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April 1, 2011 10:38 pm
‘Space can be fun, depending on who you are with’
Flights: 1988, 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2005
After spending more time in space than any other human being, Sergei Krikalev now has a desk job running the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, popularly known as Star City. Russian cosmonauts don’t usually like to be grounded but, tanned and superbly fit, he exudes dedication.
“I beat the record with the days I spent in space,” he says, scanning the horizon, as three trainee cosmonauts clamber into a mock-up Soyuz spacecraft behind him. “But records are not important. Results are what count.”
Krikalev grew up in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in the 1960s, when the Soviet space industry was at its height. Most aspiring cosmonauts went into the military, but he took a less exciting job as an engineer at the state rocket company. As a civilian – albeit one who had won a national championship for aerobatic flying – he was something of an outsider when he was selected for training at Star City in 1985.
Today, Krikalev is Russia’s most famous living cosmonaut. He has flown on six missions, logging more than 803 days in space and earning a reputation as a fearless troubleshooter. In 1991, in one of the more bizarre misadventures in space history, he was stranded at Mir for almost four additional months, when the Soviet Union collapsed. A consummate professional, Krikalev refuses to be portrayed as the self-sacrificing hero who kept the Mir programme alive. “Space can be fun, depending on who you are with,” he says.
Amid creeping demoralisation in his industry, Krikalev has an enduring faith in the future of extraterrestrial travel. “We can only talk now about small steps for mankind,” he says, echoing Neil Armstrong. “But eventually we will be able to expand beyond the solar system and find new zones of habitation.”
Open days are rare at Star City, where Krikalev, now 52, was appointed director in 2009, but they offer a glimpse of the world’s oldest and most renowned cosmonaut training facility. Concealed behind a concrete wall in a pine forest outside Moscow, Star City has trained 102 crews over 50 years. Despite its high international profile, it has remained a closed town, secretive and slightly spooky. Outsiders cannot enter without special permission.
In its cold war heyday, Star City exemplified the good life the Soviet Union promised its citizens – family flats rather than cramped communes, a well-stocked food store and an artificial beach dotted with sun umbrellas.
There has been some new building since the 1990s, a picturesque Russian Orthodox church and a clutch of clapboard cottages for resident Nasa officials that would not look out of place in a Washington suburb. Today, though, most of Star City is neglected, a sad relic of its glorious Soviet past. Yet officials still take huge pride in training facilities such as the hydro centre – a life-size replica of Soyuz suspended over a giant underground swimming pool, where cosmonauts bob up and down while rehearsing space walks in simulated microgravity.
Gruelling physical endurance tests are conducted in the cavernous Centrifuge, an 80-metre-long steel cylinder that spins its victims round at a dizzying speed, to imitate the pressure and noise of blast-off. At times, training takes on the tone of a Boy’s Own adventure, as cosmonauts-in-waiting, armed with fishing rods, rifles and tubes of preserved cabbage soup, are dispatched to remote mountains to hone their survival skills.
Back at Star City, Krikalev is caught up in a difficult transition. The defence ministry is handing over control of cosmonaut training to Roscosmos, the state space agency. Colleagues say that military employees still lingering at their desks regard the new civilian management as incompetent imposters. The immediate challenge is to find funding for higher salaries that will attract young specialists and breathe new life into Star City. For now, most of the trainers are retired cosmonauts who dream of riding to space again. Krikalev is no exception. “I’d like to go again, but I have more important things to do,” he says.
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