Star City at 50
Change comes to the place where spaceflight was born.
- By Michael Cassutt
- Air & Space magazine, March 2011
(Page 4 of 4)
Cosmonauts aren’t always exemplars of the healthy lifestyle. Garriott’s backup, Australian entrepreneur Nik Halik, recalls “working out in the gym with cosmonauts, then walking outside to see them puffing cigarettes and drinking vodka.” The darkest side of life at Star City has long been alcoholism. One unnamed veteran cosmonaut says that “90 percent” of the staff of one engineering department drank too heavily. The affliction is most common among the dozens of retired pilots and engineers who were selected for cosmonaut training in the 1960s, moved permanently to Star City, then never made it to the launch pad. But the problem isn’t limited to the unflowns. To this day, visitors can find famous names from Salyut and Mir crews stumbling drunk down icy sidewalks. Halik says he drank so much during his year-plus at Star City that now he “can’t stand the sight or even the thought of vodka.”
Maybe it’s because of the small-town insularity that the 1997 class of nine cosmonaut candidates included three second generation spacemen: Sergei Volkov (son of the new mayor), Roman Romanenko (son of three-time flier Yuri Romanenko), and Alexandr Skvortsov, whose father Alexandr was a cosmonaut candidate in the 1960s. This isn’t necessarily nepotism. Since the 1990s, young Russians have not seen becoming a cosmonaut as the plum opportunity it once was. Interest in the most recent Energiya recruitment in 2005 was so dismal that the company had to go looking for new hires among grad students at Bauman Moscow State Technical University and at Moscow Aviation Institute.
The problem may be a lack of exciting new missions. “Unflown cosmonauts concentrate on future work on [the space station],” Yuri Baturin says. “Those who have completed flights look into the future, and they are often disappointed by the absence of clear plans.” Leroy Chiao, a NASA astronaut who trained in Star City off and on for five years, remembers that cosmonauts and astronauts “didn’t talk about lunar flights, knowing that it was beyond the timeframe of our careers.”
The inbred nature of Star City’s society does have an upside. Richard Garriott—himself the son of an astronaut, Skylab and shuttle veteran Owen Garriott—says, “When I was growing up in the Johnson Space Center community, the astronauts were mostly test pilots—part of an old boy’s network. They played hard, and they played away from home. They rarely appeared at family gatherings, picnics, kids’ baseball games. They had hangouts no one knew about. Star City is completely the opposite.”
Garriott recalls a night in February 2008, shortly after arriving at Star City, when he and Halik entered the Soyuz Café, “a shiny jewel of new construction” that he describes as “half digital, half dacha.” They were immediately invited to a family gathering. “It was for the next ISS crew, and there were babies and grandparents in attendance, in addition to the adults. We sat down. The host welcomed everyone, and every five minutes or so he would ask somebody to stand up and introduce a guest and offer a toast—to the crew, to the future, and so on. I found similar scenes repeated there almost every night for the next year.
“Part of what I experienced was unique—possibly only to Star City. But the vibe you got was ‘Someone you know is in space.’ It’s part of everyday life. It’s continuous. It’s a very meaningful way to deal with this hazardous way of life.”
Rather than resenting the foreign spaceflight participants, says Garriott, the residents of Star City have welcomed them. Part of it is practical: “The Russians love the idea of foreigners buying seats on their vehicles. Not only does it offset the cost of flying, but it shows that people are willing to take a chance on their system.”
The openness to new ideas is typical of the cosmonauts now flying missions to the space station. “The earlier guys were a bit reserved or uncomfortable with us,” NASA’s Lopez-Alegria says. “We had been their cold war enemies.” Today’s cosmonauts are not only completely at home with international crewmates, they are also, thanks to Facebook and other social media, far more connected with the outside world. GCTC cosmonaut Max Suraev blogged his Expedition 21 stay on the station in 2009 and 2010, posing for pictures with a “ray gun” and joking about subjects from space food to his inability to choose clothing. In many of his posts, he was more candid than the typical NASA astronaut.
One of the middle-generation cosmonauts, Yuri Malenchenko, arrived in Star City in the late 1980s as a 26-year-old fighter pilot. He went on to serve a four-month tour on Mir in 1994, flew a short shuttle mission to the International Space Station in 2000, then participated in two long-duration missions in 2003 and 2007. Now 49 and training for a third ISS stay, he is philosophical about the ways the life of a Russian cosmonaut has changed over the course of his career: “Twenty-two years ago the country was different. Since then there have been many events that happened in politics and the economy. So now Star City is different, and we are different.”
Michael Cassutt is a novelist and television writer in Studio City, California.