Russia’s Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft blasts off from Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome on May 29, 2014. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images
” I knew I could only be in Kazakhstan when I saw the priests. Two of them—half-bears, half-men—walked up to the Soyuz on its pad at the fabled Baikonur Cosmodrome, their robes blowing in the desert wind. Then they sang at the rocket and bowed at the rocket and finally threw holy water at the rocket, and then they came over to us, the assembled reporters, and they threw holy water at us, too, because we probably looked like we could use it. I’m not a religious man, but I accepted my soaking under a boundless blue sky and thought what I suspect most of the people on the pad were thinking:Can’t hurt.
The entire Russian space program seems built on the guiding principle of can’t hurt. I was there for Esquire to report “Away,” a story about the future, about Scott Kelly, the first American who will spend a year in space, one more stepping-stone on our long journey to Mars. But in Kazakhstan, it felt more as though I were visiting the past, returning to a time when romance and witchcraft hadn’t yet made way for science. Over nearly 50 years of manned flight—every last one of those launches, from Yuri Gagarin on, having sprung from the same slab of cracked concrete—the Russians have acquired layers and layers of ritual, all of it either silly or sacred depending on how magical your thinking. “
” The Soyuz is always drawn out of its massive assembly building at exactly 7 o’clock in the morning, pulled along by a locomotive with one of its headlights mysteriously put out. The cosmonauts spend one of their last nights on Earth at their hotel in town and watch a pretty bad movie, White Sun of the Desert, and they always walk out to the bus that will take them to the pad to the same song, by a band called Earthlings. Later, they all climb out of that bus and piss on one of its tires because Gagarin allegedly did so; female cosmonauts and astronauts pour out a pre-filled cup.
And then, with a far better success record than the Americans could ever claim, they strap into their rocket, ancient and blessed, and launch into space. “
Story continues at Popular Mechanics