Originally published in Travel + Leisure, January 2000
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 crackles 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’d read 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 that won’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 with Velcro. 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.
As we poke around the living quarters, we begin to realize that cosmonauts must be out of their freaking minds. They sleep, heads toward the ceiling, strapped to six-foot-long “bed planks,” in closets that could barely accommodate an ironing board. They bathe, as infrequently as they can, in body bags filled with soapy lukewarm water. They wear earplugs while they work to block out the relentless 100-decibel roar of the ventilation system. And they endure this life, alongside one or two equally irritable and unwashed companions, for up to 15 months.
I might be able to handle a week on Mir, but I couldn’t last 20 minutes inside the Soyuz capsule, which ferries cosmonauts to the space station in about two days. While American astronauts enjoy the relative comfort of the shuttle (soft touchdowns, lots of legroom), Russians still use the old “cannonball” method, sending cosmonauts up in a module the size of a Ford Pinto, then crashing them down on their return in some godforsaken Kazakh desert, hooked to a 3,280-square-foot parachute. This inside a capsule with less than five cubic feet of free space.
Russian launch vehicles don’t appear to have evolved much since Yuri Gagarin rode his Vostok into orbit in 1961; in fact, Yuri probably had more room than a three-man crew in the Soyuz. This thing makes the American space shuttle seem like a 40-foot yacht. Cosmonauts who have flown both will confirm as much.
Few Americans are aware that the Russians once had a space shuttle that looked exactly like ours, down to the black-and-white nose cone. They called it the Buran, which is Russian for “We will bury you, or at the very least copy you.” It made one unmanned flight in 1988 before being shelved for lack of funding; the test model now sits in Moscow’s Gorky Park, transformed into an amusement ride.
Sitting inside the Soyuz module with my knees under my armpits, staring at clunky old buttons and primitive switches, I marvel at how much can be done with so little. How a comparatively small group of men and women, with hardly enough cash to pay a heating bill, could hurl a seven-ton pile of metal into orbit, or, for that matter, keep a broken-down space station afloat for 14 years—run by a computer about as powerful as an Atari Pong game. But wasn’t this always the case? Even at the height of the space age, when the U.S. and Soviet agencies were both swimming in cash, putting a human into orbit was a remarkably awkward and tenuous operation. Despite what we like to think, there was nothing magical about it—these tools weren’t pulled out of some stone in a lake. Space has always been a business of switches, sweat, and plastic, stubbornly cobbled together. Look at the replica of Gagarin’s capsule in the Star City museum—its base covered in glorified tinfoil, its controls like those of some high-end tractor—and consider: a man traveled to space in this, and survived.
Just Add Sharks
What with all those breakdowns on Mir, its custodians must perform a lot of repairs—many of them outside the station, during space walks. Cosmonauts train for weightless extravehicular activity (EVA) at Star City’s “hydrolab,” in a 1.3-million-gallon Neutral Buoyancy Tank. (This turns out to be a technical term for a very large swimming pool.) Trainees don waterproof space suits equipped with oxygen tanks and dive, scuba-style, to depths of up to 35 feet, where they float exactly as they would in space. At the bottom of the tank sits a 50-foot-long training module, upon which the cosmonauts clamber about “fixing” broken antennas and busted solar panels while being monitored through portholes by instructors outside the tank.
Before our turn in the pool, our team gets a quick scuba refresher course, translated by Paul, who keeps confusing the words inhale and exhale: “If regulator falls out of mouth, you must inhale into water.”We’re using regular scuba gear instead of the waterproof space suits, since the latter cost upwards of a quarter million dollars. (Later we do get to try on a real space suit, which weighs 400 pounds.)
Climbing around on the underwater module is fun for about half an hour; after that I find my self wishing my nephews were with me to enjoy this giant sci-fi jungle gym. At least they’d appreciate it. On the plus side, the water is a constant 84 degrees, making this the warmest I’ve been all week at Star City.
Moscow, We Have A Problem
On Wednesday we drive to Mission Control, located in another drafty building in a nondescript Moscow suburb. This is where the Mir’s orbit is tracked, against a world map as big as a movie screen. A display shows the current flight info: at the time of our visit the station has circled Earth 78,252 times. Scattered around the control room, a dozen technicians sit zombie-like at their consoles. One is playing Tetris. Beneath the map are banners for Hewlett-Packard and Omega watches—proud sponsors of the 21st-century space age.
Colonel Yesin leads us out of the control room and stops before an imposing two-story wall, on which row upon row of handsome plaques commemorate every Russian space mission since Gagarin’s. Many are autographed by the cosmonauts themselves. “If we really need money,” says the colonel, trying hard to smile, “perhaps we can sell them.”
Here Am I, Floating In A Tin Can
Early Thursday morning and we’re back in the van, en route to Tchkalovsky air base near Star City. It’s an hour before dawn but we’re wide awake, nerves aflutter. Major Tom nibbles halfheartedly at a piece of toast, unsure if it’s wise to eat on this particular morning.
