UND In Space: Day 2

Time to be a Tourist: by Tim o’Keefe

Breakfast after a fitful, jet-lagged, maybe five hour sleep was just the start of one of the most exceptional interesting days I’ve experienced. Moscow surprises me at virtually every turn.

Clearly the collapse of the old Soviet Union unleashed a wave of capitalism in Moscow and Russia which has swept the economy to new heights never seen before.

Our NASA guest escort, John McBine, lived in Moscow for four years in the mid ‘90s at Star City, the home of the Russian Space Agency. Our other NASA employee, Mike Rodriggs, who isn’t working this trip but is here as a friend of Karen Nyberg’s, worked a launch in 1998 in Kazakhstan, and hadn’t been back to Moscow since.

Both are amazed at the changes. Evidence of the evolving middle class is everywhere. New car sales are crazy as experienced by the incredible traffic jams. New restaurants dominate metro Moscow, and beautiful new luxury brand retail stores line the streets.

Capitalism always wins; in fact, the more I see of Moscow, the increase of my concern of the deteriorating competitive position of the U.S. internationally as world markets grow at very strong rates while our economy has stagnated for much of a decade.


Our day of touring with “Team Nyberg” began at Red Square, and St. Basil’s Russian Orthodox Church.

For many of us Red Square reminds us of the old Soviet Union military parades, which gave us the impression of a huge open area. While fairly large, Red Square is only 800 meters long, but carries important historical reference for all of Russia. The wall in Red Square protecting the Kremlin grounds was built in 1409 by Italian architects. It’s 26 feet tall, and was later “dressed up” with turrets for appearance purposes.

St. Basil Church at the main entrance to Red Square is uniquely attractive, with its colorful onion shaped spires rising among gold leaf crosses. Lenin’s Tomb is also in Red Square, where revered Russian leaders primarily military including Joseph Stalin are also buried. Stalin was known to be fairly religious, and during World War 2 he went to extremes to protect religious sites from German bombers, including covering St. Basil’s with camouflage.

On the eastern side of Red Square is Gum (pronounced Goom) Department Store, a very large complex with high end shopping and restaurants. Gum is as nice a shopping area as anywhere I’ve ever seen in the U.S., and like all of Moscow, Red Square is perfectly clean.

From Red Square we went across the Moscow River where we stopped to take a picture of the Kremlin grounds, the heart of Moscow, and to record a shot of Team Nyberg for the first time.

The group then made its way to Christ the Savior Russian Orthodox Church, an iconic religious site in Moscow. When Nikita Khrushchev ruled Moscow, he was very anti-religion and not only closed Christ the Savior letting it go into ruin, he turned the area in front of the church into a huge open area swimming pool, one of the largest in the world.

After the fall of communism and its atheist core, “closet” religion swiftly returned and various banks, oil companies, hotels and others — including the Mafia according to rumor — put over $600 million into Christ the Savior totally restoring it to its original grandeur.

Pictures were not allowed in the church, but trust me, it is among the most stately and elegant churches anywhere in the world. No matter which direction you turn inside, the mosaics, paintings, altars, religious icons, and gold fixtures take your breath away. While not real active practitioners of their faith, religion is an important part of Russian history, and its quick return to prominence after the fall of communism is a testimony to such.


We then made our way to the National Cemetery. This Moscow landmark features military heroes, former leaders whose stature doesn’t command the ultimate burial location in Red Square, artists, dancers, poets, writers and others who were prominent in Russian culture.

The tombs are large sculptures of each individual, mostly in either granite or marble. Interesting, there is a “second tier” of Russian leaders we are familiar with who are buried here. The aforementioned Khrushchev is entombed here, as is Boris Yeltsin in a most unusual setting, In addition, Gorbachev’s wife is in the National Cemetery, and he will be buried here as well. I was surprised Gorbachev, who is held in such high regard by us for his role bringing down the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, is not viewed with the same esteem here as he is looked upon as a poor leader.


Grave of Mikhail Gorbachev's wife, Raisa.
Grave of Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa.
Grave of the founder of the Moscow Circus.
Grave of the founder of the Moscow Circus.
Grave of Nikita Khrushchev
Grave of Nikita Khrushchev.
Boris Yeltsin's grave.
Boris Yeltsin’s grave.


From the National Cemetery it was up to Moscow University, for the most expansive viewing area of Moscow. Moscow University was opened by Stalin, and now has over 40,000 students studying in 30 academic areas. The site is directly above where the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics were held, which were infamously boycotted by the U.S. as a result of a decision by President Carter during the height of tensions associated with the Cold War.

After a brief rest, we capped the day off by spending the evening at the Moscow Circus. The enclosed round amphitheater was both intimate and elegant, and the circus was unlike any I’ve experienced in America. It was a combination of Cirque De Soleil, gymnastics, high wire acts, terrific clowns, and traditional circus acts with elephants, etc.; with a live orchestra accompanying it all. Again, no cameras allowed, which believe me was policed tightly by expressionless female ushers who were very serious about their work!

A 20 minute walk back to the Volga Hotel, and off to what will hopefully be a full nights rest!

Tomorrow, Star City.We will be joined by Doug Hurley, Karen’s husband who is also an astronaut and piloted the last shuttle flight, Atlantis, in 2011.

Remember to follow Karen on Twitter throughout her trip to the International Space Station at Astro@Karen N.

And, of course me as well — my Twitter address is UNDTimOKeefe.