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Life as a Russian Cosmonaut

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

It's 6:30 a.m., and we're piled in a van for the hour-long ride to Star City, located in the drab countryside northeast of Moscow. Excitement is high as we near the gates. Tom and I are envisioning a high-tech wonderland of sleek black buildings with retinal scanners at each entrance, supercomputers running Windows 2010, subterranean labs holding a veritable Sharper Image catalogue of gadgets.

We are mistaken.

Star City gives new meaning to the word unassuming. At first I suspect it's a ploy: Are these disheveled concrete blocks and weed-strewn paths a clever disguise--holdovers from a time when U.S. spy satellites would zero in on anything ostentatious?The complex resembles a poorly funded community college in rural New England, save for the occasional Lenin mural. Surely the interiors are more impressive.

But no. Inside the medical building, we make our way down dim corridors with stained and peeling walls. The floor is covered in linoleum tile and plaster dust. I notice a lot of rotary phones. Four hours will pass before we spot a single computer, a decade-old Soviet machine with a flickering orange display.

Throughout our week at Star City I can't help thinking of Oz and the little guy working the levers. Coming face-to-face with the dilapidated remains of the Russian space program, one has to marvel at the bluff: Half a century of American paranoia--over this?

A Little Shock Therapy To Start the Day

At 7:45 we're met by Paul, our young Russian guide and translator, and escorted to the clinic for checkups. In a very chilly exam room (heat seems to be another casualty of budget cuts), I am hooked up to a vintage EKG and told to breathe normally, despite the fact that two ice-cold electrodes are clamped to my nipples. Nurse Ratchedov wonders why I'm squirming. Real cosmonauts never squirm, she seems to be saying. Paul offers a sympathetic look, claiming things will only get better.

After the exam we are issued our personalized flight suits. Very cool. Very blue. And very tight, until I finally procure a larger size. Cosmonauts, I'm told, are rarely taller than five feet 11. Nor do they have beer guts.

By nine we're off to our first meeting. Boris Yesin is the space center's official historian. He calls to mind an elder James Dean crossed with Chuck Yeager. In yet another unheated room, Colonel Yesin (with translation from Paul) gives us the background on Star City. Some 2,000 people--and, we soon discover, a few dozen stray dogs--live in this 20-square-mile, double-gated community, at the heart of which is the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, named, of course, for the beloved Yuri Gagarin, first man in space. Thirty-five cosmonauts-in-waiting are now readying for future missions, along with an American astronaut, Bill Shepherd, who will soon travel with a Russian crew to the new International Space Station. (During our visit, many of the trainees are at the launch site in Baykonur, Kazakhstan, so we have full run of the place--no lines for the centrifuge.)

Candidates spend up to three years at Star City preparing for their flights. A small percentage will fail or drop out, and those who complete the program might never take part in a mission. "But," Colonel Yesin adds, his breath visible in the frosty classroom air, "I have hope that someday you will fly with us." It's hard to tell if he's serious.

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