U.S. astronauts get familiar with Russian launch traditions

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan We have a rarely seen look at a Russian launch and how it compares to a shuttle launch.

Eyewitness News Anchor Tom Koch recently returned from Russia and Kazakhstan, where he was the first American reporter in more than a decade, to go behind the scenes.

We traveled to both countries to watch Astronaut Scott Kelly and two cosmonauts go to the space station on the Soyuz rocket. We were given unprecedented access to the Russian space program, which has been safely launching into space for nearly 60 years. It's not as glitzy or nearly as expensive as our shuttle program, but it gets the job done while maintaining decades old traditions.

In a tiny room near the Russian launch pad in Kazakhstan, it is standing room only. Russian space workers are joined by family and friends of astronaut Scott Kelly, watching him suit up for launch on the Soyuz rocket.

"I asked him if he was ready and he said I was born ready and I believe it," Amico Kauderer, Kelly's girlfriend, said.

The suit-up is a ritual that has changed little since the Russians launched Yuri Gagarin nearly 60 years ago.

And it happens just feet away from the spectators.

"I mean, everybody is super close to him and that would not have happened at one of those shuttle launches," said Samantha Kelly, Kelly's daugther.

Things are done a little differently in the Russia Space Program. Eyewitness News' crew was literally about a 100 feet from the rocket as its being raised; in America, you couldn't get anywhere near the space shuttle.

Tradition is big here. From the early morning rollout of the Soyuz Rocket to the launch pad, to the walk out and wave in front of space workers, to the space commission salute minutes before launch.

"They're in their spacesuits," Astronaut Mike Fincke said. "They wave goodbye to everybody and the chief designer gives them a nice smack on the bottom -- and that's for good luck, cause they did it for Yuri Gagarin, and if it's good enough for Yuri, it's good enough now."

And when the U.S. shuttle program ends next year, the famous site in Kazakhstan will be one place Americans astronauts will come before every launch.

Astronauts must join the cosmonauts in another tradition in Red Square, paying tribute with flowers to the heroes of the Russian Space Program.

Fincke has been on two Russian launches and says while the Soyuz program isn't as flashy as the shuttle, it has NASA's respect and admiration.

"There I am, standing on my little marked spot, saluting with the rest of them, saying I cannot believe I'm here with the Russians launching on this launch pad that launched the Sputnik, launched Yuri. I can't believe I'm here; this is surreal," he said.

"It's not shiny and sparkly, but they get the job done," said Joel Montalbano.

Montalbano oversees NASA's growing operations in Russia and Baikonur, Kazakhstan, including astronauts training for future Soyuz launches and NASA engineers in Moscow's mission control. And with NASA soon to rely on the Soyuz, he says the partnership has never been better.

"We have someone in Baikounr every month for at least a week, kinda working with our Russian colleagues and making things happen," Montalbano said.

NASA pays Russia more than $50 million for every astronaut who rides on the Soyuz. NASA also has dozens of employees working on every launch. And this time, there were dozens of Houstonians who went along, including the friends and relatives of Kelly who were invited to see it for themselves. We'll show you their trip of a lifetime on Tuesday on Eyewitness News at Six.
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