Star City at 50
Change comes to the place where spaceflight was born.
- By Michael Cassutt
- Air & Space magazine, March 2011
(Page 3 of 4)
Under military control, the training center’s flight support unit, the Seregin Wing, had 16 aircraft, from Aero L-39 training jets to Tupolev Tu-154 transports. These were used by the cosmonauts to maintain pilot proficiency, and for weightlessness training. But in late 2009, the Russian air force disbanded the wing and dispersed the airplanes. “Except for one,” Krikalev notes, “a Tu-154 with glass hatches in its fuselage,” which was formerly used by the Ministry of Defense in NATO’s “Open Skies” program.
Juggling these management problems while continuing to train space station crews has been difficult, says Baturin—“like rebuilding the conveyor belt while you still manufacture the item. Imagine what a car would look like under those circumstances.”
Star City’s main business, of course, is spaceflight training. And the methods developed there over 50 years are often quite different from NASA’s. The GCTC trainers emphasize theoretical classroom work, complete with regular graded exams, while NASA concentrates on practical skills, teaching astronauts to perform specific tasks like operating the station’s robot arm or conducting a spacewalk. “GCTC will test you on the nature of an electronic relay,” says Lopez-Alegria, “but knowing that doesn’t help me operationally. We don’t do systems, we do skill sets.”
In the old days, the GCTC published few manuals; cosmonauts took handwritten notes at lecture sessions. Staffers were reluctant to print and distribute written materials, because they saw the information as proprietary. (In early 2008, South Korean astronaut candidate Ko San was removed from a Soyuz crew assignment for taking workbooks out of Star City without permission. According to one former NASA astronaut, manuals are still officially restricted to the center.)
As a first-time flier, Garriott saw value in the Russian methods, including the emphasis on theory: “At first I wanted to rush through that phase. But eventually I became a big fan of the Russian top-down system.” For example, he says, “I started training, right from zero, with my crew and with the same small team of instructors. Over the weeks and months, these two or three instructors followed every step of my progress: what I got, what I didn’t get, how I responded to every situation. We passed our exams, then flew down to Baikonur, where we were in quarantine for two weeks. We suited up, got out to the pad, got into the Soyuz. And on the radio was one of my instructors! I hadn’t realized that would be the case. But it was so reassuring! I realized, That guy knows me. Back on the ground, after the flight, the crew starts its debrief—and the same instructor is there too.”
This emphasis on personal relationships is one of the reasons the glavnis in Russian mission control are from Star City, not Energiya. NASA has started to move toward a similar model: Many space station capcoms are now members of the training teams, not fellow astronauts. “Both sides have learned from each other,” says McBrine.
STAR CITY IS MORE THAN just a school for space travelers. It also is a company town with a population of 6,000, including retired cosmonauts, training specialists, engineers, and administrative staffers and their families, as well as businessmen, cooks, and schoolteachers. There are baptisms and weddings. Children of cosmonauts have married and raised families here, and a Russian Orthodox church was dedicated last winter—a first for Star City. There are, of late, many funerals.
For 49 years, the military director of the GCTC doubled as the “mayor” of this unique village. But the shift to civilian control brought an election in June 2009. The winner was Nikolai Rybkin, a 63-year-old retired air force colonel who was Star City’s State Security (KGB) representative from 1976 to 2001. Rybkin was a popular figure in Star City because he paid attention to things that mattered to its residents. “He was great about getting a gazebo built and returning the swans to the lake,” says one NASA official who asked to remain anonymous. “I just wish he’d also put more street lights along the roads.”
At the time of his election, Rybkin was in jail, charged with smuggling, and so was unable to take office. In late October 2009, Russian government officials appointed former cosmonaut Alexander Volkov, a Rybkin supporter, to take his place—which speaks to the insular nature of Star City. During the glory days of the 1960s, residents had special access to food and consumer goods, and lived in apartments that were double the standard Soviet size. The price for these privileges was submission to strict military and KGB control. Three cosmonauts from Gagarin’s group were expelled for “violation of training discipline” when one of them started a drunken argument with the local militia. Over the years, others were sent packing for marital discord, embarrassing personal connections (engineer Boris Belousov was discovered to have Ukrainian relatives who had fought on the side of the Germans during World War II), or failing to appreciate the Communist Party (Eduard Kugno openly criticized the organization as “a pack of lickspittles”).
In the old days, it was also risky to criticize Star City management. In 1967 engineer Gennady Kolesnikov, while a candidate for the cosmonaut corps, complained about training methods and was ordered to see the doctors. “I was checked for ailments, and they found 12!” he told Bert Vis. With this “medical disqualification,” he was transferred to a teaching job outside the center.
Star City’s managers often used the medical department as a disciplinary arm, a ruse that veteran cosmonauts knew well. Following his 1965 Voskhod 2 flight, Pavel Belyayev was so suspicious of the center’s doctors that he skipped medical exams for months. Tragically, he developed a bleeding ulcer that turned into peritonitis, which killed him.