A Journey of a Lifetime
Space Affairs Expedition Soyuz MS-06
It's been one week since I boarded the Aeroflot flight SU-103 to the US via the polar route home. Even up to the last minute, Stanislav, the man who got me to all the sights, was able to talk to the ticket desk representative and secured me an upgrade on my seat to 24-A with stretch out room, for the 15-hour ride. No detail was missed on my, one of a kind, packed with cotton, all in one hand, trip. Dear Andreas, I'd written about a few more of my experiences if you are interested to see how each event turned out. I know the business relationship is now history, for now, but I want you to know how your planning turned out to be so successful.
My part about getting the airfare from home to Moscow and back was easy. I used Delta domestically, and Aeroflot in Russia. The flights from Moscow to and back, as well as the bus, went OK. My original plan to get to Moscow a day earlier was a good idea, but, if you remember, my Visa came at the absolute latest to be part of the group to see Baikonur. Yes, I was beaten by the time I got to the room in Baikonur. The Sputnik hotel was a lot nicer than I had imagined. Super quiet, spotless and the best breakfast bar in town. I only saw 3 others in the hotel that looked like a tourist, a German man his 2 adult sons. A few NASA people there as well. We had some "get to know you cocktails" in the bar. A crew from New Zeeland was filming during our stay for a special on the Discovery channel. They took my e-mail to let me know when it might air. The hotel was like a resort. It had an ATM machine, but that's another story. It all worked out. Ksenia was right about missing me at a couple of functions.
When I arrived in my deluxe room, I closed my eyes and woke with a startle. It was starting to get dusk and when I fell asleep and when I awoke it was still dusk. In my mind, I'd slept the whole night, and it was morning! I only slept for 2 hours. In fact, just missed the bus ride thru town. Did get time to run and catch the bus of dinner. Got back to the room and slept well. My three Damsels were great. Ksenia, Elena and Stephanie rounded me up in terminal E in Moscow to guide me to the correct flight. She kept her eye on me the whole trip. Asking if I was feeling alright, bringing me much appreciated water and making sure I was in the correct bus. The ladies even poured out the champagne after the successful launch. I admit, for some reason, I sweated profusely during the whole trip. I mean I soaked to the skin. Yes, I've put on a couple of lbs... I'm paying for it now. I'm going back to my exercise right away. I must have lost 10 its during my two-week stay. I wasn't slowing anybody down, but couldn't see how the others wouldn't break a sweat, while I'm dying of sweat. I know a couple of things I was not prepared for. In New Orleans, you can get money exchange. But, I found out too late that it might take a week to obtain traveling rubles. The mix up was my fault, nobody else. So I miss, assumed that when I got to JFK, I could exchange there and also use my debit/charge card to get the roubles as needed. I mistakenly though the ATMs in Russia would work as I had done this in the past, even in Russia, 17 years before. In Baikonur, the ATMs wouldn't take my transactions. I had enough roubles there but knew I would need some when I got t Moscow. Long story short, my ATM cash advance account needed to be turned on before you plan to use it in another country. Finally got the straight answer from my hometown banker. It finally all kicked in on my second day in Moscow.
This reminded me of the American Express blip when we tried to put the charge for my trip on the card. All was O.K..--- but there's always the fine print. When I arrived in Moscow, I must have looked like a sad sight. A beat up, sweating, old, man, broke and lost. There was Stanislav, holding up a sign „Welcome Mr.Richard“ or, looking for a down and out senior citizen, R.B. Have no fear, Saint Stanislav is here. We collected my suitcase I had left in the locker. 18,000 rubles paid by Stanislav. Then the bell boy at the Metropol 300 Rubles, and them slip me an envelope with 12,000 in it. Even paid for a model aeroplane I saw at Monino. What a nice thing to do. I'm not completely sure I paid him back all that he is due. What with the money conversion table I didn't keep track. So he definitely made a good impression on me. Dressed like a banker, shiny shoes, More than I expected. But when the first thing I did was----borrow money--- shame on me. I Wanted to get his money back to him.What a "less than ideal "impression I made with him. It seemed, once I got to a place, things would settle down. But my entrances to these two places were less than perfect. First impressions matter, in every profession. If I were him, I would have called the Salvation Army to have me picked up. He didn't nor did the people at the front desk at the Metropol. They saw the same scene coming thru the revolving doors. Jesus, if I had to do it over again. Me looking like I slept on the bench outside. I hope I didn't embarrass Stani too bad. He could always say I had escaped from the nursing home and I needed a place for the night.
