The Christmas season has brought the gift of a Soyuz launcher for the PromISSe mission. ESA's Andre Kuipers and his crewmates are running their final simulations and preparing to board the rocket on Wednesday to head towards the International Space Station.
The weather at the Baikonur Cosmodrome was a crisp 24C below zero and the cloudless sky above the Kazakh Steppe was a deep blue.
Respecting traditions, the rocket and its precious spacecraft on top was rolled out this morning at 07:00 local time (01:00 GMT) and moved horizontally by rail to the launch pad - the same site where Yuri Gagarin began the first human spaceflight more than 50 years ago.
"It is so cold that even microphones have a fur hat," said Andre's crewmate Don Pettit in a TV interview at the 'Cosmonaut Hotel' in Baikonur town some 30 km from the cosmodrome. Russia's Oleg Kononenko completes the crew, as Soyuz commander.
Routine launch preparations
The rocket that will loft the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft into orbit on 21 December was assembled over the last week at the cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Once the crew had made their last fit checks inside, it was inserted into its protective fairing and rolled to the rocket's integration and checkout facility.
The assembly was mated during the weekend with the rocket's upper stage and the escape tower added to the nose.
Finally, the upper stage was bolted to the rest of the launcher.
Shortly after the rollout and the slow train ride this morning, the vehicle was erected on the pad and is now being prepared for Wednesday's launch.
Busy crew in quarantine
Andre and his two colleagues are busy reviewing procedures and taking refresher classes. They are staying in the hotel's special crew quarters, where they are allowed contact only with people certified by flight surgeons to be in good health.
The crew are also preparing their bodies for weightlessness: they sleep with wooden blocks under the feet end of their beds. Lying heads-down helps to redistribute the fluids in their bodies like in space.
Normally, gravity pulls blood and other fluids to the lower part of the body, but in space they distribute evenly, giving astronauts a characteristic puffy face, for example.
The effect is particularly strong during the first days in weightlessness and may also cause headaches, but this low-tech preparation reduces the symptoms.
The crew will suit up for their ride to space on Wednesday, boarding Soyuz 2.5 hours before the evening liftoff at 13:16 GMT (14:16 CET; 19:16 local time).
They will chase the International Space Station by fine-tuning and raising their orbit for two days, docking on Friday, 23 December at 15:22 GMT (16:22 CET).
Andre's PromISSe mission will last until mid-May, after 148 days in orbit.
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