trip. It’s too late now. I head to my gate and board the flight to Frankfurt.
Frankfurt Airport 6.40pm
The cute kid has now approached another kid, grabbed them and kissed them squarely on the cheeks. I burst into laughter, and the group stare at me. ‘Sorry’, I say ‘there is this really cute kid. He’s just grabbed another kid and kissed them. This little fella is amazing’. They smile meekly, there’s a silence. ‘You idiot!’, I say to myself. ‘Focus on the group, forget about the kid’. So I turn my attention to the group and listen intently to the concrete conversation, nodding where appropriate, as Andreas and Vasily wax lyrical about buildings or something. ‘How did you get here?’, I ask Vasily. ‘I drove’, he replies. Then we go back to the concrete conversation. Just then the cute 15 month-old approaches the group and stands beside us all, as if he’s also fascinated by this concrete conversation too. I crack up laughing again, everyone does. This little fella is super cute. Then he laughs cos we’re all laughing. And then he grabs my leg and gives me an enormous hug and I absolutely melt. He’s beaming up at me. I rub his lovely little head and his Mum runs over and gestures an apology of embarrassment. I want to tell her that its fine, that I’m happy to have him beside me, but she takes him away.
I sleep throughout the flight from Dublin to Frankfurt. I notice someone using the stowaway table as a pillow, so I do the same. I got maybe 40 minutes sleep on the plane and I now have about 8 hours to kill before meeting Andreas at the check-in desk at 5.30pm and my three new travel companions. I have Scott Kelly’s book ‘Endurance’ to read. A bar advertises a European breakfast, so I go for that. But the waitress is new and keeps ignoring me when I catch her eye to come over and take my order. Eventually I get up and give the barman my order. Everything feels wrong about this trip. I’m really tired and I need to find a quiet spot somewhere to sleep and work for a bit. I’m still trying to finish a feature piece about Mars simulation missions. I find a corner in the Hilton hotel. I work for a bit. Then a man jolts me out of a deep sleep, he’s the concierge. He asks me to move on. I’m mortified that I fell asleep and try to apologise but he’s already decided that I’m an embarrassing stain in his hotel. I’m flustered and panicked and can’t get out of the hotel lobby quickly enough. I move back to the main part of the airport and try to keep working. Yet again it really feels that I’ve made a mistake in coming on this trip.
We’re boarding the flight to Astana. I’m going to be sitting on my own. Andreas wanted us all to sit together. I feel bad that we’re not. But also I’m kind of relieved. In new groups, I put tons of energy in getting to know everyone. Which is great, but for a long flight, I’m not sure if I can keep that up. It’s probably easier for everyone that I’m sitting on my own.
A flight attendant takes the baby buggy off the cute kid’s mother, to place in the hold of the plane during the flight. It leaves her with 2 overflowing plastic bags of blankets, bottles and other kids stuff that she needs to carry on to the plane. She scoops up the cute kid and is struggling to use her free hand to carry her bags. I offer to help, but she’s happy to do it herself. We’re all shuffling slowly towards the gate now, I beckon her to move in front of us and wave at the flight attendant that there’s a mother & baby in need of priority boarding. She smiles and nods in thanks. I smile back, wave goodbye to the cute little kid, who has already moved on to the next distraction. I hope that we are sitting somewhere close together on the flight. But I never see them again.
I get to my seat. I’m sharing the row with just one other person. I think again about my new travel companions. These are nice people. They’re already really easy to chat with. A bit serious for me, maybe. But I don’t care. Because I’m finally going to see a real live rocket launch. With Alexander Gerst on the top of it as he heads to the International Space Station on June 6th. Four years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be boarding a plane to Kazakstan.
And for the first time in weeks, I know that I’m supposed to be here. That this trip is going to be great.
I breathe slowly. And exhale with a smile.
Let’s be having you, Baikonur!