Life as a Russian Cosmonaut
For decades the Star City complex outside Moscow--training center for Russian cosmonauts--was cloaked in secrecy. Now, for the first time, its program is open to civilians.
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?
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.
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.
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.