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Ceremonies

Like pilots and sailors, cosmonauts and astronauts tend to be a superstitious lot, and various little rituals have evolved over the decades since Yurii Gagarin’s flight. The purpose of these pre-flight ceremonies is to (hopefully) make those involved feel a bit better about going up on a highly explosive rocket into a hostile environment, and to appease any deities who might be observing. It seems to work … most of the time. (Launching into orbit is arguably less dangerous than, say, driving on Moscow’s roads, though the consequences are somewhat more spectacular if anything goes awry.) Of some reassurance is that the Soyuz rocket does have a launch escape system! Landing is perhaps more cause for concern; it is a re-entry dependent upon parachutes to open and slow the capsule down.

Here are described some of the rituals practiced by crews in Russia.

Preflight

Moscow & Zvyozdniy Gorodok

Before leaving Star City, the Soyuz crew visit the memorial wall on the Cosmonauts’ Avenue outside the Kremlin Wall (behind Lenin’s mausoleum) to lay red carnations (an even number of flowers are chosen for funerals). The ashes of Yurii Gagarin and those of the four cosmonauts who perished during spaceflight accidents are interred here: Vladimir Komarov (Soyuz-1) and Georgii Dobrovol’ski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsaev (Soyuz-11).

Another tradition is to sign the Visitors’ Book in Yurii Gagarin’s office. The office is preserved as a museum at Zvyozdniy Gorodok, with everything the way he left it before the fighter jet training flight that ended in his death on 27 March 1968.

On Gagarin’s birthday on 9 March, personnel from Star City visit his home village of Glushino; as do flight crews who are to be launched around that time. The cottage in which he grew up is preserved, and one local tradition is for crews to have a glass of water from the nearby well, thus ensuring their departure into space.

Baikonur Cosmodrome

For the duration of their stay at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the crew reside at the Cosmonaut Hotel. Behind this there is a avenue of trees, each one planted by a cosmonaut who has flown from the Cosmodrome, so the crew take time to walk around here before launch day and take in the sight of the trees, the Syr Darya River and surrounding steppes.

About five days before launch, the crew pay a visit to the space museum at the Cosmodrome, where they sign books, envelopes and mementos. They also participate in a flag-raising ceremony outside the Cosmonaut Hotel, in which each crew member raises the flag of his or her country.

The Soyuz launch rocket is rolled out exactly 48 hours before launch, at 5 a.m. Moscow time (7 a.m. local time in Kazakhstan). Before rolling out a Soyuz rocket to the launch pad, the personnel and guests put coins on the rails (rockets are transported on the railway) as a good luck charm; these will get thoroughly flattened! The rocket personnel also used to keep an eye on the train for fear of its derailing (the old rails could become rather distorted). It is considered bad luck for the crew to attend the rollout and erection of the Soyuz rocket on the launchpad, so they don’t.

No launches are scheduled on 24 October as two tragic accidents took place on this day:

  • 24/10/1960: The explosion of the first R-16 rocket prototype, immediately killing 74 personnel, including Field Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin.
  • 24/10/1963: An R-9 rocket being prepared for launch in a silo developed an oxygen leak, and an electrical spark caused a fire that killed seven people and destroyed the silo. The date became known at the cosmodrome as its “Black Day,” and no launches were ever attempted again on that date.

The crew also visit the barber/hairdresser for a trim two days before the launch.

The night before launch, a viewing of the popular 1969 Russian movie White Sun of the Desert («Белое солнце пустыни») the night before launch is compulsory!

On the day of launch, the crew sip a glass of champagne each and sign the doors of their rooms at the Hotel. Before they depart the room for the last time, though, they sit down for a few seconds – Посидим на дорожку, posidim na dorozhku, “sit down before the journey” – as is the custom, to calm and focus the mind.

While talking about space Russians avoid saying the word “последний, poslednii” (which means “the last” and is pronounced “paslednii”); this is thought to bring bad luck. Instead they use “крайний, krainii,” which has a synonymous meaning. It’s like saying “final” instead of “last”. For example, they never say “последний полёт гола, poslednii polyot goda” (the last flight of the year), they say “крайний полёт гола, krainii polyot goda,” the last in a series of others.

