Inside Russia's Star City as British astronaut prepares to blast off into space
For most of its 50 years, the nondescript settlement of concrete buildings an hour’s drive into the forest south-west of Moscow has remained shrouded in absolute secrecy.
Major Tim Peake after completing his last session at Star City. Credit: ITV News
Star City didn’t appear on any maps for many decades after it was set up in the early 1960s and its military designation for many years meant very few people saw what went on there.
British astronaut, Major Tim Peake. Credit: PA
But the work in this place is etched into history. Here, hundreds of cosmonauts have trained to go into space.
The latest among them is the European Space Agency’s first British astronaut, Major Tim Peake.
Today, ITV News has been given rare access to join Major Peake in Star City and watch him train, just a few weeks before he blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS).
The Mir Space Station, which operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001. Credit: ITV News
Star City, or the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre as it is also known, has opened up in recent years (nowadays there are limited tours of the place) but it still isn’t easy to get there and look around.
This is the place where the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, trained for his mission and subsequently where the Soviet Union led its race against the American astronauts and engineers of Nasa to reach the Moon.
Spacefarers from dozens of countries (official cosmonauts, astronauts and the occasional paying space tourist) have passed through the facilities here to learn about the rigours and mechanics of a rocket launch, how to deal with life (and emergencies) in space, and how to get back safely to Earth.
Major Peake, who was chosen by the European Space Agency from thousands of applicants, has been training for two years to be part of a three-man mission to the ISS. He will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on December 15 and spend around five months aboard the space station.
The scientific research programme he will carry out aboard the space craft is called “Principia”, after Isaac Newton’s world-changing book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which the great scientist described his work in physics (Peake’s mission patch even features an apple, in memory of the much-repeated story of the fruit that fell onto Newton’s head when he was thinking about the nature of gravity).
In his training, Major Peake has been submerged underwater in a full space suit, spun around a centrifuge to feel the effects of extreme gravity and even trained for a space walk, should he be tasked with carrying one out when he’s aboard the ISS.
In his last few weeks, he still has more emergency practice drills to carry out and even a few exams left before he can complete his training.