Russian Space Traditions
Russian spaceflights are full of legends and traditions in the days leading up to launch. Participating crews closely follow the activities of Yuri Gagarin — who became the first person to launch to space, in 1961 — while also bringing in some newer traditions, such as watching a movie or getting a blessing. Here are some of the rituals that crews at the Baikonur Cosmodrome follow before, during and after every launch.
FIRST: Flowers for Yuri Gagarin
Flowers for Yuri Gagarin
As crews prepare for launch, they take some time to honor the legacy of the first person to go into space: Yuri Gagarin, who launched on April 12, 1961. Gagarin died in a jet-plane crash on March 27, 1968, at age 34. His remains were interred in a wall of the Kremlin. Just before the backup and prime crews fly to Baikonur for the launch, they place red carnations at the foot of the wall. In this picture, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut André Kuipers was among the crewmembers paying respects.
NEXT: Raising the Flag
Raising the Flag
All launches on Russian Soyuz rockets today lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan; the launch site is a special enclave of Russian territory. The Russians lease the complex for about $115 million a year, under an agreement that extends until 2050. The prime and backup crews remain in quarantine at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur just ahead of launch. About five days before launch, the crews take part in a flag-raising ceremony depicting the countries participating in the next launch to the International Space Station.
NEXT: Planting a Tree
Planting a Tree
Another important location in Baikonur is Cosmonaut Alley, a grove of trees planted by all the crews who ever flew from the cosmodrome. Gagarin was the first person to plant a tree there, and his tree still stands today. Each crewmember, even those from other countries, participates in the planting. This picture depicts the Soyuz TMA-16 crew that launched in September 2009. From left: cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and Canadian space tourist Guy Laliberté.
NEXT: Signing Their Names
Signing Their Names
In the days before launch, the prime and backup crews tour the Korolev Museum at Baikonur. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was the lead Soviet rocket engineer during the early days of the space race. Here, NASA astronaut Don Pettit signs his name near a picture of a Soyuz rocket.
NEXT: Flattening Coins on a Railroad?
Flattening Coins on a Railroad
Engineers roll out the Soyuz rocket (with Soyuz spacecraft already attached) two days before launch, at 7 a.m. local time in Kazakhstan. The crews do not watch the rollout and the erection because it's considered bad luck. However, during past missions, guests put coins on the railroad tracks to bring good luck. The coins were then flattened when the locomotive went by.
NEXT: Erecting the Rocket
Erecting the Rocket
Here, the Soyuz rocket is shown being erected on the launchpad, two days before it was scheduled to go into space. Unlike the fussy U.S. space shuttle — which could launch only during periods of low winds, reduced cloud cover and warm temperatures — the Soyuz is designed to launch in just about any weather condition. The nearby desert at Baikonur is freezing cold in the winter and boiling hot in the summer, which is tough on both machinery and personnel.
NEXT: Meet the Press
Meet the Press
The crew makes one last public appearance to the media to answer questions in the days before launch. The crewmembers sit behind a glass enclosure to protect themselves from any germs ahead of launch, and accessible only to a select number of officials who are with them at the Cosmonaut Hotel. Although launches have been taking place at Baikonur since 1961 and the location is remote, these news conferences can be very crowded (as the picture shows).
NEXT: Haircuts, Movie Night and Signing the Door
Haircuts, Movie Night and Signing the Door
Two days before launch, on the same day the Soyuz rocket is being erected, the prime and backup crews get haircuts. Then, the hours before launch are filled with activities. The night before, they watch a 1969 Russian movie called "White Sun of the Desert" as a good-luck tradition. Then, on launch day, they drink Champagne and sign the doors of their Cosmonaut Hotel rooms (pictured here is ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli, of 2010's Expedition 26/27.)
NEXT: An Orthodox Blessing
Blessing by an Orthodox Priest
Before every launch today, an Orthodox priest blesses the rocket (at the launchpad) and the crew (on the steps of the hotel). This tradition didn't happen when Gagarin launched in 1961. Rather, this is a newer tradition dating to 1994, when Alexander Viktorenko, commander of the Soyuz TM-20 flight, requested a blessing before heading off to the Russian space station Mir for 169 days.
NEXT: Saluting the State Commission
A Final Farewell to the Entourage
In the moments before launch, the prime crew makes its way to the Soyuz rocket surrounded by space officials and other support personnel. In front of a large crowd, they climb a flight of stairs to go into the Soyuz rocket. They enter through the top hatch in the orbital (habitation) module, and descend through a second hatch to their seats in the descent module. In this photo is Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne and, behind him, Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk of Expedition 20/21 in 2009.