Alternative explaination for krainii (from “svar45”): this habit came from aviation, and was derived from the Tsar’s Army or Navy. It’s not a “bad luck” thing, just the correct saying in “military style”.

A Soviet-era rock song is played as the crew depart the Hotel: «Трава у Дома», “A Green-Grassed Lawn,” by the band Zemlyane, Земляне (“The Earthlings”).

A Russian Orthodox priest blesses the crew on the steps of the Hotel. This was not practised during the Soviet era, but was begun when cosmonaut Aleksandr Viktorenko requested a blessing for the Soyuz TM-20 crew before their launch to Mir.

The two buses (the Zvyozdniy Gorodok [blue stripes] and the Baikonur [yellow stripes]) that take the cosmonauts and attendants to the launchpad are each affixed with horseshoes (presumably placed upside-down so the luck doesn’t run out!). It is a 40-minute bus ride to the MIK OK building at Site 254 where the cosmonauts will be suited up (and which was intended for processing Buran orbiters in the Soviet era).

The inside of the bus is also interesting: it is in the Star Trek style, and I mean the original series. The main space is taken up by eight Captain Kirk seats in two rows. Next to each is a console with the space suit ventilation pipes and on the top of it a fascinating anachronism: cup holders, which, as far as I remember, had not been invented until the ’80s. In the back of the bus there is an elaborate entertainment system that plays elevator music. The control console looks impressive and complicated until you realize that they are just the switches for all the lights and power connectors on the bus.

– Charles Simonyi, blog entry for 27 March 2007

On the way, the buses make a quick stop so the male cosmonauts can get out and perform the sacred anointing of the bus tyres! Yurii Gagarin apparently had to “take a leak” during the bus drive to the launch pad, so every cosmonaut since then has had to do it, too (near the left back wheel of the bus, to be precise). Hope the tyres are hosed down afterward …! A ceremony only men could think up. (Russian phrase for this – so-named by the cosmonauts – is “Поссать на колесо,” possat’ na koleso ;-))

Ladies are (thankfully!) excused from this part. From Anousheh Ansari’s (TMA-9) blog entry, Hello World: “The next tradition was the short stop of the bus for the boys to take a leak ;-) This also apparently started with Gagarin and still goes on … Fortunately, I was excused from this exercise and was able to just mentally participate.” Apparently, though, Claudie Haigneré did participate on her second flight – I read somewhere that the method is to take a small vial of one’s own urine – and that’s as much detail as I care to go into … (Eww.)

After meeting with various dignitaries, the cosmonauts march out onto the tarmac to report to the State Committee Chairman that they are ready to fly, each standing on a painted square in the positions that they will reside in the Soyuz: БИ (Бортинженер, Flight Engineer) – КК (Командир Корабля, Spaceship Commander) – КИ (Космонавт-Исследователь, Research Cosmonaut). The Commander salutes and says words approximating “The crew is ready to fly.”

And after having thoroughly appeased all relevant deities, the crew head off to the launch pad. On the way the crew watch home videos (of what type is unknown!).

In the Soyuz, a small toy is hung on a string from the ceiling; it serves as a indicator as to when the crew becomes weightless during launch. The crew commander has the task of choosing the talisman.

Ladies and rockets

On the evening before the next launch at Plesetsk Cosmodrome (in the northeast Arkhangelsk region of Russia) it is a tradition to write the woman’s name Таня, Tanya (full name Татьяна, Tat’yana) in the hoarfrost covering the rocket’s side. This is done in memory of a Soviet engineer who wrote his wife’s name thus. Only once was this tradition not observed, on March 18, 1980 before the launch of a Vostok-2M launcher with the Tselina satellite, when an explosion during fueling killed 50 people at the launchpad.

The Russian word for rocket, ракета (raketa), is feminine also.

Женщина и космодром … Это не правда, что женщина на пуске - плохая примета. Ведь взмывают в небо ракеты, на заиндевелом корпусе которых крепкой мужской рукой начертано имя – Таня.

Woman and cosmodrome … It is not true that a woman on launch is a bad sign. The rocket is flying into the sky, on hoarfrost surface of which is written by strong male hand the name – Tanya. (via Nick)

There is an old superstition that a woman on board a sailing ship brings bad luck; one reason being that this would make the sea angry (the sea also being regarded as feminine, and thus jealous).

