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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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.

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.”

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