From Russia in orbit

Winston Churchill said of Russia’s intentions in 1939 that it was a ‘riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. Fortunately today the future of its space programme is much easier to predict, and finding out about that was one of the reasons for my arrival in Moscow on 2 July on an Aeroflot Ilyushin 96-300.

My final destination was Russia’s Federal Space Agency’s (FSA) residential training complex just outside Moscow called IPK. This would be my home, restaurant and lecture theatre when not on the tour bus. That bus would take me and the other participants to the museums and offices of the Soviet space giants, Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, Khrunichev scientific and production cednter, Zvezda and the Gargarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City. The ten-day comprehensive tour was organised by Russia’s oldest and biggest technical university, the Bauman Moscow State Technical University.

One of its students eighty years ago is its biggest claim to fame, legendary Soviet space programme leader Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. So legendary that the town in which IPK is based was named after the great man, whose smiling face was in every company museum, usually next to Yuri Gagarin. When not gazing at the Gods of Russia’s world space firsts, we were having lectures by senior company personnel. Most senior of those was Anatoly Perminov, head of FSA. He spoke to the tour’s participants at the agency on 4 July and took questions about the agency’s future space programme.

The future and the past were very much apart of the lectures and tours at the other major space organisations. Khrunichev’s chief test engineer spoke of the new Angara launchers, while a senior engineer at Zvezda explained how the Soviet space shuttle Buran’s ejection seat systems worked. At Star City its deputy head of economics gave us a close up look at its International Space Station training facilities but at Bauman’s own Orevo facility Russia’s aborted moon programme was explained by a senior lecturer. Participants even got to clamber all over the Soviet lunar lander.

When back at IPK the information overload didn’t stop. All ably translated by a Bauman lecturer, we had today’s and tomorrow’s satellite remote sensing systems, satellite design and data transmission technologies explained, by people from Russian space companies. But perhaps the highlight of the trip was meeting the astronauts and cosmonauts and the latest space tourist. That tourist, US businessman Greg Olsen, looked slightly out of place and slightly ill amongst the line up of healthy, shiny, space professionals. His advice for wannabe tourists, be prepared to do lots and lots of training, and have the cash.

Cosmonaut veterans Alexander Lazutkin and Alexander Kalerie spoke confidently and calmly about life aboard the International Space Station and did nothing to dispel rumours about the racing games its crews play. The astronauts, Sunita Williams, Jeff Williams and Bill McArthur, spoke of the differences living in Star City and their hopes for their missions, International Space Station’s expeditions 12 and 14. The participants’ questions ranged from how do you feel about press conferences to what shampoo do you use in orbit? Lazutkin admitted to preferring the NASA shampoo.

Such a free and friendly exchange would have been inconceivable in Churchill’s day but space exploration continues to provide a great opportunity for former adversaries to forge a common future.

Leave a Reply