UND In Space: Day 3

Russia’s Space Program: by Tim O’Keefe

Day 3 in Moscow began with a stop at Victory Park, a huge park in the middle of Moscow dedicated to the veterans of wars Russia has been in. The city of Moscow is heavily populated with parks, and this one is particularly special to the Russian people. There is a massive memorial wall, and as Moscow has statues everywhere it seems dedicated to military and government leaders, the oblisque in Victory Park is impressive.

From there we went through one of the biggest traffic jams I’ve ever seen to Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training center just outside of Moscow. According to the NASA guest escorts with us, 15 years ago in Moscow the traffic was primarily trucks, with the odd car, as most citizens depended on public transportation. With the flourishing economy, everyone wants a car, despite the ongoing delays from system overload despite eight lane highways through much of central Moscow.

Star City has been the training site for Russian cosmonauts since 1960, when the Russian’s felt a great sense of victory when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in a one orbit trip lasting a little over 108 minutes. There is nothing “palatial” about Star City. In fact, while the grounds are located in a beautiful wooded area, the actual buildings and grounds can be best described as “stark”. All over Moscow there are flowers planted everywhere, but mowers and weed whackers seem in short supply, if ever used, and Star City surprised me in that such a revered location which has produced memorable Russian and world history wasn’t more tailored. Clearly, it’s a focused work site.

Our behind the scenes tour was fascinating. After dropping off our U.S. Astronaut guest escorts Doug Hurley, Karen Nyberg’s husband, and Serena Aunon at NASA headquarters in Star City, our group began a complete tour of Cosmonaut training located in several buildings. In some locations there were cosmonauts in simulators in actual training, where you could feel the intensity and focus.

The first building we saw housed the Soyuz space capsule simulators, where we were also given insight into the experience the astronauts/cosmonauts will experience. This building is very secure, and not normally open to visitors. The capsule they use for launch is incredibly small, 2.5 meters of space for all three astronauts. Launch is scheduled for Wednesday morning May 29, at exactly 30 minutes, 31 seconds after 2 a.m. in the morning (Kazakhstan time). Four minutes in advance of the launch, the International Space Station [ISS] will pass directly overhead in orbit. The launch then heads out to the east to take advantage of the earth’s rotation, in a chase to catch up and connect to ISS after four orbits, which will take a little over 6 hours. Once connected, it will take about two hours of various protocols to be covered by both the astronauts in the capsule, and those in ISS. Three at both ends, a total of six on board once the hatch is opened. The Soyuz capsule then sits for six months attached to the Space Station until it takes the team home, as it is the emergency exit in the case of a major problem. Once Karen’s Soyuz capsule is attached to the Space Station, there will be three Soyuz space capsules parked at ISS.

We will be part of the closest party to the launch, and then will head to Mission Control to witness firsthand the connection of the space capsule to ISS, and then watch the three astronauts when they come aboard. It will be thrilling and very interesting. This is a six month stay for Karen and her team. When their time at ISS is over, they will be joined by three more astronauts in November, and for 4-5 days there will be 9 astronauts/cosmonauts on board, as the Russian coming up in November will have the Olympic torch with him, and the Russian on board will then bring it back to its eventual destiny, the opening the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

From the Soyuz capsule simulators, we visited several other aspects of the Star City complex. Next was a museum housing the remnants of the Russian Mir Space program,which is not secure space. As Americans proud of our space program and the lead role our country played in the development and construction of the International Space Station, we easily forget the Russians were the first to build a home in space for their cosmonauts. They haven’t any amnesia who was “first”, and the irony is reflected in the fact we, after the U.S. space shuttle program was retired, are now dependent on the Russians to take us to ISS. The Mir space station was built in six modules, the real size simulators of which are on display in the museum.

Next we were allowed into another quite secure building, housing both the underwater EVA [Extra Vehicular Activity], where the cosmonauts will spend up to six hours underwater in modules similar to ISS. The underwater conditions are the closest simulation available on earth to that which exists in a spacewalk, another element of preparation every astronaut/cosmonaut goes through in great detail prior to launch.

The final stop in Star City was to see the centrifuge, the largest and fastest in the world. This centrifuge is designed to emulate conditions in space, and stress both humans and equipment to the maximum. The centrifuge can achieve 270 kilometers an hour speed, and up to 30 G’s.

Two Soviet cosmonauts went briefly through 18 G’s on a trip back to earth where many things went wrong. While they barely survived, neither was able to go back into space. Today’s equipment is much better prepared to handle space conditions, and typically astronauts will not experience greater than 8 G conditions while in space. The centrifuge simulator is hell for every astronaut/cosmonaut in training. It is closely monitored by both trainers and physicians —  as all of the training experiences are, but this one plays a significant role separating who’s physiology will withstand the rigors of space travel.

The Star City experience ended with a visit to U.S. astronaut housing on site, which is mowed and nicely maintained, and considerably upscale to housing throughout the rest of Star City. For the support staff they really have one responsibility; to ensure the U.S. and Canadian astronauts training in Star City can exclusively focus on every detail of preparation and not experience any distractions.

Our ride back into Moscow was in excruciating slow aid jammed traffic. What used to be a half hour ride took two hours to get back to the hotel. Even in Moscow we were able to find a fine Irish pub [Katie O’Shea’s] for dinner, and a very early night for all with a 4 a.m. wake up call to travel to the launch site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. All of us, NASA astronauts who are guest hosts and those family and friends invited to the launch, are fighting fatigue from the 9 time zone change, sleep patterns which wake you up at 3-4 am, and the early call to Kazakhstan tomorrow.

That said, as we get closer to the 2:31 am launch next Wednesday morning, which is why all of us are here, the excitement is building!

More from Kazakhstan tomorrow!