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Last Updated: Friday, 8 September 2006, 13:23 GMT 14:23 UK
Inside Russia's space camp
By Jonathan Charles
BBC News

Soyuz training facility at Star City  Image: Nasa
Astronauts and cosmonauts now both train at Star City
The location symbolises the sensitivity.

For years, Star City didn't appear on any maps - kept hidden away from the West's prying eyes during the Cold War.

Even today, gaining entry to Russia's Cosmonaut training centre requires lengthy negotiations. The site, not far from Moscow, remains highly secret, surrounded by barbed wire fencing and thick forest.

For more than 40 years, Star City has been at the heart of the Russian space programme and its fortunes have mirrored both the ups and downs of the Soviet Union and then the trials and tribulations of post-Communist Russia.

Now, some of its secrets are being revealed in a BBC Radio documentary. When Star City was founded in the early 1960s, it was part of Russia's obsession with beating the west. Space was just another battleground.

Georgy Grechko was one of the early cosmonauts and trained with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Grechko says: "We thought of nothing else but doing everything before the Americans; it was part of being a good communist."

Frustrations and privations

Gagarin's memory dominates Star City. There's a massive sculpture of him on the site and it's a tradition that before they fly, all cosmonauts place flowers at the foot of the monument.

We discovered that, during the 1960s, Star City suffered many of the frustrations and privations of the rest of Russia.

There were no flight simulators and one commander even tried to obtain 12 staff cars so that the cosmonauts could travel around easily. However, his demand was turned down and his men had to hitch-hike everywhere, often ending up in road accidents.

These days, Star City has very advanced training equipment, including a pool, which is capable of taking a 20 tonne space capsule, for simulating weightlessness.

Star City was even used, during the 1970s, as a way of keeping the fractious Soviet empire together. The strains in the vast bloc on the other side of the Berlin wall were beginning to show.

The dream of the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia living together, as one big happy family, didn't match reality. Space was regarded as an answer to the growing problem.

Other eastern bloc nations were offered seats on space flights to make them feel wanted. Georgy Grechko was on the first "Interkosmos" flight with a Czech cosmonaut.

He says: "I'm sure the Czech was chosen first because Russia wanted to build bridges with Czechoslovakia after crushing the Prague spring in the 60s. It was a way of making amends and of drawing the Czechs in."

Communist ideal

In the end, the communist ideal was to fall apart anyway. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, communism was dead and Star City was in serious trouble. Funding for space wasn't a priority when the country was starving and the economy disintegrating.

Star City  Image: Nasa
The location was carefully guarded for decades
As the Soviet Union came to an end, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was on board the Mir space station.

He was left there for months because no one would take responsibility for bringing him back down. The landing site was in Kazakhstan, which was no longer part of the Soviet Union. Krikalev has spent more time in space than anyone else, over 800 days.

He told me: "It was a strange experience in 1991, leaving the Soviet Union and then being brought back down to another country, called Russia, because your old nation had simply ceased to exist."

Star City soon adapted, though, to the new capitalist age. It now takes space tourists who train there for their visits to the final frontier. When I visited, American entrepreneur Gregory Olsen had just returned from a 10-day mission to space.

He'd paid around $20m for the trip. The space tourists help to fund the space programme, which is also getting more money now from the Russian state, buoyed up by oil and gas revenues.

The head of Russia's manned space mission, Alexei Krasnov, told me that it isn't just about money. Space tourism also helps to generate enthusiasm for space exploration.

Once more, Star City is part of Russia's foreign policy under President Putin - just as it was in the early 1960s during the Cold War. It is a way of enhancing Russia's international prestige at a time when the country is feeling more assertive and more confident.

You can listen to Star City at Radio 4's Listen again page. The programme was broadcast on Friday 8 September.

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