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After a tea and small toast breakfast (and no alcohol the night before, which really seemed to make a difference for the whole day, including sleep) Brian from the UK and an Italian couple and myself got loaded into the bus heading for Star City, or to be more precise, its airstrip from where the Cosmonauts used to fly their L-39 to Baykonur etc. With the money restrictions of today’s economy they no longer fly the L-39 themselves (therefore saving money on not having to keep their flight status alive), but are now taxied around by military pilots. The L-39 however nicely lined the runway.
The Italian couple won a contest in their home country and had otherwise no connections with the program; therefore their anxiety levels were even higher than ours. I was rather relaxed as I fully expected to have a miserable time in the vomit comet. The tough experience the day before in the L-39 clearly showed me, that my stomach has other ideas of fun. I did swallow a motion sickness pill just like the day before though.
Brian was as tough as they come: His hobby is flying MiGs. So far he has done one L-39 and two MiG-29 flights and he enjoys it without ever getting sick. He has done rolls, loops, hammerheads and even the infamous Cobra maneuver and lived to tell!
Once we got to the airfield we were joined by Brazilian pop star Lulu Santos and his movie team of cameraman, director and producer. They were planning on shooting a music clip on the plane in which Lulu is floating in space. Lots of gear including a professional 35mm camera have to be loaded into the huge Illushin-76, which towers over the area. Lulu is the nicest guy: After we emptied our bladders next to the runway (a wise thing, trust me!), he introduces himself. As if I hadn't already known who he was!
Along with us about another 20 people, all Zero G flight instructors board the plane, of which the bottom is laid out with gym mattresses. They divide the inside into three areas: The back for Lulu and his movie deal, in the middle us amateurs and next to us a real cosmonaut and his crew. At the very front are three rows of consoles with the supervisors and technicians, behind them tucked away the medical station for extreme emergencies. First we're given parachutes and a detailed lesson in how to evacuate the plane and jump etc. That's also why we all keep our winter jackets on in case we have to egress into the ice cold and thin air...Better hope the plane stays together in one piece!
Finally we take off. Funny thing if you're lying flat on the floor in a room with no windows. You hear the incredibly loud engines (as typical for military planes, there is no sound insulation) and feel some motion but otherwise couldn't really tell that you're flying. The Italians get nervous and an instructor is now holding the girl’s hand permanently. Along with us are also official movie and press photographers from the Gagarin training center. We're given our instructions for the zero G phase: The light will turn on and we'll start to float for about 25 seconds while the plane flies its parabola. The instructors do a count to the end of the parabola and the helpers will rip you from wherever you are, down to the mattress. Immediately 2 to 3 Gs will kick in as the plane goes from its 3km freefall into bottom out at 6km altitude. It takes the giant IL-76 about half an hour to get to that altitude and for the pilots (who are the best in the country, they are Putin's personals) to check out all the systems. They keep doing mini parabolas and gunning the engines and we get airborne for a few secs. Once all is clear the first real one hits.
And Baby, does this thing come on like nothing you have ever felt in your life! My legs immediately lift off towards the ceiling. The same appears to happen to my brain, which starts 'floating' in my skull. Mike Collins said 'slow head movements' and that's my game plan. Nevertheless it is highly disturbing. The speaker yells 20 seconds in Russian and Anatoly, my flight instructor grabs me and yanks me to the mattress. Immediately my upper lip takes on a funny shape by the G onslaught, but otherwise the climb out is fine. So far so good. One down, nine to go. Breakfast is still where I left it this morning. That however cannot be said about the Italians: She has already filled her bag and he is pretty cheesy. Second parabola comes on and they give me instructions in 'flying' for the camera. Oh well, I comply, but can already tell; this is going to get tough on my stomach and vestibule system. The roll comes on; I do the flight and am happy when the 20-second warning comes on again. Meanwhile the Italians are no longer in the 'room' but have been taken to the doctor's area out of sight. Hope they're ok.
Next parabola is rest time for me, which means walking on the ceiling, taking it easy. Meanwhile Brian has curled up into a ball and the instructors play Volley with him through the cabin. I enjoy the view and check out the rest of the people: Lulu is totally happy singing and playing guitar in mid air while his cameraman shoots away. The director and the producer however are hovering quietly in a corner, turning pale. The cosmonaut is struggling with his Sokol suit and finally gives up.Doesn't look too happy at this time.
During the next few parabolas my nerves are getting a bit more exposed and a general feeling of uneasiness sets in, but I still enjoy my floating about. The cosmonaut is now lying down, sickness bag in hand and is about to fill it up. Can't watch that or I'll be next. No sign of the Italians and Lulu is hanging upside down next to the emergency exit. The instructors race to him, to grab him, before he crashes onto his head as the plane levels off. Several parabolas later, we land.
I guess the least happy camper at this moment is our cosmonaut candidate. The Russians whisper to me, that this might be a career limiting experience although it does happen to them too and that most likely he will be given another chance in the vomit comet.
After this it is time for another great Russian lunch; now at Star City's astronaut cafeteria. While I'm milling around in the gift shop Valentian Tereshkova is outside taking pictures of children and nobody tells me about it!!! Darn! Oh well, you win some, you lose some. Finally we take off in our bus and are shuttled to the town of Koroliev to visit Tsup. Of course it looks a lot like Houston's MOCR, but for me this again is like walking on holy ground.
Eventually we get all back into the hotel for another good night's sleep, no alcohol for me again and sweet dreams of the next day's adventures.
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