Thumbnail images: 

India is aiming to become the fourth country to send humans to outer space by 2022, joining an elite club of nations (Russia, the US and China) with this capability. India’s Gaganyaan mission to sendits own crew to space has entered a crucial phase, with the selection and training process of “vyomanauts” for the mission underway. A dealhas been reached between the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Glavkosmos (a subsidiary of the Russian Space Corporation, Roscosmos) in July 2019 for this purpose. The potential vyomnauts of India will be trained at what has been commonly known as Star City (ZvyozdnyGorodok) in Russia. In this context, it will be worthwhile to examine the evolution and significance of this six-decade old facilityfor manned spaceflight.


The Establishment and Growth of Star City


Star City has remained emblematic of the space programme of the former Soviet Union. It had a privileged place in the Soviet space programme, starting with the Cold War space race. It was a secretive and heavily guarded military facility during the Soviet times. In the post-Soviet era, the town has opened up for training potential astronauts from countries across the world, as well as for private space tourism. Hence, though the Cold War is over, the Star City still remains valuable to Russia’s space programme for its commercial prospects. The Star City has thus evolved over time and has been finding new ways to keep up its relevance using its well-established infrastructure.


During the Cold War, both the superpowers attempted to make the first moves in outer space to signal to each other and the rest of the world about their superiority. The first move in this race for outer space was won by the Soviet Union in 1957 by launching Sputnik, the first satellite in orbit. The next big trophy in the space race was for putting humans into outer space for the first time. The Soviet Union was determined to beat the US once again, and for thispurpose, it started developing a complex and comprehensive training facility to train humans to go to space. It was in this setting that the Star City got established.


The location selected for setting up the training site was about 40 kilometres from Moscow, within the Moscow Oblast. The training facility was created through a secret decree in 1960 by the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Air Force, Konstantin Vershinin. Sergei Korolev, the veteran Soviet space scientist, was the chief architect of the training programme for the prospective Soviet astronauts, called cosmonauts.


The first group of 20 cosmonauts were prepared at a very fast pace, in less than a year. However, subsequent decades witnessed a lowering in the severity of training and the preparation times extended into years. In 1961, the Soviet Union succeeded in setting the second major milestone in the space race by sending the first human, Yuri Gagarin, to space. In addition to these achievements, others followed, like the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963) and the first spacewalk (conducted by Alexei Leonov in 1965). These milestones reinforced Soviet Union’s status as the leader in spacefaring, and catapulted its new cosmonaut training centre to the apex of the country’s scientific research.


The training facility was initially known as the Special Military Unit 26266. Subsequently, it was renamed as the Yuri A. Gagarin State Scientific Research-and-Testing Cosmonaut Training Center(GCTC) in 1968 after the demise of the first cosmonaut. A township, named the “Closed Military Townlet No.1” was developed around this facility, for housing the cosmonauts, scientists, engineers, military as well as the other related professionals and staff of the GCTC. The township had the most advanced facilities and standard of living in the Soviet Union, and consisted of residential apartments, shops, hospitals, schools and theatres.


During the 1960s, the Soviet Union trained around 60 cosmonauts for its next big aim, a manned lunar landing. However, this milestone was reached first by the US astronauts in 1969, rather than the Soviet cosmonauts. The focus of training in Star City then shifted to establishing the first human settlement in orbit – the space labs and space stations. The Soviet Union succeeded in setting this milestone through its Salyut missions in 1970s and later on its Mir missions in 1980s. For all these missions, the GCTC played a very important role.


With the advent of space stations, Star City started assuming a diplomatic dimension in addition to its strategic role in space race. Manned spaceflight became an important diplomatic tool to keep the Eastern bloc together and repair strained relations between the Soviet Union and its satellite states. For instance, the Soviet Union, especially after its 1968 fallout with Czechoslovakia, offered the country an opportunity to send its citizen to space. Subsequently, the GCTC expanded its training to citizens from countries of the developing world with which the Soviet Union had friendly relations. As part of the SovietIntercosmos programme since 1976, GCTCtrained more than a dozencosmonauts from other countries for sending them to Soviet space stations like Salyut-6, Salyut-7 and Mir until 1991.


