Mark Shuttleworth is a geek who made a fortune from an e-commerce secure payment system and then paid $20 million to fly on a Russian space mission. There’s a riveting Slashdot interview with him in which he talks at length about this and about his other passion — open source software. His description of the flight — and in particular his account of re-entry — is unforgettable:
The actual flight itself is such a gift I can well imagine that people will be queuing for sub-orbital flights when they really come onto the market. The sight of the earth from space is breathtaking, and life changing. 3 minutes in space will change your perspective, I guarantee, on the way we treat one another and the world. So imagine ten days in orbit, the first few on the tiny Soyuz, which rotates end-over-end to maintain solar attitude thus giving you the entertaining experience of being both weightless and inside a tumble dryer on slow-motion. Imagine learning to live and work in an environment that is at once dangerous and peaceful. Imagine using a VOIP connection to call your best friends from orbit in between science experiments and time conducting earth observations. It was ten days, but it passed in a blur.
From a shake-your-bones point of view, the re-entry in a Soyuz can’t really be beaten. You are coming in at mach 25 when the atmosphere first sucks you in. You see the blackness of space turning a dull red as the heat builds up around your vehicle. The Soyuz is designed to orient itself correctly for re-entry even if it’s a dead craft with no attitude control, so you feel the craft swinging around to ensure that the heatshield will take the brunt of it. Then you watch your spacecraft disintegrate and burn up around you, and the G forces build up till you are in the middle of an inferno with the spare hard drives you brought back on your chest weighting a ton, and the Soyuz spinning like a top to try and spread the heat load out evenly on the shield. You watch bolts and other pieces of metal on the outside melt and run liquid across your window before it blisters and blackens. It’s an unbelievable display of forces entirely outside of your control with you, an ant, in the middle of the fireworks display. You know that your survival is totally dependent on the people who put this machine together, that there is nothing you personally can do if it comes apart. It’s a hell of a ride.
Thanks to Dave Hill for the link.