At Baikonur in December 2007, someone wrote the name «СОНЯ» (Sonya) – a derivative of the female name Sofia – in the frost on the side of two rockets carrying Radarsat-2 and Progress M-62 (thanks to “WBR” for links – “We have а new Romeo on Baikonur!”).

Songs

“The Grass Near my Home” by Zemlyane

This Soviet rock song by the group Zemlyane, Земляне (“The Earthers”) is performed when a crew departs from Baikonur. (Thanks to Alexander Krasnyansky for providing this!)

A Green-Grassed Lawn

A circuit comes another,
A circuit comes another,
In our porthole Earth is gliding slow,
Like taken from a mother,
Like taken from a mother,
We’re missing Earth, for she is so alone …
The stars are a little closer,
The stars are a little closer,
But warmer they did never yet become,
And when the duty’s over,
And when the duty’s over,
We’ll fall asleep and earthly dreams will come.

We neither see in dreams the cosmodrome,
Nor stars above and icy bluish glow,
In our dreams we see a green grassed lawn
And clear sky above the lovely home.

And our path is Orbit,
The realm yet unexplored,
The meteors are piercing vast expanse.
We justify our chances,
The business is advancing,
But still we hear space music of romance.
We fly above the landscapes,
Seas covered with hazes,
Sunset is chasing after the sunrise.
Like taken from a mother,
Like taken from a mother,
We’re missing Earth, she’s what we’ve learnt to prize.

We neither see in dreams the cosmodrome,
Nor stars above and icy bluish glow,
In our dreams we see a green grassed lawn
And clear sky above the lovely home.

Трава у Дома

Земля в иллюминатоpе,
Земля в иллюминатоpе,
Земля в иллюминатоpе видна,
Kак сын гpyстит о матеpи,
Как сын гpyстит о матеpи,
Гpyстим мы о Земле – она одна …
А звёзды тем не менее
А звёзды тем не менее
Чуть ближе, но всё так же холодны,
И как в часы затмения,
И как в часы затмения,
Ждём света и земные видим сны.

И снится нам не pокот космодpома,
Hе эта ледяная синева,
А снится нам тpава, тpава y дома,
Зелёная, зелёная тpава.

А мы летим оpбитами,
Пyтями неоткpытыми,
Пpошит метеоpитами пpостоp.
Опpавдан pиск и мyжество,
Kосмическая мyзыка
Вплывает в деловой наш pазговоp.
В какой–то дымке матовой
Земля в иллюминатоpе,
Вечеpняя и ранняя заря.
Kак сын гpyстит о матеpи,
Kак сын гpyстит о матеpи,
Гpyстим мы о Земле – она одна.

И снится нам не pокот космодpома,
Hе эта ледяная синева,
А снится нам тpава, тpава y дома,
Зелёная, зелёная тpава.

“On Dusty Footpaths”

A traditional cosmonauts’ song. (Thanks to Amy Collins for providing this!)

On Dusty Footpaths

By Sl.V. Vojnovich

Are filled in tablets
Space cards,
And the navigator specifies
Last time a route.
Give, guys,
Let’s smoke before start:
At us in a stock
Fourteen minutes.

Refrain:

I believe, friends, caravans of rockets
Will rush us forward from a star up to a star.
On dusty footpaths of far planets
Our traces will stay.
Sometime in the course of time
We shall remember with friends,
As on roads star
We conducted the first way.
As the first have managed
To reach the treasured purpose
And on the native ground
From the party to look.

Refrain:

For a long time us expect
Far planets,
Cold planets,
Silent fields.
But any planet
Does not wait for us how this
Planet expensive
By name the Earth.

На пыльных тропинках

Сл.В. Войнович

Заправлены в планшеты
Космические карты,
И штурман уточняет
В последний раз маршрут.
Давайте-ка, ребята,
Закурим перед стартом:
У нас еще в запасе
Четырнадцать минут.

Припев:

Я верю, друзья, караваны ракет
Помчат нас вперед от звезды до звезды.
На пыльных тропинках далеких планет
Останутся наши следы.

