Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cosmonaut Training - Star City, Russia - 1992

I pulled on the T-shaped handle with the fingers of my right hand, a quick tug and release. I heard the short, high-pitched hoot of control gas escaping from the four corners of the Ikarus "flying chair", and grinned as the Russian manned maneuvering unit began to back away from the airlock of the MIR Space Station.

A light touch sideways on the other hand controller activated the yaw thrusters, and my view of the space station slewed to the right as the Ikarus began to rotate me toward the left. The main core module of MIR drifted past my face plate, and the Kvant module came into view. When I had turned far enough to see the Kristal module directly in front of me, I flicked a toggle switch under my fingers, and the automatic stabilizers kicked in. They canceled out any movements I had initiated, holding me in place about a hundred meters from MIR, pointing in the direction I wanted to move next.

In automatic mode, I pushed forward on the controller, and the space station loomed larger in my field of view as I approached. Releasing the pressure on the hand controller, I came to a halt, floating in the blackness within easy reach of the hand holds on the space station exterior.

I could hear the voice of the commander speaking in Russian and the translator's voice in my earphones relaying his congratulations on the successful completion of my first flight in the cosmonaut mobility unit. Suddenly the unit lurched back sharply, the space station began to recede, and a bright white light split the darkness at the edges of my vision as the chair was pulled out of the black box surrounding the simulator. It was time for the next cosmonaut trainee's familiarization run on the computer driven equipment.
If I had been preparing for an actual spacewalk, an Extra-Vehicular Activity assignment on a MIR flight, I would have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with this sophisticated simulator, but I had only a week to sample of all the major areas of training experienced by guest cosmonauts preparing to travel to the Russian MIR Space Station.

There were an even dozen of us here in Russia as guests in July of 1992, the first American civilians ever to be admitted to primary spaceflight training northeast of Moscow at the Yuri A. Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City (Zhvezhdny Gorodok in Russian, which literally translated means “Starry Town). Two were professional cameramen, here to video tape a television documentary. Four were people with a keen interest in the Russian space program. The other six of us were teachers, applicants in the competition to select an American guest cosmonaut for a flight to the MIR Space Station as Educator In Space.

Aerospace Ambassadors, a private American organization, had a signed contract with Russian space officials to act as the coordinating agency for science experiments to be transported on a paying basis to MIR. When enough experiments had been booked to pay for the flight, two American educators would be selected to enter the year-long Intercosmos Cosmonaut Training Program in Star City. At the end of the years of training, one of the two would be selected to ride as a guest cosmonaut on a Soyuz flight to the MIR Space Station. Our week in Star City was an intense, compressed introduction to the 9-12 months of training the selected Educator In Space would experience.

We attended lectures and briefings by top Russian scientists, engineers, and cosmonauts. Inside the full size training model of the huge MIR space station, we became familiar with the general configuration of the orbital complex and its life support systems, including how to use the vacuum toilet in zero-gravity where everything floats!

We were given flight physicals. We experienced the physiological effects of high altitude in the hypobaric chamber, where the air pressure was reduced to reach the equivalent of 5,000 meters.

We rode the centrifuge, where we experienced the forces felt during liftoff in the Soyuz-TM spacecraft. On a nominal flight, Soyuz passengers experience only about 3 G's, the same as astronauts on a space shuttle flight. The maximum centrifuge load of up to six G's would only be endured in the event of an emergency ballistic reentry of the Soyuz.

Rendezvous and docking training inside the Soyuz-TM simulator was not for the claustrophobic. The spacecraft was designed for maximum efficiency, and that means minimum weight and volume. The three cosmonauts in a Soyuz-TM lie on their backs in acceleration couches just big enough to cradle body, head, and upper arms. The footrests were placed closer together create a radial arrangement for the seats. With my feet in place, my knees were bent almost up to my chest. Part of preparing for launch involved strapping over your knees a bra-like harness to keep your legs from being forced violently apart during the acceleration of lift-off from the pad at the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakstan.

