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Life as a Russian Cosmonaut

Four Gravities, Please--Hold the Coronary

Outside the classroom the doctor is waiting with our lab results and EKG printouts. "You are pronounced fit to work," he announces, though he sounds a tad dubious. We follow him across campus to the site of our first challenge: a big, round, echoing room occupied by what looks to be an extremely large torture device. But this F-7 centrifuge is not, in fact, the largest model on the premises. In an adjoining facility, Paul says, we will find the 60-foot F-18 centrifuge, a merciless contraption capable of simulating 10 times the gravitational force of a launch, a terrifying 30 G's. (One G is equal to the force of gravity at sea level.) Cosmonauts never take it up to 30--I imagine that kind of pressure could crush a midsize car--but they've been known to handle eight. "However," Paul says, gently patting the F-7, "perhaps better for you to try this one." He is readily affirmed.

Space Training

I'm first up. Half a dozen doctors in white lab coats cluster around, attaching pulse monitors to my every appendage. I am strapped into a dentist's chair inside the cramped capsule and given my instructions: keep my eyes focused on the X above me, use the headset to communicate with the doctor, and, if I can't take any more, simply squeeze the trigger on the joystick. A video camera will be documenting my reactions, in case I pass out.

The capsule door is sealed and I'm left alone with my thoroughly monitored and rapidly accelerating heartbeat. The doctor's voice crac

kles over the intercom. "You are ready?" he asks. I nod, and the capsule begins to spin.

"Vun gee," he says. One G. My temples start to throb.

"Doo geez." My chest is tight.

"Zree geez." My eyes begin to water.

"Zhall we continue?" asks the voice. Dr. Zhivagofaster clearly wants to push me. I manage a weak croak, and suddenly I'm at four G's--pushed deep into the seat cushion, unable to lift so much as a finger off the armrest. He holds me at four for a solid minute. Tears are streaming back to my ears, and for some reason I'm laughing my head off.

"You make good cosmonaut," the doctor says as he helps my quivering body from the capsule. He asks whether I'd like to see a replay. We gather in the control room, and the television screen is soon filled with my centrifugally swollen features and quadruple chin. "Ha-ha!" cries Paul. "Boris Yeltsin!" (Memo to Star City: Fire Paul.)

Before we depart I have to ask: If the force of a launch peaks at three or four G's, why have a simulator that can go up to 30?The doctor shrugs. Simulations are supposed to be harder than the event itself, he explains, that's the point. This is a belief not always shared by the U.S. astronauts training here. "You Americans," he sighs. "Always wanting to stop. But we Russians are ztrong--like to test ourzelves." As Colonel Yesin puts it: "Combat, easy. Preparation... difficult."

Mir, Mir, On the Shelf

Aw, Mir. Sixteen-hundred breakdowns and counting. No respect. The Charlie Brown of space stations. Will you ever win?

Launched in 1986, the pride of the Soviet space program is now just a punch line for American talk-show hosts--but for denizens of Star City, Mir represents their last great triumph, the sole reminder of a bygone era. It's a symbol they're understandably reluctant to abandon.

According to news reports I'dread back home, the final research crew left Mir last August; the now-empty station will soon be "de-orbited," condemned to burn up in the atmosphere. But like a family thatwon't admit Grandma's not getting any better, Star City officials refuse to acknowledge Mir's imminent and inevitable fate.

"De-orbited?" they say, all smiles. "Nyet, nyet. So many things still to do!" Two crews are now training at Star City for a future Mir mission, despite the pleas of NASA, which would rather the Russians give up on the damn thing and focus on the International Space Station. (The ISS, which the Russians coyly refer to as Mir II, will be four times as big, powered by an acre of solar panels, and completed in 2004 if the Russians get on the ball.) Meanwhile, a consortium of former cosmonauts is quietly raising funds to keep Mir aloft. With a full-time crew, Colonel Yesin says, the station could last another four years. Such a commitment would require "about $500 million," or approximately 400 Pizza Hut ads.

I had read a couple of books about Mir and seen pictures of its cramped interior, but nothing prepared me for what I found when I crawled through the hatch and into the life-size training module. Every detail has been re-created: the toilet resembling a beer keg (works like a vacuum cleaner, with two attachments); the treadmill, complete with harness; the wall panels attached withVelcro. The cabin looks like a seventies mobile home, but instead of an eight-track tape player there's an antiquated 5 1/4-inch floppy drive.

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