I know I'm starting to get some flack about too much strain on me at 71. But hey, this old age is all new to me. It came on fast. I certainly can tell the difference. The key for me is exercise if I could get my lazy ass to do it. It's in my DNA to have my metabolism slow down. This trip made me feel my age physically, but not mentally. I've never, until now, had any thoughts of cutting back or slowing down. Thank God, my health is fine. I'm not ready for some cruise ship vacation. I hope you don't have any second thoughts about setting up this adventure for me. I knew what to expect and completed any challenges. So what if Ksena and the girls are in their 20's, Stanislav in his 30's, Olga 23, and Valsalva is 24? I could be their grandpa or nutty old uncle. But they all treated me very well, like acquaintances, even friends. We were all on the same page every time we'd get together. The only thing I think I missed that first day was the bus tide through town. The next day was the roll-out of the Soyuz. We were there at dawn. The weather was perfect. I got close to the rocket and marveled at how big it seemed, and all the machined parts were so precise. I took some great pictures. We went away to visit a Buran mock-up and then back to the launch pad for the lifting of the Soyuz.
That night was the extra added Proton vehicle launch. We went to a sight about 6 Kilometers away and right on time, it roared away. It surely didn't take any time to speed away. What a sight and sound it was. We did everything on our list, visiting the Korolev, and Gagarin houses. Space school. That night we had a great Kazakhstan cuisine special dinner in a big tent set up next door to the Sputnik hotel. Out came the belly dancers and a good time was had by all. Buy now I knew about 4-5 of the travelers, and we stuck together for most of the tours. Thanks for setting me up in the Sputnik hotel. Some of the others complained about their place. Didn't like the food, etc. I kept my mouth shut. I felt embarrassed a little being one of the few there, but I'd do it again. The events leading up to the Soyuz were starting, and I was packed, ready to go. This was another night launch and perfect weather. Anticipation grew, and the busses made it out to the viewing spot. A big tent there served hot beverages. Right on time, the sky lite up and you could follow it up to orbit. A little celebrating went on then I made my way back to what I thought was my bus, but no, wrong bus. I saw Ksenia looking around and got everything straightened out again. The ride back was fun, and it was a cheerful crowd, drinking champagne. Bada bada bing, bada bada boom and it was time to backtrack out to SVO Moscow. Eventually. I had an ( Astana) airport dinner with my new found New Zeeland and French friends. The rides to and from Baikonur were killers.
Then chapter two: What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger Once getting picked up by Stanislav and transferred to the Metropol, it was late ( I wondered how late this guy must work)? I could feel some strings being pulled at the check-in. ----Oh, Mr Richard, ---we have a note here about a room upgrade. You need help with your luggage? Would you like a snack tray sent up? Is there anything we at the Metropol we can do for you? At about this point I thought they were talking to the guy behind me. Like I said, I had come from the sands of Kazakhstan, and parts unknown, crumbled up in my seat, at Astana I climbed inside of a Canadair plane that was surprisingly roomy. There was a microsecond that clicked an inside me " we have no record on the computer" Mr Bird. But, being the next thing I knew the busboy, me and Stanislav were in 3307. I have never stayed in such an elegant room at any hotel. It was a suite and had everything. Stanislav was able to tip the busboy. I'll send you pictures. I cleaned myself up to my best and thanked the guys at the desk and showed them I would better during the week. An "opulent" great buffet breakfast was served everyday, and I made use of it. Outstanding, In the glassed ceiling room.
