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Celebrating 55 years of space travel in Russia's formerly secret training centre

On the 55th anniversary of the first human space flight, CBC's Susan Ormiston toured Star City, home to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.

An extraordinary bond between Russia and the west flourishes in space

Star City is the training facility for Russian cosmonauts and a new international generation of space travelers 1:40

Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961.On the 55th anniversary of his historic flight, which set the stage for the Soviet-American space race of the 1960s, CBC's Susan Ormiston toured Star City, home to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, which now trains astronauts and cosmonauts together.  

Once a top secret military facility, Star City is still a 'closed' town, but now controlled by Roskosmos, Russia's civilian space agency.

Yuri Gagarin, left, and Soviet space designer Sergei Korolyov are seen in Moscow on Sept. 15, 1961.

Gagarin's image adorns a Soyuz training capsule. Since 1994, NASA has had a permanent place at Roskosmos' training centre. Cosmonauts and astronauts from many countries now train here, as well as the world's 'space tourists.'

Yuri Gagarin is immortalized in mosaic on the main road into Star City. His image is everywhere at the facility that bears his name. Gagarin became an iconic Soviet hero, known all over the world. He died tragically when the MiG-15 fighter jet he was flying in routine training crashed outside Moscow in March 1968.

A new generation of space pioneers

Alexandr Skvortsov is training for his third mission on the International Space Station, scheduled to go as flight engineer in September 2017. His father, also Alexandr, was a cosmonaut candidate but never went to space, that honour came only to his son.

Russian cosmonauts​ Alexandr Svortsov and Ivan Vagner train in the Soyuz spacecraft four hours a day. Training for a mission takes two years; they spend about six months at the ISS. 

Training simulates everything the team may face in space. On this day they are practising emergency procedures as mission control watches and grades their responses.

Inside a Russian space suit

Instructor Dmitry Zubov explains the Russian space suit for work outside the space station.

"These spacesuits are to go to open space, they are quite heavy — about 120 kg — but in space, in zero gravity the cosmonauts don't feel the weight," Zubov told CBC News.
One of the challenges of six months in space. A tiny toilet. And no gravity. (Corinne Seminoff/ CBC)

Suits like this one are carried aboard the International Space Station and each suit is good for 15 trips into space. There are also suits for going inside the rocket and a so-called rescue suit.

"Wearing the suit, an astronaut uses 80 per cent of his energy to bend the arms, to move his feet, to turn the body, and only 20 per cent goes to useful work," Zubov said.

The suit has a very high level of safety with backups that kick in automatically for all of its systems.

"The suit is a mini spacecraft, which protects the man in a hostile space environment for 10 hours. Inside the conditions are the same as on earth. It holds a comfortable temperature," Zukov said.

Astronauts and cosmonauts

Recognize this guy on the wall of heroes at mission control in the training centre? Canadian Chris Hadfield was director of NASA operations at Star City from 2001-2003. In 2012 he went to space for five months aboard a Russian spacecraft.

From left, American Mark Vande Hei, Russians Alexander Misurkin  and Nikolai Tikhonov team up for March 2017 departure to the ISS. Cross cultural experiences are common in space. "There are no politics in space," they joke.

On the ground, Russia and the U.S. still continue to pursue separate ventures in space. 

Future space travellers

These kids belong to a cosmos chess club in Moscow set up to commemorate the first time a chess game was played in space.  

Nikita Konunikov, age nine, celebrates the 55th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's trip to space. 

"He's such a great person! He was the first one to fly to space," Konunikov said. "I imagine the stars, our planet, other planets, the sun. I'd like to see the stars and planets up close, not just in photographs."

Star City is about 48 km from Moscow.

Pictures by Susan Ormiston and Corinne Seminoff.

About the Author

Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.

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