Zhezkazgan, central Kazakhstan
By Shamil Zhumatov
PART ONE: LAUNCH
During more than a decade of covering Russia’s space exploration program, I have seen pretty unusual missions. I have taken pictures of an investor heading for the International Space Station, as well as those of a clown and programmers flying into orbit. But the most recent space launch and landing have probably become the most unforgettable – the torch of the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s Sochi reached space and then returned to Earth. Now, as I play back this hectic flurry of events, it is still hard to believe how closely these two things are entwined – the Olympics and space. The Olympic Games had been aimed by the authorities to strengthen Russia’s image. Given this ambitious task set by Moscow, Russia’s space program – a symbol of national pride, albeit marred by several botched unmanned launches – simply couldn’t stand aloof. Space was doomed to become part of this bright political show.
A few months earlier, when I learnt about the future mission of the torch, the only question that haunted my friends was – how will it burn in space? Their avid interest was heated by the torch itself, whose flame had gone out several times since the Olympic relay across Russia began last month. One of my colleagues even joked that while in space the torch would need “a man with a lighter”, recalling the image of a resourceful plainclothes security agent who saved the day, reigniting the torch with a cigarette lighter when the flame went out right at the start of the relay in the Kremlin on October 6. But as the launch date of November 7 drew nearer, there was a general sigh of relief – the torch would not be lit aboard the space station for safety reasons, and it simply would not be able to burn in outer space due to the laws of nature.
The show began on November 5 at 0700 sharp. The gates of a giant hangar at Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan opened, and at the sound of a whistle a locomotive slowly rolled out a Soyuz rocket, whose normally white-and-grey body was now decorated with Sochi Olympics trademark snowflake patterns. A quick glance at a large number of armed policemen, their armor and helicopters hovering overhead left no one in doubt that the upcoming launch was of paramount importance to Moscow.
Nowadays Russia’s space program is no longer in the limelight as was the case during the heyday of its glory, but there was an unusually large number of journalists at that pre-flight news conference. The torch, placed on a smaller table between the main and backup crews, was in dissonance with the routine picture and created an impression of a third person being present. U.S. astronaut Rick Mastracchio often looked at it during the news conference.
Photographic equipment plays a crucial role in covering space launches at Baikonur. I use the entire arsenal at my disposal – three cameras, the same number of tripods and a monopod, an array of lenses and a myriad of minor contraptions, including a miniature ladder and bags for gravel to support tripods of remotes cameras. Unfortunately, Russia’s space gate lacks broadband connection which would allow us to send pictures straight from the launch-pad. So, I had to add a Bgan satellite modem on top of the above-mentioned equipment, and my personal “Olympic relay” turned into a weightlifting exercise.