Star City at 50

Change comes to the place where spaceflight was born.

Yuri Gagarin's image can be found all over Star City, even in the foyer of the town's planetarium, and he remains the iconic cosmonaut. (Esther Dyson)
Air & Space Magazine

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Bert Vis, a Dutch space researcher, co-authored the only published history of the GCTC, Russia’s Cosmonauts: Inside the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, which came out in 2005. Originally invited to Star City by a cosmonaut pen pal, Vis has made 17 visits, for a week or two each time, since 1991, when the Soviet Union disbanded. In the early days, Vis bunked in his host’s apartments, could not use a computer, and barely had access to a phone. Lately he has been able to book rooms at a hotel, though landline phones are still iffy.

The greatest change since the Soviet breakup has been the way Star City residents react to foreign visitors. At first “people would stare at me,” Vis says. “They were not used to seeing a foreigner there. When they heard me speak English, they would turn their heads and look at who that stranger was.

“There were older military officers who refused to meet with me, thinking that talking to a Westerner would harm their careers,” he adds. “Don’t forget that the old generation owed everything they had to Communism.”

Today, NASA astronauts live at Star City for months at a time, in Western-style cottages. And, Vis says, “The latest groups of cosmonauts are much more open to non-Russians, and don’t see the NASA guys and Europeans as spies who come to steal their technology.”

That may ease cooperation with Americans, but Krikalev also has to contend with other culture gaps and rivalries—among Russians. At the space station’s mission control center in Moscow, the staffers, including the all-powerful flight directors, are employees of the Energiya Corporation, which builds the spacecraft. But the capcoms (capsule communicators, or “glavnis” in Russian), who communicate with the cosmonauts in flight, come from Star City. GCTC doctors handle all the preflight medical care for cosmonauts, and work with them on a daily basis. But during missions, physicians from another organization, the Institute for Medical-Biological Problems, are in charge. According to John McBrine, a NASA veteran of four tours in Russia, “There’s no way the IMBP doctors have the same relationship to the crew the GCTC guys do.”

Another fundamental rift is between the two kinds of cosmonaut: the military pilots in Star City and the civilian engineers like Krikalev, who come from Energiya. The smaller Energiya team lives and works in Moscow, commuting to Star City only when assigned to a specific program. Beginning in 1966, Soviet law required each cosmonaut crew to have a commander from the GCTC, as well as a flight engineer from “the organization that built the vehicle,” meaning Energiya. It would be as if NASA had ordered every Gemini crew to include an engineer from McDonnell aircraft.

For years, both organizations fought for the right to command space missions. “GCTC rightly felt that every spacecraft commander should be one of their pilots,” says McBrine. In some cases, a veteran Energiya engineer had to work under a rookie GCTC commander—not the most harmonious of situations.

Today the training center is part of Roskosmos, which was created only in 1994 to serve as a Russian counterpart of NASA. Headed by Anatoly Perminov, the agency is trying to foster a thriving Russian space industry. It intends to end the country’s reliance on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in the independent nation of Kazakhstan. Roskosmos plans to transform a missile base at Svobodny, in the Russian far east, into the Vostochny (“Eastern”) Cosmodrome, and hopes to launch cosmonauts from there by 2018.

Though Roskosmos owns Star City, the agency doesn’t necessarily like the arrangement. According to former cosmonaut Yuri Baturin, “Roskosmos did not plan to absorb GCTC. But the Ministry of Defense specified reductions in armed forces, and simply included GCTC in that.” Apollo-Soyuz astronaut Tom Stafford put it more directly: “The Russian air force couldn’t afford to keep paying the bills. They don’t have an interest in manned spaceflight—they never really did.”

The shift from military to civilian ownership poses a staffing problem for Krikalev. The center was allowed to keep 210 military employees, and another 110 workers were allowed to leave military service and stay in their jobs. But that still leaves dozens of positions unfilled, and many military people stationed in Star City scrambling to find assignments elsewhere.

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