The next day, surprise, Manino air museum! I Had thought this was dropped from the list! Thank you for getting it added!. A very interesting collection of rare planes from the start of aviation in Russia to the end of the Soviet era. Very unusual stuff. Our guide knew his stuff. We covered every plane. There was one of the curators, a 96 year veteran, who would come over to me when I saw a particular interest in a plane and would walk with me arm and arm ( in an old fashioned way) and tell me in perfect English, special facts about each plane that he had knowledge about, he had flown a few. This was so nice, and he really knew his stuff. What a memory. We spent more time there than we should. The traffic to and from was terrible, and I felt bad for Stanislav. This was about 25 miles out. I had heard of the Energia Company in Moscow and of its excellent museum., not seen by the public, museum. You must have gotten to someone to allow us to get inside the gates. Security, Security everywhere. I got the once over by several people. Once in, it was just me and this very nice lady who showed me everything and was so very knowledgeable. They had examples from way before Sputnik, all the Vostok, Voshod, Soyuz, Mir, on and on. Room after room filled with artifacts. I was in heaven. I got along very well with the lady we talked on and on about historical facts not really known about in the west. I may have overdone it here because Stanislav and Olga had to wait outside. Whatever you did to get me in was worth it. The MMC was also located in the suburb and not too far out of town. Every bit looking like Houston. If I thought I was scrutinized at Energia, I got the full KGB treatment. There was a mission in progress. No way were they going to let me come off the street and walk in. You know when two Russians get to talking? They always sound mad. Even when they are not. The back and forth went on for a while then, boom, welcome. I don't Know what kind of wild ass story was made up. Doors were opened for me, offered water a chair in MCC and a full description of what was going on. We whispered so not to disturb the controllers. There on the screen, the 2 Americans and 1 Russian astronaut. I don't remember how many, total, were on the ISS. I think 3 others were getting ready to return. Couldn't have been nicer. The lady that talked to me in the MCC was somebody's boss. She was in charge of something big. We talked for over 90 minutes. The time it took the ISS to make one circuit around the world. What an experience! We had lunch at a neat Russian/ Tucson Arizona place. Note: my credit card still didn't work. My intention of treating fizzled out. The next special spot was chief designer S Korolof home in Moscow. Given to him by the state for his pioneering work. Looking just as he left it when he passed away in 1966. Full of curious and antiques. The house is situated in the middle of a large piece of land, about 2 acres surrounded by new high rise apartments. Run by a very nice curator, guide. A special "one on one "place. Lunch at another neat place located in the very large " Proples" halls of progress exposition halls. Russian Home Cooking today at an interesting restaurant with Russian cooking and special teas. The Space exposition was amazing. Recently built, it has all the accomplishments on display. Outside it the famous monument to Sputnik, and statues to all the space heroes. I spent a lot of time here. Moscow State University. What can I say? A famous prefectural and landmark. Built at the height of a great social experiment. Maintained like new. Crown jewel of Stalin's seven sisters.
Here we came upon a "stop what you are doing" A student was showing us around the huge building showing us interesting spots and stories that have come down over the years. A guy that stopped us took the student and disappeared Then a "professor-like" looking guy comes over and takes us straight away to the first of several elevators to the very top. I heard that some kind of repairs were being done (on the elevators)? Being the non- speaking person, I wish I could understand what is said in these conversions. But that's what they are there for. We get the first class tour. Not just of the 32-floor viewing level, but what is inside these top floors. A domed round authorium room, surrounded by offices for the professors in each spire. It gets better with each turn. A great marble masterpiece of a combo of the New York Chrysler Building and the castles of the wizard of Oz. Now I know something is up about allowing me up there. Again there was a lot of Russian back and forth, and boom, in again. Who did they tell them I was? Still looking like a drowned rabbit and a common man, non- describe pensioner. I don't have a list of favorites. But if I did, this place is high on the list. Upon leaving, an official looking lady gave me a book about the building. With great fanfair, I left this fantastic edifice, back to the real world. This selective, speciality trip was and only could be done with a guide as you suggested. It seemed such a luxury, but I would have never seen the sights or get around as I did with the guides. They were superb. I have nothing to say but good things to say about them. For just meeting, it took no time to be casual with them. Stanislav and Olga we such pros. Vlad was so knowledgeable about the places and people and full of enthusiasm about the locals that some people would seem dull. I've got to give it to them, they felt my enthusiasm and didn't treat me like "Dad" or "Uncle Richard". We got along so well.
