The launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket Wednesday that will carry Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté and two other crew members to the International Space Station will be marked by rituals dating back to the pioneering Soviet space missions of the 1960s.
The activities of the astronauts in the days leading up to the launch from Baikonur, located in the bleak Central Asian steppes, are carefully choreographed, with crews repeating many of the mundane activities of their predecessors.
These rituals are thought to bring good luck to missions launched from Baikonur, home of the world's oldest manned space program.
Among the traditions witnessed over the years by reporters for The Associated Press, or reported in the Russian media, are the following:
Carnations for Yuri
Before leaving for Baikonur, crew members lay red carnations at the monuments of the first Soviet cosmonauts in Star City outside Moscow and visit the office of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and write their names in the visitors book.
Cosmonauts arrive in Baikonur on different planes and without their spouses. They check into the Kosmonavt hotel and walk down the alley where every tree was planted by cosmonauts who successfully returned from space.
On the night before the launch, the cosmonauts watch The White Sun of the Desert, a 1969 comedy about a Russian soldier fighting in Central Asia. On Tuesday, Laliberté and his crew mates posed for journalists in T-shirts with images of the film's main characters.
Before leaving for the launch, the cosmonauts sip champagne and leave their signatures on the doors of their hotel rooms. Then they ride aboard a minibus to the launch pad listening to Grass Near Home, a 1983 hit of Soviet rock band The Earthlings.
After the Soviet era, black-robed Orthodox priests began to bless each rocket before launch.
Soaking the stand-ins
Thirty minutes before the launch, when the main crew is sealed in the spaceship, the cosmonaut's stand-ins, who act as backup for the regular crew, are "soaked" by gulping vodka shots with journalists at a shabby cafeteria near the launch pad.
Soiling the wheel
The cosmonauts get out of the bus near the rocket and urinate on its right rear wheel. The rite dates back to Gagarin himself, who reportedly did not want to soil his space suit during the takeoff.
A mascot, usually a stuffed animal named Boris, hangs in front of the crew. When the toy begins to float, the cosmonauts know they are approaching near zero gravity.
After the landing in the Kazakh steppe, the cosmonauts sign their capsule, which is charred by the heat of re-entry, and drink a bottle of vodka stashed before the launch. After a helicopter ride to Baikonur, they plant a tree near the Kosmonavt hotel.
Return to Moscow
Upon their return to Star City outside Moscow, they pay a final visit to Gagarin's monument and go to the church of St. Prince Daniil of Moscow, where they kiss the saint's relics.[GALLERY id=2594 cat=news]