15 December 2015, Kazakhstan. 14.33 local time. Launch minus 2 hours, 30 minutes.
I was standing 50 metres above the launch site, at the top of the glistening Soyuz rocket, waiting to climb inside. It was a gloriously clear winter’s day. Looking out over the sprawling Baikonur Cosmodrome and the vast expanse of grassland that was the Kazakh Steppe, my senses were in overdrive absorbing the last sights, smells and sounds of planet Earth before I left for six months.
As I climbed aboard our tiny capsule, situated within the nose-fairing of the rocket, the vehicle felt completely alive beneath me. Cryogenic fuel was continuously boiling off, covering the base of the rocket in an eerie white fog. This sub-zero propellant caused a layer of thin ice to cover the lower two-thirds of the rocket, transforming the usual orange-and-green livery of the Soyuz into a dazzling white in the afternoon sunshine. We had enjoyed a close-up view of the rocket as we took the lift-ride up to our capsule. With it fully fuelled with 300 tonnes of liquid oxygen and kerosene, hissing and steaming within its metal support structure that held it in place prior to ignition, you get a real sense of the incredible engineering it takes to escape the force of Earth’s gravity. I’ve strapped into many aircraft in my career, but I’m certain nothing will ever come close to the exhilaration of climbing aboard a rocket prior to launch. I didn’t feel nervous; quite the opposite. I had waited a long time for this moment and, despite trying to maintain a calm, professional focus, I was only too aware of a boyish excitement building deep within me.
We always climb into the capsule in a specific order. The first one in is the left-seater (Tim Kopra in our case), then the right-seater (myself), then finally the Soyuz commander (Yuri Malenchenko). First, we had to enter the crammed habitation module through a horizontal hatch and then wiggle our way, feet first, down through a vertical hatch to enter the descent module. There’s no ladder, but there are footholds that help.
We had to be very careful squeezing past the vertical hatch as it contained the antenna, which would be needed six months later to transmit our location to the search-and-rescue crews after landing. It was a real squeeze getting into the seat. Unlike the Soyuz simulator back in Star City, Russia, where we had trained, the spacecraft was packed to full capacity with cargo. Initially I dropped down into the commander’s seat and then cautiously shifted across, feet first, into my right-hand seat. Everything had to be done very slowly and carefully. This was not the time to tear my spacesuit or cause damage to the spacecraft. I thought of all the times I’d been caving, during my training, and was grateful for having had some experience of working in extremely confined spaces.
As soon as I was in my seat, there were two electrical cables and two hoses that had to be connected to the Sokol spacesuit. The electrical cables were for my communications headset and medical harness, which I had donned earlier. All crew wear a medical harness next to their chest, which measures heart rate and breathing rate, with the data being transmitted back to our flight surgeons. The two hoses were for air (for cooling and ventilation) and 100 per cent oxygen (used only in the case of an emergency depressurisation). Having made these connections, the next steps were to connect my knee braces, which would prevent injury to my legs during any high g-loading that might occur during launch, and to secure my five-point harness. There was just enough room for one ground-crew member to help me strap in and hand me my checklists.
As I counted the minutes until launch, meticulously reviewing the checklist one last time and mentally visualising the crucial minutes and hours ahead, there was time for one final tradition to be observed, to get the adrenaline flowing. Each cosmonaut is allowed three songs to be piped into the capsule before lift-off. I had elected for ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen, ‘Beautiful Day’ by U2 and ‘A Sky Full of Stars’ by Coldplay. As the crew’s chosen compilation faded, and with only moments to go until ignition, there was one last surprise. Through our headsets, and drowning out the loud burr of the rocket, we heard the familiar synthesiser notes and guitar chords of ‘The Final Countdown’ by Europe, chosen by our Soyuz instructor – who says the Russians don’t have a sense of humour!