Star City is a military complex/town outside Moscow, near the suburb of Shchyolkovo. It is here that the Russian cosmonauts live and train at GCTC (Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center). The training center was inaugurated in January of 1960. During the cold war, Star City was a secret facility, but today it is often bustling with visitors from around the world; paying space participants, American, European, and Japanese astronauts, and their instructors.
It is in that capacity, as an instructor, that I have had the privilege of visting Star City, I think six times, for a total of about thirteen weeks.
Each experience in GCTC began with the drive from Sheremetyevo International Airport to Star City. It’s about a 45 minute drive, with ever changing scenario. One of the first things one notices are the large iron structures that resemble “jacks”. These mark the line that shows how close the Germans got to the center of Moscow, during World War II. Shortly after that, demonstrating how much the world has changed, is a far larger structure – an Ikea furniture store. Once one is clearly outside the “garden ring” highway that encircles Moscow, the scenery becomes more suburban. Soon one enters a forest of birch trees and turning onto a small road one sees the sign reading Звёздный городо́к (Star City).
One of most prominent things that new arrivals will notice is a large statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to fly into space. The people of Star City ensure that there are always fresh flowers placed at the feet of the statue.
NASA employees typically stay in one of three places, in Star City. There are a few offices that have been converted to bedrooms, in the Profi, which is the office building where the official NASA offices are. There are also a few apartments in the large Soviet era block buildings. And finally, there are the three “cottages” where the astronauts typically stay.
Star City has all the facilities of a small town. There are schools, grocery stores and other shops, and a great space museum. Shopping at the little food stores was always one of my favorite parts of each trip. Pelmeni (пельмени) became a favorite food. Pelmeni are similarly to small ravioli, and contain a variety of fillings (onion, beef, chicken, mushrooms, etc.) Boiled and then sprinkled with olive oil and pepper, they make a great meal. I’d also often buy the locally baked black bread and hard sausage. The most common Russian beer is Baltika. It comes in 11 numbered varieties, from light to dark to fruit flavours. I rarely drink soda, but when I’m in Russia I will try a Coca-Cola. It tastes so much better in Russia than it does here, in its home. My friends in Russia tell me it is because that the Russian bottlers use real sugar instead of corn syrup.
For lunch we would often go to the small employee cafeteria within the training center complex. There we could try a variety of Russian staples, such as borscht, a soup made from beets.
Hospitality is very much valued in Russia. When our Russian counterparts come to Houston we tend to want to jump right into the work and barely stop for bathroom breaks. In Russia, there are frequent breaks where tea is made and cookies put on the table. At first it appeared to us as a waste of valuable time, but we soon learned the value of making that social connection. Negotiating things like training budgets can be complex and tense. The Russian way keeps the tension down.
Another thing that took a little getting used to is that often the people we were negotiating with were high ranking military officers. It’s a little odd being not long out of college and sitting across the table from a colonel in the Russian Air Force.
Although a lot of the buildings in Star City are a little rundown, the training facilities are excellent. I wish we, at NASA, had vehicle mockups as good as the ones at Star City. Once inside the mockup of the Service Module (Zvezda), if the hatch is closed, the only thing that distinguishes the simulator from the real vehicle is that we aren’t floating. The windows even have curved paintings outside them to represent how the earth looks. There is equipment that generates similar noises to that found on the real vehicle. This kind of facility is absolutely essential for crew training.
As well as the simulators for the ISS, there are also the mockups that were used for the Mir space station training. Touring these, one gets a good appreciation of the long experience the Russians have with long duration spaceflight and thus the great value they bring to the International Space Station program.
They also have a huge centrifuge. I would have loved to ride in that thing. It’s in a vast, drum shaped building. It’s a big blue arm on a pivot with a ball at the end that holds the cosmonaut. Here they get to experience the high “g” loading that they will experience during launch and reentry.
In another building is the “hydrolab”. It is essentially a giant swimming pool with mockups of space hardware. The cosmonauts and astronauts practice their EVAs in this pool, in the Orlan spacesuits.
At night, especially in the cold dark winter, there aren’t a lot of places to go, in Star City. It is then that the basement of one of the cottages becomes so treasured. The expedition one commander, Bill Shepherd, using equipment donated by friends, built a great weight room and Shep’s bar. The bar is basically a basement bar with a pool table, a ping pong table, a beat up old couch and chairs with a projector screen and DVD player, and a piano. It’s the social center for the Americans that work in Star City. The bar has a wooden surface with a piece of glass on top. Under the glass, on the wood, are dozens of scrawled notes and signatures or visitors. Most prized, is that of actor Tom Hanks.
When the weather is nice, such as in the beautiful summers, the social scene moves outdoors. The Russian version of a barbecue is called Shoshlik. Shoshlik involves skewers of grilled meat (usually pork) that has been marinated in onions and vinegar. It is deliciously tender and smokey. Served with this meat are a variety of sliced fresh produce, such as tomatoes, cucumbers beets, celery, etc. The only place I can recall having tomatoes that tasted so good was Italy.
The locals also enjoy a small bar/sauna called the “banya”. It has a wood paneled steam room that is so incredibly hot that the ice cold vat of water just outside the door (or the even colder lake, for the brave) becomes a welcome respite.
One of my trips to Star City happened to be in August, when a very impressive air show was held at a nearby airport. There I got to see performances from all the different Mig fighter jets that I read about, but never thought I would see.