Did the first paying guests aboard the international space station get their $20 million worth?
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, November 2006
(Page 4 of 8)
The software superstar decided to “convince the Russians I was really serious by doing the horrible stuff first.” That meant checking in for “three weeks of pretty comprehensive poking and prodding” at Moscow’s Institute of Medical and Biological Problems. The date was late 2001, and the cosmonauts’ hospital bore the earmarks of a decade of post-Soviet shortages and neglect: “It was quite extraordinary to be tested by the same doctors and on the same equipment as all the early cosmonauts,” Shuttleworth says.
Olsen, who made his first trip to Russia in October 2003 and flew in October 2005, reported no particular business hassles, relying on the Tito/Shuttleworth precedent and his own go-with-the-flow attitude. “I paid up, showed up, and shut up,” he summarizes.
Nonetheless, his mission was almost derailed when, in April 2004, doctors found a spot on one of his chest X-rays. It took nine months of affidavits from U.S. physicians to persuade the Russians it was harmless. “People always ask me whether I was scared going into space,” Olsen says. “I answer them, ‘Yes, I was scared I wouldn’t get to go.’ ”
While Olsen relied mostly on translators at Star City, the fabled compound in the pines that has incubated Russian space pioneers since the days of Yuri Gagarin, Shuttleworth plunged into four hours a day of Russian language tutoring. He considered this “like brain surgery without anesthetic,” but essential to the experience.
Shuttleworth’s struggles to cope with Russians and Russian-ness continued during his cosmonaut training. But they shifted from a bureaucratic plane to an emotional one, and became far more rewarding.
“Living in Star City for eight months shapes you perhaps more than the act of flying in space,” he reflects. “To be immersed in a culture that is fascinating, complex, difficult, and where you are at once welcome and excluded.”
He remembers the cradle of Soviet spaceflight as a cross between “an isolated village in the forest with its own sauna” and a throwback to the university days he had completed in Capetown just six years earlier: “It’s a lot like school. You crisscross campus all day from the simulator to the hydro lab. There are standard, pre-packaged chunks of knowledge you have to absorb in order to graduate.”
Classes are interspersed with two hours of physical training a day. But Star City is no boot camp. “The folks at one of the universities back home were pushing me to get in terrific shape for one of the experiments I’d be performing,” Shuttleworth recalls. “The Russians were more worried that I’d turn an ankle if I was running too hard.”