Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Cosmonauts Return

Children with U.S and Russian flags wait to cheer the returning space men.

It was a damp spring day, but warmer than last time I was reporting on returning cosmonauts back in the depths of winter. The three returning crew Aleksandr Kaleri, Scott Kelly and Oleg Skripochka walked up and laid flowers at the base of the statue of Yury Gagarin. It’s an almost hallowed place here at Star City, the cosmonauts training centre north of Moscow. It was just two days before on the 12th April, fifty years ago, that Yury Gagarin became the first man in space.

Yury Gagarin's statue

The three had landed from in a special pod in March after their stint on the International Space Station. After some weeks of acclimatisation this was their official welcome home. In the Hall of Cosmonauts came the showers of flowers, salutatory speeches and applause for six months of orbit, maintenance and experiments.

When I covered the launch of these three men last October it was with Scott Kelly’s brother Mark watching with me. He too is an astronaut and was due to meet his brother in space when Scott was commanding the ISS and Mark was leading the discovery space shuttle's last mission. They would have been the first brothers in space. Unfortunately the discovery's mission was delayed until after Scott came back.

It was also a moment of technical improvement back in October 2010. The Soyuz rocket they were flying was the first of a new generation with a new flight control computer. It did its job well, bringing them to the ISS and back again safely.

For their time circling earth the three helped to measure the effect of radiation on models of the human body and its tissue. The mannequins 'Mr Rando' and 'Matryushka' were stuck out into space to sample radiation levels which scientists rate as the biggest threat to cosmonauts, being twice the level of that on earth.

In the 'Expose-R' experiment organic material from plants, bacteria and insects was subjected to the same treatment to see what organisms might have survived millions of years ago and gain some insight into the mystery of life's origin on earth.

They also received space vehicles from Russia, the U.S, Europe and Japan.

It had been a busy six months, conducted smoothly. This celebration was thanks from star city, from Russia and from the wider world.

When I talked to Scott after the presentation we reflected on the fifty years since Gagarin’s first historic flight. “What do you think will happen in the next fifty years of space exploration,” I asked. “Maybe Mars?”

“Maybe,” replied Scott with a smile, “I’d certainly want to live to see that.”

With space pioneers like Kaleri, Scott and Skripochka, he just might.

Left to right- Scott Kelly, Aleksandr Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka
lay flowers at the base of Gagarin's statue.

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