Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

How a cuddly toy and Soviet 80s rockers will help Hazza Al Mansouri into orbit

Astronauts are a superstitious lot when it comes to pre-launch rituals

Astronauts rely on precise engineering, advanced mathematics, and the laws of physics to get safely into space. But it turns out they are also quite a superstitious bunch.

As the UAE’s Hazza Al Mansouri will soon find out ahead of Wednesday's launch, certain rituals must be followed before any launch at Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome.

For starters, it’s considered unlucky for the crew to see their rocket before they board for lift-off. Rather, they go for a haircut.

What they miss is the spectacular roll-out, when the fully assembled Soyuz is loaded on a special train and driven to the launch pad.

Families of the astronauts, as well as the team that assembled the rocket can attend, though, with a tradition of placing coins on the track for the train to flattened as good luck charms.

Just to be sure, once the Soyuz is on the launchpad, it is blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest.

On the day before launch, the three crew spend the evening watching the film White Sun of the Desert. This cult classic of Soviet cinema was released in 1969, with a complicated plot that involves a Red Army soldier trying to make it home to his wife from the civil war in Central Asia.

If you want to check it out, the full film is available to watch online. The tradition dates from 1973, with the first successful launch after a tragedy that took the lives of three Russian cosmonauts on board Soyuz 11 in June 1971. No Soviet or Russian personnel have died during spaceflight since.

Music also plays a big part in launch rituals. It is said to have begun with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space in 1961. Gagarin was strapped in his ship for several hours before launch and asked the control room to play Russian music over the intercom to pass the time.

It’s a tradition that continues to this day. A popular choice is Grass by the House by Zemlyane (the Earthlings) and adopted by Russian space agency Roscosmos as its official anthem in 2009. The lyrics describe cosmonauts gazing at the Earth and dreaming of home. The band continues to perform to this day.

Before leaving their rooms at the Cosmonaut Hotel for launch, the crew sign the door of their room. They also often sign a wall in the Baikonur museum and even the side of the rocket.

Days earlier, they plant a tree in Cosmonaut Grove, a tradition also started by Gagarin, whose poplar is now the largest.

Gagarin also started another bizarre ritual, when the bus to the launchpad stops half way so the astronauts can relieve themselves on the rear wheel. Female astronauts are not required to take part.

There’s one final tradition before lift-off, which involves hanging soft toys on strings from the top of the Soyuz crew capsule. You can see them in videos of the ten minute flight to space.

Though cute, this is a superstition with a practical purpose. The crew know they have arrived in space and achieved weightlessness when the toys no long hang down, but begin to float.

The plush toys - known as zero-g indicators in the lexicon of space travel - have fascinated space watchers, particularly in the age of social media.

It is tradition for each astronaut to take one to space, posing for photos with them in advance.

Astronaut Anne McClain's photos of plush toy Earthy captured hearts - and led to it selling out in shops all over.

Updated: September 22, 2019 05:20 PM

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