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Star Power

To prepare for his command of the international space station, NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly heads back in time to Russia’s sprawling training ground, star city.

Author Jake Rudnitsky Photography Peter Frank Edwards


Image – Peter Frank Edwards

NASA ASTRONAUT SCOTT KELLY STANDS IN A FORMERLY TOP-SECRET RUSSIAN TRAINING FACILITY NEAR MOSCOW, surrounded by consoles covered in blinking lights and switches that wouldn’t be out of place in an old episode of Buck Rogers. He’s just spent a minute in a human centrifuge, whizzing around in a circle at a harrowing eight Gs.

“That was fun,” the barrel-chested Orange, New Jersey, native reports, as he waves his arms to get the blood circulating. “Sort of like a sharp stick in the eye is fun.”

Here on planet earth there aren’t too many reasons to subject a person to those kinds of forces (a NASCAR driver banking at more than 200 mph might have to handle five Gs for a split second). The Russian Federal Space Agency (RKA) likes to brag that its enormous centrifuge is one of a kind, and it is: 60 feet long, with a bulbous capsule at the end, it weighs 300 tons and can produce as many as 30 Gs—enough to really hurt.

Taking a spin in the centrifuge is a necessity for anyone training to fly in the Russian space program, whose cosmonauts reenter the atmosphere in old, Apollo-style Soyuz space capsules that offer a notoriously bumpy ride. Next month, Kelly will be riding shotgun in one with Russian cosmonauts Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka on a trip to the International Space Station (ISS). Once there, he’ll assume a six-month command of the ISS, which has increasingly become a global village in the sky (in addition to the U.S. and Russia, the ISS hosts astronauts from Canada, Japan and the 18 member countries of the European Space Agency). Kelly’s previous two space flights were in the U.S. space shuttle, which he says is space travel’s Cadillac; the Soyuz is a Lada.

“Landing in the Soyuz is a little more sporty than the space shuttle,” says Kelly, with characteristic understatement. “The parachute, the hard landing—I’d much rather land on wheels. But the Soyuz is very effective.” He flashes a sardonic smile. “And it works most of the time.”

The Russian capsule may not get high marks for comfort, but its dependability has made it crucial to the survival of the ISS. Commercial space programs from Virgin’s Richard Branson and Tesla’s Elon Musk are in the works; in the meantime, the Soyuz is earth’s intergalactic workhorse.

Its role will grow even more critical after the final flight of the space shuttle in early 2011. Indeed, despite the fact that eight-track tapes were cutting-edge when the Soyuz flew its first manned mission in 1967, its near- perfect record has led the European Space Agency to label it “the most reliable means of space travel.”

“We’re very fortunate to have the Russians as partners,” Kelly says.

Kelly is in Star City to learn the Russian sections of the station. He’s hanging out in mock-ups of the Russian modules and learning everything from the craft’s plumbing to its complex computer systems.

Officially named the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, Star City— with its ’60s-futuristic aesthetic—is an unlikely place to prepare for orbit. Tucked away in a lush patch of forest 27 miles outside of Moscow, the collection of Soviet buildings is more William Shatner than Chris Pine.

“It’s the Ritz compared to when I first visited in 2000,” says Kelly. Back then, Russia was still reeling from its post-Soviet transition to a market economy. When cosmonaut Valery Polyakov spent a record 14 months in space aboard the Mir space station in 1995, a popular joke in Russia had it that the government couldn’t afford to bring him back down.

The joke resonated, in part, because of the novel moneymaking ideas developed by the RKA around that time, including commercial space programs. The first space tourist, Dennis Tito, paid $20 million for an eight-day trip to the ISS in 2001. Last year, Star City was transferred from military to civilian control, and groups of tourists now pass through daily.

Although much of the technology in use was developed decades ago, the space program here is successful because it emphasizes functionality at the expense of innovation.

For instance, “American space suits are way more maneuverable during spacewalks,” Kelly says. “But the prebreathe takes four hours.” Russian suits operate at a higher pressure, so a cosmonaut can be out the hatch in just 30 minutes.

The launch vehicles are another example of Russia’s intensely down-to- earth approach. Where the U.S. space shuttle is a reusable mobile laboratory that can multitask, the single-use Soyuz does one thing: deliver people into space.

For Kelly there will never be anything quite like the first eight and a half minutes in a shuttle. “When the solid rocket motors light, you get the sense that you’re heading somewhere in a hurry, and it isn’t Florida,” he says. “Seven point five million pounds of thrust applied to your back instantaneously. To a spectator, it looks like it lifts off slowly. Inside, there’s nothing slow about it.”

