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Imagine a city where only astronauts live, with otherworldly, yet archaic training facilities and no public access under any circumstances. Until three years ago, Star City, the cosmonaut training centre on the outskirts of Moscow, was that place -- a secret military facility that was unmarked on the world map. But today, the demilitarized town where the first man in space Yuri Gagarin once lived, is open for business, ferrying cosmonauts and billionaires to space while also offering wild spins in a giant centrifuge to visitors who only dream of the great beyond.
Getting into the cosmonaut training facility is surprisingly simple – just sign up at least 10 days in advance with one of the many operators that take groups from Moscow, such as Star City Tours and RUS Adventures (prices vary by operator). Unlike astronauts, who go through years of training and documentation, you will likely only be asked to supply the operator with a copy of your passport.
Then prepare yourself, as a trip to Star City is as much a leap into the future as it is a journey to the past.
Driving through the gates of the space town, Star City looks like nothing more than a collection of grey concrete homes, seemingly frozen in the 1960s. A few birch trees loom out of a pine forest, potholes cover the road and perfectly-aligned houses sit on parallel streets. It is hard to imagine that just 30km away, Moscow’s wide boulevards are lined with soaring Stalinist buildings.
And, yet, the town’s Soviet rust is undeniably charming. A coarsely chiselled statue of Gagarin stands tall in front of the house where his wife Valentina still lives. The Soviet legend, now with a sheen of green copper oxidizing his plain suit, has a flower in his hand, as though he is offering it to his wife.
Inside Star City, a life-size simulator of the Russian part of the International Space Station (ISS) are housed next to the cosmonauts’ living quarters. A life-size replica of the Russian Mir space station, the predecessor to the ISS which operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001, sits rusting away outside, now of little interest even to tourists.
On a basic tour, starting from 18,000 rubles per person in a 40-person group, visitors are allowed to see everything – the ISS, the hydro laboratory where cosmonauts practice spacewalks and the centrifuges, which test one’s ability to withstand pressure -- but there is little hands-on experience.
The real fun begins at 90,000 rubles, when you don a spacesuit and experience a simulated launch, flight and landing in a Soyuz rocket, complete with Russian- language capsule controls. Designed by the Russians in the 1960s, the rocket is known as the world’s safest and most cost-efficient rocket.
Though the Soyuz looks dated, it is a model that astronauts all over the world still train on it and fly to the ISS. And after the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet last year, it is now the only space vehicle that can deliver people to the ISS.
To experience weightlessness – the most exciting game in this space arcade for adults – visitors can shell out 800,000 rubles and hop onboard the IL-76MDK, a plane that climbs 9,000m in the sky, then swoops downwards as you soar weightlessly for 25 seconds. During the hour and a half flight, space nuts get a total of 450 seconds of zero gravity. The flights, which are conducted just outside Star City, are usually booked as separate trips through the same tour providers.
Wannabe cosmonauts also have the opportunity to sink underwater to the ISS replica, which is submerged snugly in a swimming pool 12m deep and 23m wide. During the dive, which takes up to four hours due to the high density of the water (it is filled with certain chemicals plus air pressure to simulate the circumstances found in space), the cosmonauts in training practice space walking -- and may lose a few kilos off their waist line in the strenuous process.
A giant centrifuge, where trainees go for a spin to experience the G-forces felt during launch, is also open to the public. You may feel up to eight times the pull of the earth’s gravity, but most likely four will be enough to make you queasy. Before testing your stamina, an in-house doctor will examine you, and an actual cosmonaut will have to be present to conduct the training.
When you come off the simulators, a special meal of mashed potatoes and steak will be served from a tube – a perfectly fitting meal to welcome you home from your brief encounter with the great unknown.