The Neglect and Revivalof Star City


During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the facility underwent stagnationon account of the demise of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation. The lack of state funding for development and maintenance of the facility at a time when the country was under a tumultuous social, political and economic transition meant that Star City turned away from primacy towards obscurity. However, in line with Russia’s initial friendship with the US and the EU, the West helped funnel investment capital and joint projects, which helped in keeping the Star City afloat. The changing domestic political environment also led to a structural change with respect to the administration of Star City. By 1996, the facility started undergoing a shift from military to civilian administration, and the process was completed by 2008. Currently, Star City is completely under Roscosmos.


The changes in geopolitics and organizational leadership led to the creation of new missions. The establishment of the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998 provided a much needed direction for the Star City’s revival. With Russia being a member of the ISS, the GCTC resumed training cosmonauts for missions to ISS, and it became a hub for human spaceflight training. The American, European and Japanese space agencies involved in the missions have also established permanent offices within Star City as a result.The first international crew to ISS was launched in 2000 after training in Star City. The ending of the Space Shuttle Programmein 2011 meant that the Russian Soyuz spacecraft became the sole means for ferryingastronauts to ISS. With this, the GCTC became the only facility for training astronauts for the ISS.


The dawn of the new millennium also saw the rise of Space Tourism, and Star City emerged as the premier facility for offering training for prospective tourists. A private firm called Space Adventureswas permitted to purchase seats on the Soyuz for space tourists. This partnership progressed during 2001-2009, and seven space tourists were trained and sent. Hence, Star City has been attracting an increasing number of international as well as commercial customers over the past two decades. Because of all these reasons, Star City has moved away from oblivion and secrecy and is currently a tourist attraction, even offering guided and immersive tours.


The Star City’s Training Facilities


Numerous advanced facilities have been a part of the GCTC for the purposes of both selection and training of Russian cosmonauts, as well as international customers and space tourists. It is estimated that around seven years are required for completely training a cosmonaut in the GCTC. This includes three phases – the first one focussed on developing survival skills, the second one for developing professional skills, and the third one focussed on vehicular operations. On the other hand, the space tourist is fast tracked to spacefaring with a $20 million fee.So far, the facility has trained more than 400 human spaceflight candidates from more than 30 countries.


Since the most significant mission for the Star City remains training for ISS, the facility has a full size mock-up of the ISS modules, where habitation and control training take place. Another important feature is the Soyuz Complex Simulator where the candidates undergo training on vehicular controls. There are also two centrifuges to recreate the gravitational forces of upto 8G, which come into play during lift-off. There is also a hydrolab consisting of a pool housing orbital module mockup for training in space like conditions. In addition, the facility also provides training and simulation of weightlessness through its Mig-15UTI, Tu-104 and IL-76MDK aircrafts. Other key features include a planetarium which is used for navigation training, as well as a rotating chair for checking vestibular system, a cycle ergometer for checking cardiovascular system, an isolation chamber for testing the effect of isolation, a pressure chamber for checking ability to withstand oxygen deficiency, and aspace food simulator.


Currently, Star City has around 6000 inhabitants and the GCTC is actively engaged in cosmonaut training. Most recently, two UAE astronauts were trained in the facility during 2018.Despite the growing geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the US, the ISS partnership has been continuing. At a time when Western private space companies like SpaceX are threatening to eat into Russia’s monopoly over human spaceflights to ISS and space tourism, Roscosmos’ partnership with Space Adventures has recently been renewed. This can lead to the revitalization of the space tourism avenue of Star City.


India has selected Star City for training its candidates for the Gaganyaan mission because it presented the best option, given the tight schedule. Most importantly, the only prior experience of India utilizing a foreign facility for astronaut training was Star City, as exemplified by the case of Rakesh Sharma’shistoric voyageto Salyut-7 in 1984. Therefore, Star City presented a tried and tested option – the only “gurukul” of the vyomanauts. India therefore,has an extensive legacy to capitalize on,in this respect,to make its Gaganyaan mission a success.Moreover, in the long term, India’s collaboration with Star City can help India develop its own world-class human spaceflight training facility.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.