Yuri Malenchenko is one of the most accomplished Russian astronauts in history. By December 2015, it had already become a veteran on five separate missions and scored just over 641 days in orbit, which means it has spent more time away from the planet than nearly anyone.
He’s also the quietest man I’ve ever met. Yuri, 53, who speaks calmly and impulsively, is one of those naturally formed people who can reassure you with the smallest gesture. Overall, I did not wish a more stable captain would be attached to the side of my first flight into space.
That’s why I know it’s a bad sign when I look at Yuri and notice a shake in his hands.
And everything was going well. For six hours, our small Soyuz capsule was blasted into orbit by a rocket from Kazakhstan, and it traveled through space at 25 times the speed of sound toward our destination, about 400 kilometers from Earth. With only 400 meters left to contact, the spacecraft, in automatic mode, began its standard flight around the International Space Station (ISS) before locking onto the docking port for final approach.
We quietly crawled forward, we’re now less than 20 meters away, close enough to see the space station’s crowded docking area. The camera view of our outlet begins to pop very wide on screen in front of Yuri. Unbeknownst to me, our orbit is just beginning to carry us over the UK, which is a nice bit of synchronization to start this entire adventure: my arrival at my makeshift home for the next six months in full view of my permanent one.
Then, 17 meters from the contact, the main alarm goes off and the red lights flash on the control unit. Soyuz aborts. why? No automatic docking stopped this near the space station. Even for Yuri, this is a new region.
It appears to be an impulse sensor malfunction. But do not worry. There is an action. On space flight, there is always an action. In this case, the action is that Yuri will switch to manual control and lead us by hand. simple.
Well, in theory. The Soyuz spacecraft gently retracts to a distance of 90 meters from the space station, then Yuri prepares to push us forward again. Our orbit takes us from day to night, and lighting conditions are less than ideal. In the murky darkness of space, the spotlight on our pickup suddenly appears to contain the faint range of the bedroom torch. Yuri bends forward and looks at the binoculars in front of him.
That’s when I noticed the shaky hands and thought, well, if Yuri is anxious, that might not be a great position.
At this point, I must outline some of the consequences of the breakdown. The International Space Station cost $ 100 billion, took 10 years of multinational cooperation to build, and is arguably the most advanced structure humanity has ever made. The worst-case scenario is a rupture of the space station, or a rupture of a Soyuz station, or both, resulting in a rapid pressure drop – survivable, but a major disaster.
Alternatively, a peek at a solid object can stumble upon a vehicle that would otherwise be impossible to stop. The space station is unable to hit a Soyuz capsule with the robotic arm; Unlike cargo vehicles, it has no way to mechanically reach and grab you. It will leave you rolling in space forever.
When entering practically blind, Soyuz deviates from the target by about 30 degrees, drifting toward the rear of the space station. This is where the Yuri experience really points to it. A younger astronaut may have continued hoping to correct the maneuver, with potentially dire consequences. Not Yuri. Despite the pressure and sounds of the mission control center in his ears, he has the composure to gently bring the Soyuz back out into space. Then he snaps and gets ready to try again.
Maybe my only usual mentality as a helicopter pilot is to constantly check your systems and contingency plans, but my biggest concern at this point is our fuel level. There has to be enough fuel to get us home safely – and at this point, yeah, there’s a lot. Yet all this unplanned, manual-controlled flight drains our finely-budgeted supplies. If we stay here, it is not impossible for us to completely abandon docking and return to Earth.
This is after the buildup, the hype and the hype, the festive farewell, the emotional parting of Rebecca, my wife, our boys, and my parents, the big break in clouds of smoke with the looking nation. Suffice to say, I would feel a little ashamed if I came back in 12 hours.
As Yuri lowers his face back into binoculars and begins to line up on Soyuz on his third docking attempt, I’m keen he must do it right.
Yuri bends forward to look into the binoculars. Once again, Tim Cobra and I are pretty much helpless, unable to see what he sees. The capsule begins to move and I can almost immediately feel the difference in Yuri’s behavior. The tension leaves him, the hands are steady. Obviously, he controlled this as he brought the pod for manual textbook mooring.
When we put Soyuz into hibernate mode, we heard the voice of Scott Kelly, our captain who was already on board the International Space Station, over the radio. He said, “Welcome to space.” “What do you like for dinner?”
• Limitless: The Autobiography, by Tim Peake, published by Cornerstone, £ 20). To order a copy for £ 17.40, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.