In the moments after launch, Saint-Jacques quietly left the crowd while holding hands with his wife. A group of youngsters set off a party popper of streamers that rained down green and purple on the scorched ground. European space officials embraced each other, and I caught sight of a few older German astronauts wandering around, talking with any reporter willing to share their excitement. The Russians stopped their loudspeaker updates, and the launch tower at the pad silently folded up like a cocoon.
The 48 hours before launch happened so quickly that most of us in the press corps were still stunned, feeling washed over by the tides of history. A phrase from Blade Runner kept running through my head: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe." How do you describe the feelings watching the astronauts, recalling the history, and documenting the moments before a rocket beautifully sails up into the sky?
Standing here in Kazakhstan, some 5,000 miles from family and friends and everything familiar, I turn back to the journalistic instinct: document everything. I take pictures. Look around me. Meet up with my new press corps friends to share experiences, making sure I missed nothing. But somehow, my actions feel inadequate. Responsibility weighs on me.
There's an empty launch pad sitting a mile away. There used to be people and a white rocket on top of it, and now they're gone. I got to see them leave. Now, I have to figure out how to explain it to everyone reading these words. Because Russia's space program is about to change, and some space historian in a few years will want to know the way things used to be.
As I think about what to write, I pick up a green streamer from the ground, that just moments ago had been in flight – just like the crew. A small symbol of the local celebration. Then it comes to me; my perspective was flawed. The story of today's launch wasn't about the astronauts, but about the thousands upon thousands of residents that pulled off another flawless launch. They will ride the railroad back to Baikonur's town tonight, only to turn around in the morning and work on the next crew. And then the next one. They're the real story, but most of us will never know their names.
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe, but more importantly, thousands of people unknown to history are making those things happen. Will they still have a job in a few years? While they toil under the uncertainty, they make the rockets run beautifully – and on time. I'm not sure what price you can put on local joy and pride, but I do hope that it will remain no matter what Baikonur's future in the space program may be.