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Life as a Russian Cosmonaut

I'm Standing On the Ceiling.

Jack soars by doing somersaults while Tom floats around gobbling airborne Pringles like a fish. Scott is literally bouncing off the walls. Me, I'm happy just standing on the ceiling.
Are you hearing this?I am standing on the motherloving ceiling.

WORD HAD COME OVER THE WIRE THAT A TOUR COMPANY was offering a weeklong civilian program at Russia's Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. It was a tantalizing package: ride the world's largest centrifuge, pilot a Mir simulator, work with actual cosmonauts, scuba dive in a 1.3-million-gallon Neutral Buoyancy Tank, and, best of all, experience five minutes of total weightlessness aboard a parabolic flight.

I've been trying to achieve a certain amount of weight loss for some time, so total weight loss sounded great to me. Plus I've had an obsession with space ever since I moved into my Manhattan apartment. So I immediately signed up, along with my photographer friend Tom, for what the brochure called a very intensive week of genuine space training.

Other companies have been selling scaled-down "space trips," including a weightless flight and perhaps a turn in a spacesuit. But this one, devised by Seattle-based Zegrahm Expeditions, was a whole new deal. For the first time the Russians were granting full access to the top-secret training facilities at Star City, where the Soviet space race was run. All 91 cosmonauts from Russia and the former Soviet Union--and astronauts from 17 other countries--learned the ropes there, employing the same simulators we would use in our course. At $15,000 a person, the trip was no steal, but Zegrahm assured us that part of the proceeds would benefit the Russian space agency. Which, by the way, could use the help.

We rendezvous in Moscow on a Sunday evening in October, anxious and curious about the astral week ahead. Ours is the inaugural trip (four more are planned for the spring). We're a bare-bones crew: besides me there's Scott, the "expedition leader" from Zegrahm; Jack, a retired air force pilot from L.A. celebrating his 65th birthday; and Tom, who insists he be called Major Tom, as in Ground-Control-to.

Over dinner at the hotel, Scott hands out our schedule as well asbottles for urine samples, which the Star City doctors will require upon our arrival tomorrow (for what purpose, it never becomes clear). Tom and I consider trying some top-shelf vodka after dessert, but abandon the idea once we learn of our pre-dawn wake-up call. I fall asleep and dream of Laika the space dog.Was she nervous?


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