Just as first light breaks, our van pulls up to an unmarked gate. A khaki-clad guard waves us through with a smirk—he knows what we’re in for. We cross a mile of crumbling tarmac and finally come to a stop. Before us looms a hulking monster of a plane. The Ilyushin-76 “flying laboratory” looks better suited for obliterating major cities than for conducting scientific studies. But this Ilyushin-76 is in fact the world’s most thrilling carnival ride.
Our instructor, Nikolai, gives us today’s flight plan. Basically, we’ll be ascending to 35,000 feet, then plunging two miles in 30 seconds. Then we’ll climb back to 35,000, dive again, then up, then down—you get the picture. At the top of each parabola, as the plane arcs, the cabin (and everyone in it) is at zero gravity. What we do during those 30 seconds of weightlessness is up to us.
We’re told that one in three cosmonauts gets sick on his first parabolic flight. But never mind the ‘bolics—I’m more worried about the ‘chutes. Thirty-pounders, and not exactly this year’s models. The straps are losing threads and the buckles could best be described as vintage. They’re to be worn during takeoff, “just in case.” We get a hasty lesson in bailing out (“Keep kneeses together. Better to avoid power lines”), then take our places for departure.
There are no seats in the main cabin, just a quilt of floor cushions. We tie everything down: jackets, cameras, backpacks. I’ve brought a Frisbee, a can of Pringles, and enough Dramamine to dose a cruise ship. Nikolai, grinning, taunts me with an airsickness bag.
The roar of the engines sends us on our way, though without any windows it’s hard to tell if we’re even airborne. After 20 minutes the instructors remove our chutes. We’re ready for the first climb.
I feel the plane nose upward, and the weight of two G’s hits me square in the chest. I’m pinned to the mat, my cheeks sunken in, and then suddenly:
We are aloft. We are giddy. Our legs float above our heads as if drawn by marionette strings. The unlatched parachutes are climbing the walls. Tom’s camera rises from his neck in search of the ceiling.
After 25 seconds an alarm sounds and our instructors yank us to the floor for the two-G pullout. A three-minute rest—punctuated by Tom’s cries of “holy shit! holy shit! that was so @#$%ing insane!!!”—is followed by another alarm, and soon we’re off again.
This time I’m ready to play. I take one giant leap for man and a wicked huge cartwheel for mankind, then play a little Frisbee with the Russians. I am the Frisbee. Three of them roll me up in a ball and send me spinning around the cabin, giggling like a schoolboy.
When the buzzer goes off I swim toward the floor, only to discover that the cushions have vanished. Odd. A shout directs my eyes to the ceiling, where Tom is clinging to a pipe.
“Jesus, Tom, you’re on the ceiling!”
“No, man, you’re on the ceiling!”
Just in time, Nikolai reaches up and plucks me off the roof as if picking an apple.
And on we go. Amazingly, no one gets sick during the dozen parabolas, although Tom creates quite a mess with the Pringles.
Meanwhile, off in a corner of the cabin, we notice a man in civilian clothes struggling to put on a space suit while floating upside down. We later learn that this is Vladimir Steklov, one of Russia’s most popular actors. Steklov has been at Star City for a year now, training for a trip to the Mir “in early 2000,” if all goes as planned. With two actual cosmonauts working as cameramen, he’ll be filming scenes for a movie about “a renegade cosmonaut who refuses to return to Earth.”
You see what I mean about not letting go?
No Time For Artificial Things
On our final night we’re joined for dinner by cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, who flew on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. Being the only Russian onboard, he learned a bit of English. He meets us, wearing his formal officer’s uniform, outside Star City’s decrepit cafeteria building. Above us a group of kids are playing Galileo, spitting in unison off the balcony onto a dog sleeping on the sidewalk. Valery gives them a wave and a patient smile; they attend school here with his 12-year-old son.
Over plates of baked sturgeon, we entreat Valery to share some of his adventures. He proceeds to rave about the facilities he’d been privileged to work at in Houston. Such a comfortable place! Such impressive equipment!
No, no, we say, tell us about space. What was it like? Were you scared? Elated? Transformed? What were your thoughts?
Valery shrugs. “You must do your job, concentrate on procedures,” he says. “There is no time for other thoughts.” He takes a bite of sturgeon and gives us a look that says, No big deal.
At first we suspect it’s just the language barrier: surely there’s more to the experience than that. Or maybe it’s all too personal to relate, as anything spiritual might be. But as Valery goes on about the endless practical details one must attend to on a flight, I recall something we’d heard from Dr. Rostislav Bogdashevsky, who worked with Gagarin himself in ‘61 and now leads the space medicine department at Star City. “A cosmonaut,” the doctor said, “has no time for artificial things.” The meaning was most likely lost in translation, but the sense came through. In space, it’s best not to wonder too much. Better, perhaps, to think of your job as just a job, one any ordinary man might do.
And I think to myself: Sometime soon a Proton rocket emblazoned with a Pizza Hut logo will lift off from the desert flats of Kazakhstan carrying the next component of the ISS, along with three cosmonauts squished into a Ford Pinto. With any luck, someone somewhere will televise the launch—if no soccer matches conflict—and I’ll watch the pizzanauts ascend into orbit, and I’ll think of Valery Tokarev, of Yuri Gagarin, of broken pipes and missing tiles and artificial things, and of the extraordinary lives of ordinary men. •
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