Moscow. Day off.
This morning a group of five of us from the tour had arranged to visit 'Star City' which is the Cosmonaut training centre outside Moscow. Our guide was to be Roman Romanenko, one of the Cosmonauts who had been in the International Space Station when we did our various 'space chats' from the stage.
Getting to space began to look like a comparatively easy task when it came to ascertaining the whereabouts of the van that we'd booked to take us to Star City. We have a local company providing all the ground transportation during our stay in Moscow. Their mode of operation is so perfectly text-book Eastern bloc obstructivist that it would be hilarious if we weren't entirely dependent on them. 'Ah, hello, excuse me, we ordered a van for 11am pick up and it€™s now quarter to twelve.' 'You did not order a van.' 'Yes we did. Two days ago.' 'You called last night and cancelled all cars for today.' 'No we didn€™t, don€™t be silly. There are six drivers sitting in the lobby, where are their vehicles?' (long pause & frantic activity, with much yelling of Russian into cell phones.) 'Van will be here in twenty minutes.' Thirty seconds later: 'Van is here.'
It€™s a good hour-and-a-half's drive to Star City. Once beyond the big outer ring road of Moscow the landscape changes almost immediately from concrete jungle to scenes that contain elements which probably haven't changed since the 19th century - a rough highway, woodlands, single wooden houses, small markets, people selling piles of fruit and vegetables. Interspersed with these are occasional entirely 21st century elements like liquor stores and random, brand new fast food outlets, which make for fascinating viewing.
Star City sits in a large wooded area and consists of a series of decaying buildings in classic Cold War architectural style, complete with a man in uniform on duty at the gate who manually lifted a bar so we could drive in. Roman met us at the gate with a friend of his, also called Roman, to act as interpreter. (Our Roman's English is more than adequate but perhaps he felt he might need back up if conversation turned technical).
This is the Russian counterpart to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, containing training sites and equipment very much along the same lines, though generally much older and more decrepit. The huge plus to this visit though, was that there were only a handful of us there and, with Roman at our side, we were able to pretty much go anywhere and have a go at anything we were interested in. They have a complete training replica of the now-defunct Mir space station and also a Soyuz module of the kind used to ferry cosmonauts and astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Three of us, including myself, got into the Soyuz module which, with little exaggeration, was much akin to the three of us crouching in the boot of a car. I have always harboured a secret hope that one day I might see the earth from space, but if this is the means of transportation I now know in my heart that I won€™t be able to go through with it, even if the opportunity should arise.
We saw the gigantic centrifuge, used for simulating G-force pressure (again, straight out of a movie), the huge emersion tank for weightlessness training, along with a whole host of equipment, photographs and memorabilia, all explained to us in detail by the Romans. It was quite the privilege to have such a personal tour, particularly from someone who has lived the experience and will be going back up there next year.
By the time we got back to Moscow it was late in the afternoon. Frank and Lena De Winne came by the hotel with their friend Jules from the European Space Agency in Cologne. The sun had come out so we decided to take a walk around Red Square, along the river and down to the White Cathedral where we eventually met up with Roman and his wife Julia. It was dinner-time by now, so they took us to a Ukrainian restaurant for dinner ('50% off for cosmonauts!') where we were served with great quantities of fine food and a kind of horseradish vodka which... well, let's just say it didn't necessarily appeal to the Western palate.
Whilst we were eating, Frank got a call from Bob Thirsk who had been the third member of their team on the ISS. It is very touching to see how these men are so connected by their having lived through something so far beyond the experience of regular people. Despite living in different countries they make a point of meeting up regularly and are very much part of each other's consciousness. This is yet another parallel with our life on the road, though our adventures are less extreme, perhaps (Or not...? Discuss.)
After this, Roman and Julia headed home so Lena invited us back to her parents apartment, where they are staying. Her folks are away at present so the lateness of the hour wasn't an issue.
Lena described the place as 'a typical, good Russian apartment', though to our Western eyes it was extremely small - two small living rooms, each with a sofa-bed, a kitchen and a bathroom. The apartment itself has very recently been redecorated and modernised but not so the apartment block which, on the surface at least, appears to be in a state of near dilapidation. Concrete steps, metal doors, dark corridors, broken switches - quite the location scout's dream. Frank took us up in the elevator for the total emersion experience, though Lena declined and used the stairs.
We left our shoes at the door, slippers being handed out all round and the De Winnes welcomed us with their effortless hospitality. We ended up sitting round the kitchen table swapping stories of space and stories of the road. Frank tracked down a bottle of his father-in-law€™s home-made orange vodka, hidden out on the balcony which helped keep the stories flowing until the wee small hours (and a damn sight better than the horseradish vodka too...)
Went to bed late, pondering what a truly remarkably day this has been.