The crossroads for cosmonauts

Space station astronauts rehearse spacewalks in Star City's Hydrolab, a swimming pool that simulates the weightlessness of space.
Space station astronauts rehearse spacewalks in Star City's Hydrolab, a swimming pool that simulates the weightlessness of space.
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From the outside, the home of the cosmonauts looks like a housing development at the end of a tree-lined back road. Compared to NASA’s setting in Houston, it’s positively pastoral. But the military sentry reminds you that Star City is no ordinary suburb.

Within the compound, an hour’s drive northeast of Moscow, the atmosphere seems relaxed — though more than chilly enough to frost your breath in February. Bundled-up matrons push baby carriages across snowy streets. This is the home not only for cosmonauts in training, but also for their families.

The real business goes on within a smattering of nondescript Soviet-era buildings, like the 20-year-old Hydrolab. A 40-foot-deep, 80-foot-wide swimming pool is equipped with a submersible platform that can hold up to 7 tons’ worth of fake space station compartments. To practice for spacewalks, cosmonauts jump in wearing spacesuits and diving equipment with just the right weight to duplicate zero-G conditions.

“Mir station was once used here,” says guide Alexander Podolsky, “but no longer.” In fact, a couple of cast-off mock-ups are sitting outside the Hydrolab, topped with snow.

In a nearby building, cosmonaut Nadezhda Kuzhelnaya goes through her annual spin on Star City’s centrifuge, pulling up to 5 Gs of acceleration. She’s been in the cosmonaut corps for seven years but still hasn’t flown in space. Kuzhelnaya had been due to make her first trip in April, but would-be space tourist Dennis Tito was put in her place after putting up millions of dollars.

On this day, no disappointment shows on Kuzhelnaya’s face. She’s all smiles as technicians strap her into her centrifuge chair. Only three Russian women have ever flown in space. Was she aware of a recent report about her own might-have-been flight? “I read it,” she says shyly in English.

Another building houses a training mock-up of Mir, with a classroom set up on a balcony overlooking the room — not for cosmonauts-in-training, but for city kids taking field trips.

There’s not much of a hush-hush atmosphere about Star City anymore: Any tourist can pay to see the sights and even take a ride on the Russian version of the “Vomit Comet,” a jet that flies a parabolic course to create short, potentially stomach-wrenching doses of weightlessness.

American enclave
A mile or so down the road, NASA has its own enclave: an office building and a row of townhouses. Nearby, there’s a lakeside trail where visiting astronauts jog or, in the winter, cross-country ski. Snow is plowed high along the paths.

It all seems like a slice of Minnesota dropped in the middle of a Russian winter.

Inside one of the townhouses, freshly arrived “Excans” — astronauts who are expedition candidates for the International Space Station — are getting ready for a weekend survival training exercise. Lee Morin and Greg Chamitoff, who haven’t yet been assigned to a space mission, have been in Star City for just a few days, so the living room looks more like a home-store showroom.

Star City is getting to be a key stop on the road to space, for Americans as well as Russians. “Everyone in the Astronaut Office is required to take some Russian-language training,” says Morin, who joined the astronaut corps four years ago.

Chamitoff, a member of the astronaut class of 1998, says the path through Star City is a two-way street.

“There are things we do a certain way that I think the Russians do better, and other things we do a certain way that may be better than the way the Russians do them,” he says. “We get to learn, and hopefully we converge toward the best solution in both cases.”