Watching Soyuz launches from close up

I was the first person in the UK to book a private space flight. I did this in the late 1990s with Space Adventures, a firm that buys space on other company's vehicles. Alas, I was told "maybe two years," as has been the case since with every vehicle. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is still saying "maybe two years" well over a decade since he started taking bookings. Space Adventures has actually flown paying customers into space on Russian Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station. I saw two of those launches from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. The first saw Richard Garriot fly in 2008, and the second was to watch the second flight of Charles Simonyi a year later. I was accompanied at the launches by Paul Allen, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and other luminaries.

If the first was impressive, the second was incredible. I was taken with a small group to ascend the rocket on the morning of the flight and actually touch the capsule. In the afternoon we emerged from our bunker 2 minutes before blast-off to stand on open ground about 220 metres away. As the countdown reached zero, 20 rocket motors roared into life with an ear-splitting intensity. Great sheets of flame shot from the below-ground chamber, and as the rocket slowly lifted itself, the cantilever arms swung back to free it. It was the apparent that at least a third of the rocket had been below ground. It roared skyward on a pillar of flame. The ground shook with a throbbing vibration.

We all waited before celebrating until the confirmation came through, "orbit achieved." Only then did the champagne corks pop as we toasted Charles and wished him a good flight and a safe return.