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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 June, 2003, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
'Pusk' - Mars adventure starts
Shukman, BBC
BBC science correspondent David Shukman reflects on Monday's successful launch of Mars Express and Beagle 2 from Baikonur in Kazakhstan

Launch, AP
This launch was just a bit different
From our viewing platform 800 metres from the launch pad, the metallic Russian voice of the launch controller blared out from a tannoy.

Local workers gathered in their hundreds. Officials turned up in limousines. Any launch is special but this one - to another planet - seemed to have an edge of its own.

In the warm desert night, the atmosphere was electric.

The confirmation of countdown procedures came thick and fast and suddenly, with 20 seconds to go, we heard the word "pusk" - Russian for launch - the signal for the ignition sequence to begin.

Next came a flash of light from the base of the rocket; then, bright columns of smoke.

Finally a low rumble reached us across the Kazakh steppe. It was a spectacular sight.

Thrill seekers

The intense blaze of the exhaust tore through the night sky, lighting up the barren landscape and soon shrinking into a bright dot piercing the high cloud.

There were whoops of joy around us. The rocket workers were thrilled at another successful launch of their Soyuz - the most reliable launcher there is.

The engineers and scientists who'd worked on Mars Express and Beagle 2 were pleased but more cautious. Take-off was only the start, they said.

Well, that's true but no-one can deny the sheer thrill of seeing such a bold mission get off the ground. And this is a place that knows about ambition in space.

We were taken to the Baikonur museum with its collection of all that was great about the Russian space effort.

Superstitious minds

There was the uniform of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and the key he turned to launch his mission.

BEATING THE MARTIAN ODDS
Tower, BBC
So many missions to Mars have crashed or vanished that many a conspiracy theory suggests the Red Planet can cast an evil spell on those who venture there
David Shukman's pre-launch despatch

On the walls were stylised paintings by cosmonauts. For many years, the Cold War space race generated a real sense of glamour and pride.

In Baikonur, there isn't much of that now. The place is down at heel and dependent on western contracts to keep going.

But now, with Europe's first mission to Mars successfully on its way, there was a sense of thrill. Imagine if it works: if signs of life are found.

And, by the way, the Mars jinx that seemed to befall this media team just before blast-off - getting stuck in the desert - vanished on launch day. After watching a take-off so spectacular, we were all beaming.





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