Cluster II team tours the Baikonur launch site
19 Apr 1999Members of the Cluster II project team had front row seats for the launch of a Soyuz rocket during a recent visit to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The team of visitors included Cluster II project manager John Ellwood, project controller Looc Bourillet, Gerard Melchior from ESA's Launchers Department, doctor Albert Koopman and Tatyana Suslova representing ESA's Moscow Office. The aim of the visit was to check out the local facilities and logistics in preparation for the Cluster II launch campaign during March - July 2000.
During their four days at the famous Baikonur launch centre, the team was able to get a much better idea of the conditions in which European technical specialists will live and work prior to next year's launches.
One of the most noticeable changes since their first visit last summer was the completion of the new Sputnik hotel on the outskirts of Baikonur City, about 1 hour by bus from the cosmodrome working facilities. Built by the Russian-French STARSEM launch consortium, the air-conditioned hotel offers about 120 rooms. Among the facilities offered to clients are a restaurant, conference room, swimming pool, fitness centre with sauna, billiard room, library (yet to be stocked), two video rooms, a bar and a hairdressing salon.
During their tour of the cosmodrome, the ESA team was able to see at close quarters the new, state-of-the-art satellite processing facilities built by STARSEM. They include three separate rooms for payload processing, fuelling and integration with the upper stage and fairing of the Soyuz booster. All of these rooms are located inside a vast hall, which was originally constructed to integrate the world's largest rocket, Energia, and the Russian space shuttle, known as Buran.
However, the main highlight of the entire tour was a Soyuz launch, that took place on 15 March. On 12 March the ESA visitors had a grandstand view as the rocket, perched on a huge rail car, slowly backed out of the concrete Launcher Test and Integration Building. With its five clustered engine pods to the fore, the Soyuz was transferred to its launch pad in about half an hour. Erection to an upright position took another seven minutes.
In order to avoid damage and contamination, the rocket and its payload of Globalstar satellites were protected from the windblown dust and sub-zero temperatures by a thermal blanket over the nose fairing and air conditioning equipment located on other rail cars. One of the most intriguing aspects of the transfer was the unusual custom of local workers placing coins on the railway track for the wagon wheels to roll over them.
Three days later, on 15 March, the ESA delegation was able to watch the early morning lift-off from a VIP viewing area placed a mere 900 metres from the pad. Enveloped in a cloud of smoke and steam, the dart-shaped booster rose into a clear sky and disappeared from view.
Just as impressive in its own way was the rapid return to normality. Half an hour after the Soyuz left the ground, the guests were taken to look over the launch pad. To their surprise, the structure appeared undamaged and Russian personnel were already hard at work draining fuel lines and performing maintenance checks.
"We came away with a much better idea of how to prepare for the Cluster II launches next summer. The new hotel and payload processing facilities will greatly facilitate our launch campaign," said John Ellwood. "We were also delighted to witness the successful Soyuz launch, which was an impressive demonstration of Russian launch capabilities," he added. This was the second commercial launch of a Western payload organised by STARSEM using the Soyuz rocket.