Star City

It is sunny and hot in Moscow. The road out of the city to the north-east, past apartment blocks and factories, is jammed with traffic and there is a queue onto the Moscow Circle Automobile Road; the A103 is no better. The apartments give way to country houses with elaborate wooden facades, but the passing traffic generates fumes that choke the air. Modern European Audis and VWs, and Japanese Hondas might generate little pollution, but ageing Ladas and lumbering trucks make up for them. Twenty-five kilometres out from Moscow, there are fields and scattered 'dachas', and then the big radio dish at Shchyolkovo appears across the treetops. Just by the Chkalovskiy air base a smaller road runs away to the south-east, bordered on one side by trees and a wall, the other by the railway line running to Monino.

Another three kilometres and there is a building with the words Yuri A. Gagarin Centre for Cosmonaut Training. To the left is a gate in the wall guarded by military personnel. For those without the right papers, there is no entry. Once through the gate it is a different world: quiet and peaceful, the air is clean, and the road passes between trees. After a few hundred metres there is a parking area. On the left a larger-than-life statue of Yuri A. Gagarin keeps watch. To his left a long, wide area of mown grass and flowerbeds runs for several hundred metres up to the House of Cosmonauts. Either side are apartments where cosmonauts live, a few shops, and a post office. To the right of the car park, and towards where Gagarin's gaze is directed, is another fence with a guarded entrance. There is the training centre where Russian cosmonauts (and American astronauts and European Spationauts) learn how to live and work in space.

Through the gate of the training centre and to the right is a cylindrical building that houses the largest centrifuge in the world. Known as TsF-18, it was built in 1980, has a radius of 18 metres and can subject a person to loads of up to 30g. In the words of the training centre 'It is used for cosmonaut selection and training by simulating the bad factors of space flight.' That is: g-forces, micro-gravity and low cabin-pressures, temperatures and humidity. If a would-be cosmonaut cannot survive the centrifuge, he or she will not be going into space! Complementary tests to simulate weightlessness are carried out in Ilyushin-76 aircraft which fly 'parabolic arcs' to give 25 - 30 second periods of zero-gravity.
Just getting out of his car, Hero of the Soviet Union and Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR Viktor Mikhailovich Afanasyev, veteran of four missions into space, has time for a photograph and a quick chat. Afanasyev has accumulated a total of 555 days in space, most of them in the Mir space station. During seven EVAs he has notched up 38 hours in open space. Following his first mission he returned to Earth with British astronaut Helen Sharman after her week onboard Mir. Afanasyev is currently the Deputy Head of the cosmonaut corps at the training centre.
At the end of the road that passes the cosmonauts offices and the planetarium, is another cylindrical building. This is the hydrolaboratory, also opened in 1980, basically a huge tank containing 5,000 cubic metres of water. The underwater environment simulates the weightlessness of space and cosmonauts can practice working in their spacesuits as if they were carrying out an EVA in space. Full-size models of spacecraft can be submerged in the tank to allow cosmonauts to practice the tasks they will carry out during a spacewalk. In the past, the tank contained a mock-up of Mir, now there is Zvezda, the core Russian module of the ISS, and PIRS, the docking compartment.

Heading back down the road on the right, one first passes the ISS simulator building, and then the Mir and Soyuz simulator buildings. The Mir simulator is now a museum piece and another (smaller) statue of Gagarin welcomes visitors. The room contains full-size models of the Mir base-block, Kvant, Kvant-2 and Kristall, used for training during the 1980s and 90s. A cosmonaut dummy called Ivan Ivanovitch (literally John Johnson) sits in a mock-up of a Soyuz seat. The joke is that although many nations have sent someone named 'John' into space, there has never been a Russian cosmonaut of that name!

Back outside the centre, in front of Gagarin's statue, Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, the first woman in space, is being interviewed by a television crew. A short visit to the shop in the House of Cosmonauts to buy a souvenir pennant of Star City, and it is time to leave the tranquillity of the centre and head back to the hustle and bustle of Moscow.


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2007 September