Когда-нибудь с годами
Припомним мы с друзьями,
Как по дорогам звездным
Вели мы первый путь.
Как первыми сумели
Достичь заветной цели
И на родную землю
Со стороны взглянуть.

Припев:

Давно нас ожидают
Далекие планеты,
Холодные планеты,
Безмолвные поля.
Но ни одна планета
Не ждет нас так, как эта
Планета дорогая
По имени Земля.

Inflight

The traditional Russian bread-and-salt welcoming ceremony was carried out on Mir, and adopted for the ISS. The bread and salt are contained in small packets.

From ESA’s News from Moscow letter, Issue 7, 2005:

After leak checks and other preparations, Expedition 10 commander Leroy Chiao and Salizhan Sharipov welcomed the new crew aboard, offering them bread and salt served on a small tray. “This is an old Russian tradition that goes back to the days of the Mir station. The station ‘landlords’ had spent a long time in orbit and showed their hospitality by offering bread and salt to the new crew,” said a representative of MCC.

Postflight

After the spacefarers’ (hopefully) safe homecoming, there are many welcoming ceremonies to attend!

Landing takes place in Kazakhstan. After the crew are hauled out of the Descent Module, they are placed in chairs and given brief medical examinations. It is a tradition for the crew to sign the exterior of the Descent Module with chalk.

The crew are then collected by military helicopters and transported to Kustanai. Another tradition is for them to sign the inside of the helicopter. At Kustanai takes place the first of many welcoming ceremonies.

The crew are flown back to Zvyozdniy Gorodok, Star City in Moscow, where there is a big official welcome. It begins with the returning crew placing wreaths around the Yuri Gagarin monument, then continues at the assembly hall where they meet with various dignitaries, media and friends and relatives.

Anousheh Ansari (Soyuz TMA-9) describes the ceremonies in her blog entry, Goodbye Star City:

I knew every step of the ceremony. First the astronauts and cosmonauts being honored would be taken to the huge Gagarin monument in the middle of Star City, where a military band plays a march as they place flowers at the foot of the statue.

Then they would walk down the big corridor that leads to the House of Cosmonauts, which is the big community center in Star City that houses the Gagarin museum. People, photographers and journalists gather at the statue and follow them to the main attraction – the welcome back speech at the Auditorium.

At the ceremony, the crew is presented with awards and gifts from representatives and the head of the Space Agency, Air Force, Search and Rescue Team, the Prime contractor and General Design company, etc. … Each person comes up to the stage and says a few words about the success of the mission and lessons learned, and then presents their gifts. At the end, each of the three crew members are given an opportunity to speak.

Similar welcoming ceremonies (i.e. speeches and presentations) also take place in Houston, where the crew go there to be debriefed.

Photo gallery

Honoring Gagarin (African in Space)
The Soyuz TM-34 crew visit the Cosmonauts’ Avenue memorial wall
.
The TM-34 crew sign the Yurii Gagarin book (African in Space)
The Soyuz TM-34 crew sign the guestbook in Yurii Gagarin’s office.
Drinking from Gagarin's well
The ISS-27/28 crew have a traditional drink of water from Gagarin’s well in his home village of Glushino, 9/3/2011. (TsPK)
Pavel signs his door
Pavel Vinogradov, ISS-13 commander, signs his bedroom door at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan prior to the crew’s departure to building 254 and their suit-up for launch.
ISS-1 Orthodox blessing
ISS-1 get a rather over-enthusiastic blessing.
Taking a leak (National Geographic: Exploring Space)
Anointing the bus! You can even see a puddle!
Signing the rocket
Writing “Таня” on the side of a rocket at Plesetsk Cosmodrome.
Sergei with bread-and-salt packet
Maryam screen-captured this video image of Sergei Krikalyov doing the bread-and-salt ceremony via NASA TV
.
ISS-11 welcome home
Expedition 11 welcome home at Star City.
Bread-and-salt welcomeDmitri Kondrat’ev is greeted with traditional bread and salt at the Star City post-flight welcome, 29/6/2011 (TsPK).

Thanks to Levan, Nick Utenkov, Alexander Krasnyansky, “svar45” and Amy Collins for various tidbits of information!