On our "to do" list was the retro- car museum. Located in a huge warehouse were row and rows of antique to modern cars. I lost track. Many were champion race winners. One-offs that were proposed by the largest auto manufactures, Lada, Moskevitch, Volga. Rows of them then individual care are lined up together, Mercedes-Benz, Packard, Zils, Pierce-Arrows, Cadillacs. Some unified French cars, Ford cars and trucks, Chevrolets Lincolns, a couple of far out 1959 Finned Cadalics. The great thing, was the shape they are in. All running with shines with coats of lacquer. Some have club stickers on them, but most are privately owned by individuals. A very worthwhile stop for historical Russian made cars and many American 50's land cruisers.
Right about now, the ATM kicked in, and I didn't feel so dependent. I know tipping is so different wherever you go. If I receive good service, I tip. It's just the way I was brought up and if a tip is not anticipated, we'll they just keep the tip. In my professional job as a sales rep taking clients out was part of my job. I did the meal and the tipping. We went to lunch at some very interesting places. I so wanted to treat them to lunch. It was frustrating to me, and I must have come off cheap or not caring. They knew the money/credit card situation, but it made me awkward until the money flowed in at the end, not soon enough to treat. No tipping made it hard for me to look people in the eye. Like, what did I do wrong?
Winding down on my last day was a slower paced trip to Bunker 42. It is the actual shelter for the high command military In the event of total war. Built in the mid-fifties 250 meters below an existing Metro station, it was impressive to see. It was in operation until the '80s. An engineering feat showing just a tip of the iceberg the vast resources need to keep it and maintain it. It was in the diplomatic zone of residents and very nice neighborhood to take a walk. Then a walk around a re-created " Nordic", " Slav" village was a nice getaway. Re-created Orthodox churches with the whole town, with a big flea market. Cleaned up a bit and later we had the ceremonial, dinner at the Uzbekistan restaurant. A lively place with belly-dancers and a big blow out a birthday party for a lucky lady with a huge family there. Light shows, a bubble making machine, magicians fireworks, dancing you name it. We had a good time there chilling out.
It was about " Midnight in Moscow" by then, and our ride around was over. I said farewell to Vlad. Wished him luck in life. He was truly a nice open-hearted guy and so quickly went from a guide to a friend. He was so open and genuine to me. Felt I could trust him. After all, they had a difficult job and don't talk behind my back. If I had caused them problems, they would tell me up front. I have his e-mail but have some digit wrong, and it won't get thru ( I hope it's not that he doesn't want my e-mail). If you have it, please pass it on, as well as Stanislav's e-mail. I can't read my own writing. If you can get their e-mails to me I appreciate it, I'd like to keep in touch. Stanislav was punctual the next day to take me to the airport, and we had plenty of extra time. He went in with me to make sure I was going the right way. I thought that was a very nice jester and will remember him for that and so many things he went out of his way to Make my trip complete.
Sincerely, Richard Bird – Louisiana U.S.A
PS Andreas: my custom made trip turned out exceptionally well for me. If you plan to do specialized space oriented tours to places, not on the regular run, I'm sure you will have customers looking for the same thing. The "all in one hand" approach makes the trip attractive providing sights and services that I could never do on my own.
Richard S. Bird – New Orleans – USA – September 2017
Richard S. Bird - Louisiana / USA