Shuttleworth: I was in training for a long time. I watched successions of NASA astronauts be very dismissive of the Soyuz. The worst thing I heard someone say was that if you got a small village together and asked them to design a spaceship, it would be like the Soyuz.
Garriott: You can look at the original Soyuz, and the same physical design–same molds, even–appear to have been used throughout its history. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But anything that has ever gone wrong or failed, they fix. Or if there is some new technology that comes along that would be of significant benefit, they change it also. The Soyuz has a glass [i.e., modern] cockpit, for example.
Shuttleworth: The NASA guys who went through the training program and actually got to the point where they could be a flight engineer or a commander, without exception, loved it. They suddenly realize that they can fly the damn thing without ground control, data feeds, and teams and teams of specialists.
Ansari: When it gets close to flight time, they take you to quarantine in Baikonur.
Olsen: We spend about 10 days there, so it’s a bit boring. They were always giving you some kind of medical test.
Simonyi: The final checkout is in a doctor’s office, with a medical team of three or four doctors. It’s the most junior one who gives you the enema.
Garriott: The thing is to try to make sure you don’t need to use the rest room on board the Soyuz.
Olsen: Here’s the reason: on the Soyuz capsule, there’s a facility for a bowel movement, but you really don’t want to make a bowel movement on it. Imagine using a teapot to make a bowel movement. All right?
Shuttleworth: The most difficult period for me was the day before launch, because until that point it’s just a complete whirlwind of activity. But during that final stretch, you have nothing to do but ponder. I remember going for a bit of a stroll when my phone rang. Very few people know that number. And I thought, “Wow. It’s amazing how the universe works! I’m thinking about these difficult issues, and a member of my family or a close friend is calling!” I answered, and it was a wrong number. A lad from Africa had called. It was pretty funny: “No help there, mate. You’ve got to do this one on your own.”
Garriott: Space travel is not the safest of all pastimes. But if you are going to fly, I like the Soyuz. If you look at the space shuttle, with two failures out of 150 launches or so, those are actually not great odds.
Shuttleworth: Soyuz failed early in the program and then had a safe run in, like, the last 30 or so flights.
Simonyi: Four people have died on the Soyuz. But in some sense their loss made the craft even safer.
Shuttleworth: I wouldn’t say that the Soyuz program is getting safer and safer just because they have a flawless record over the last 20 years. I just didn’t want the last thing that I thought when I got hit by a bus to be, “Damn, I should have gone.”
The trip to the International Space Station begins with a bus ride to the launchpad and an elevator ride to a Soyuz capsule atop a Russian rocket the height of a 16-story building. There are rituals and customs that accompany every aspect of spaceflight, but never so many as on the day of a Russian launch.
Garriott: The Russians are a superstitious lot.
Olsen: A lot of traditions come from Yuri Gagarin [the first human in space]. When he was going out to the launch, he had to take a leak. They just didn’t make any provisions for it. He said, “Stop the bus.” He got off the bus and peed on the rear tire, and ever since then, that’s mandatory.
Ansari: Fortunately, I found a way to excuse myself. I asked our commander [Mikhail Tyurin], “Can you just think of me while doing your business on the tire?” He said, “Of course I will do that for you, Anousheh. Anything.”
Shuttleworth: You know, it took me a little while to go to the loo then. And people were teasing me, you know, about standing around and waving my willy at the girls in Kazakhstan.
Simonyi: It’s a wonderful tradition. A great way to relax.