We all gained a new respect for extravehicular operations when we donned the "Orlan" EVA space suits used outside MIR. When you hear that the suit is entered through a door in the back of the integrated life support system, it sounds easy. It isn't! Blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate monitoring telemetry were attached to my body.

The hooded cooling garment that I put on next had woven into it tubes about the diameter of my little finger. Chilled liquid circulating through the tubes removes excess body heat from head, arms, torso, and upper legs. Cloth mesh headgear equipped with earphones and microphones, worn under the liquid cooling garment hood allowed me to communicate from inside the space suit.

Sitting on the edge of the space suit door, it was easy to slip my feet into the legs. Left arm into the sleeve. I ducked my head and hunched my right shoulder at the same time to squeeze through the narrow opening. As I struggled to get both hands into the attached gloves, I thrust my face close to the front of the helmet. Breathing hard, I could feel the carbon dioxide level building up in the helmet. Groping down blindly across my body with my left hand, I found the ring shaped handle on the end of a cable. Tugging on it hard, I strained to lift it over the edge of a hook on the front of the suit, and I could feel the door in the back of the suit being pulled closed. I grabbed a lever at the side of the suit, and shoved it down, sealing the door. I heaved a sigh of relief as fresh air began to blow into the helmet and the liquid cooling garment began to work.

As the suit came up to full working pressure, I found it easy to move the rotating shoulder and wrist joints on the suit, but bending elbows and fingers was hard work. Cosmonauts must be in excellent physical condition to work in EVA suits outside the MIR!

The highlight of the week was weightlessness training on board the Ilushin-76 MDK aircraft. Ten of us sat expectantly on the four inch padding covering the floor of the twenty meter long fuselage of the plane while it climbed to high altitude. As the pilot nosed the plane into a slight dive to pick up speed, I felt as though I was in a fast dropping elevator. The plane pulled up sharply, engines at full power, and I sank into the cushioned floor covering as the G forces built up. At maximum speed and rate of climb, the pilot eased back on the throttle and pushed forward gently on the controls.

As the aircraft nosed over, the floor floated out from under me, and I was floating weightless, feet and body off the floor, hanging on to the handrail on the wall. There was no sense of falling, just freedom and elation. As I looked around I saw one cameraman floating in the middle of the room, feet flailing around, but eye pressed firmly to the view finder, determined to catch on tape this extraordinary event. His partner, hanging on to a railing, pulled him to the floor just as we pulled out of the dive twenty five seconds later, and assisted him with the large video camera that now weighed three times as much as it normally would.
Each time the IL-76 MDK flew through successive parabolic arcs I was weightless for about thirty seconds. With each period of weightlessness I was given a different skill to practice by the cosmonaut working with me. I practiced moving hand over hand along railings. I pushed off the floor gently, and floated to the ceiling, staying there until I pushed myself back to the floor. Crouching on the wall, I straightened my legs slowly, and flew across the room. I stuck my feet under floor straps and moved around a 100 kilogram package that was weightless, but which still had a 100 kilos of mass. By the time we had completed ten flight arcs, I had been weightless for about five minutes. The five trainees that were busy by this time filling plastic bags with the morning's breakfast were glad that this part of the training was over, but the remaining five of us were ready to fly another ten arcs.

When we boarded the Aeroflot flight at the end of the week back to Helsinki and connecting flights to the United States each of us was hoping to be included in the full length guest cosmonaut training program in the not too distant future, dreaming of feeling the freedom of movement in weightlessness and the reward of space science experimentation aboard the MIR space station.

Not long after that the Soviet “Teacher In Space” program initiated by the U.S.S.R. was cancelled by the new Russian government that had replaced the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and an agreement of cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, specified the exchange of American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. Astronauts would fly on Russian Soyuz-TM flights to MIR, and Russian cosmonauts would fly on American space shuttles.
That week in Star City is still vivid in my memory twenty-four years later, one of the most exciting adventures I’ve ever had!

1 comment:

  1. WOW....what an honor and treat. George you are the traveler....nice blog too.

    Hope to catch/see you soon,