Many years ago when I was still in school I had the chance of a lifetime: I visited the Star City, the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre located in the northeast of Moscow where they teach and train future spacemen. I still remember the visit, and my reminder is a “golden” commemorating coin with Yuri Gagarin’s portrait.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photo, when there, so I was kind of hoping that I may find some on the web. And so I did, and if you read in Russian, go to the Russian post by Anton Agarkov. And if you want to read about the political history of the Star City, head over to the Russian Space Web.
So, when you arrive to the train station just a few minutes away from Moscow, you are taken to the Star City through the gates that divide the earthly and heavenly lives. Behind the gates are clean streets, modern houses, shops, schools, and training buildings. Spacemen have lived in the Star City with their families, here they shopped, here their children went to school. In the Soviet era people used to joke that socialism had come to life in this little spot outside of the capital city.
One of the most important tasks a potential cosmonaut has to complete is a centrifuge training. It is at this stage that a lot of prospects are seeded out: the centrifuge shows, whether or not people can sustain the taking-off and setting down. A lot of equipment at the training centre is unique, and speaking of centrifuges, at the Star City there is the world’s largest centrifuge produced by the Swedish company, ASIA, at the astronomical price of 11 ton of gold, excuse the pun. The result is the ability of the medical team at the training centre to monitor the changes in the cosmonaut’s health under the influence of fluctuations in temperature, pressure, humidity, and even the atmospheric content of the centrifuge.
Another place of interest at the training centre is the hydrolaboratory. This is a swimming pool specially designed to imitate the state of weightlessness. A cosmonaut wearing a spacesuit is put in the water; to keep him from floating, the spacesuit is emburdened with leaded weights. The pool’s depth allows to put in it various modules of the International Space Station, so that the prospective cosmonauts can practise working in the open space.
Obviously, it is impossible to fully replicate the weightlessness: the objects that would be weightless in space retain their weight in the swimming pool. To this end, cosmonauts work together with the specially trained aqualungers.
Since the preparation for travelling into space is carried out on Earth, cosmonauts also have to learn to pilot their spacecraft. There is a special division at the training centre where they do just that. On Anton’s photo, through small windows and on displays we can see the bowels of the spacecraft the cosmonauts use to descend on Earth. Here, as well, is an imitation of a position the cosmonaut takes, when descending.
In this division, the future spacemen work on normal and abnormal scenarios they may have to deal with in the upper spheres. And on special displays you can see a full cosmonaut pack, including high-calorie food in small tubes, signaling rockets, and even a gun, should the spaceman has to protect himself against the wild beasts that may be inhabiting the place where the spacecraft descends.
Bearing in mind that scientific enquiries into the possibilities of going into space have started in Russia already in the 19th c., it shouldn’t be surprising that it eventually became the country who first sent a man into space. What is amazing, is that mere 16 years before that the country lay in ruins after the destructive Second World War. When I visited an exhibition of Soviet photographs at the Imperial War Museum North in 2006, this was what struck me the most. Throughout the first 10-13 photos I was looking at the war atrocities, hunger, death, a Reichstag banner – and suddenly, there was this massive smile of Yuri Gagarin, two Soviet chessmen competing against one another at the final of the world tournament, and many more happy faces. Perhaps, that happiness wasn’t altogether sincere, but the difference between the pre-war and the post-war Russia was quite palpable. It was as if, having stepped on the threshold of oblivion, the nation resolutely turned back and went beyond every imaginable boundary – straight to the stars.
I guess sometimes either a person, or a nation has to fall low – to then pave the road to people’s dreams.
Happy Cosmonaut Day!