KELLY AND KALERI are practicing docking procedures early one morning at the Gagarin complex, a series of cavernous, fluorescent-lit rooms joined by a maze of hallways. A Soyuz replica around two- thirds the size of a Toyota Prius stands in a bright warehouse surrounded by a busy team of engineers and technicians. It’s obvious that comfort wasn’t a priority for the Russian rocket’s designers: Inside the module, Soyuz passengers assume a position reminiscent of a ski tuck and hold it for four hours on their way into orbit. “It can be tough on the knees,” Kelly says. It takes two days to get to the comparatively spacious ISS, a trip made more pleasant by the recent addition of bay window–style “cupolas” so passengers can enjoy the view.

Once in micro-gravity (Kelly points out that zero gravity doesn’t exist), he’ll get to experience the effects of an extended stay in space for the first time. His previous two trips, lasting eight and 13 days, respectively, will be dwarfed by his planned five-month visit. “It takes about a month for the body to adjust,” says Kareli, who has already logged more than 600 days in space.

Life on the station is heavily regimented, consisting of daily experiments, exercise and chores. (Bathing is done with baby wipes.) R&R has improved vastly since the old days. Cyberspace extends all the way into actual space, and ISS residents can surf the net, pay e-bills and update their Facebook status. Kelly is planning a video blog to chronicle his days, but he’ll have to do it without his iPad, which hasn’t yet been certified for space.

Maybe it’s his military background— Kelly was a Navy pilot before being selected by NASA—but he has no complaints about Russian orbital cuisine. The Russians can their rations, so the meat is juicier than the pouch-sealed stuff the U.S. sends.

“The hardest part is being locked up for months without fresh air, the color green, a breeze or my kids,” Kelly says, as he climbs to the capsule hatch.

“But you won’t miss your brother,” adds Kareli.

“No, I’m a lucky guy in that respect,” says Kelly.

Turns out Kelly’s twin brother, Mark, is also an astronaut. In fact, he’s scheduled to command the shuttle’s swan song, a voyage to the ISS, next February. His arrival at the station will mark the first time siblings have met in space. “Not so bad for two boys from Jersey,” Kareli says.

THE AMERICANS and the Russians haven’t always seen eye to eye on earth, but things are different beyond gravity’s reach. Since the days of Sputnik, Russians and Americans have routinely cooperated on space technology. In 1975, in the heat of the Cold War, an Apollo and a Soyuz linked up in orbit for the first international space effort.

In the 1990s, NASA and the RKA developed even closer ties, with the shuttle making multiple trips to Mir and paving the way for cooperation on the ISS. “NASA probably understands Russians, their culture, their way of making decisions and how to work with them better than any other U.S. government agency,” Kelly says. “And that’s because we’ve done something so difficult together in this incredibly challenging environment.”

That’s putting it mildly. The ISS, which is so big it can be seen from earth with the naked eye, is made up of 14 highly pressurized modules that fit together like an intergalactic Erector Set.

“These sections are flying at 17,500 miles per hour in a near vacuum with temperatures ranging from plus- to minus-two-hundred fifty degrees, and we connected them to each other using complicated robotic procedures,” Kelly says with unfeigned awe. He adds “It’s amazing that we’ve done it as an international effort.”

As a result, NASA astronauts are as likely to find themselves training for launch in Tsukuba, Japan, as in Houston. Even before Kelly begins his tour on the ISS, where he’ll hurtle around the earth some 16 times a day, NASA’s training regime keeps him circling the globe at nearly as intense a pace, with prep work in Germany, Japan, Canada and Russia.

“The travel can be challenging,” he says. “Try flying halfway around the world and showing up the next day for an eight a.m. class to learn stuff that’s potentially very critical to your future.”

Still, the dream of space flight is a powerful tonic, and on the scale of difficulties that astronauts face, jet lag rates pretty low. But in Kelly’s mind, all the sacrifice—the discomfort of training and then space flight, the physical punishment, the three months of rehab for atrophied muscles after returning to earth and, of course, the mortal risk—all blur together as minor inconveniences. Eight Gs is a small price to pay for all that space.

Moscow-based writer JAKE RUDNITSKY once pulled five Gs doing a jackknife dive at the YMCA pool in Greenwich, Connecticut.

One Response to “Star Power”

  1. Mark Popp Says:
    September 28th, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Star power, excellent article. A lot of insight into the “romance” of space travel.

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