Space in Russia (2)

Space in Russia (2)


Star City


ZVYOZDNY GORODOK. Do not try to break your tongue on it. It is Russian for “Star City,” a town near Moscow where Cosmonauts live and are trained for space flights. Space Training Centre Yuri Gagarin is the official name for the main building in town. Gagarin, the first human being who saw Earth from space, still has his room at the centre.

It is fully intact, complete with a detailed Map of the World on the wall, his bureau, his chair. The room is part of a unique museum of cosmonauts material, which is on the visiting list of all V.I.P.s who come to Star City. I am not a V.I.P. but a journalist and I was there too. They may be selling out at Sotheby’s in New York, as happened in December 1993. but there is enough left in the museum to astonish all visitors. That will not be for sale!

The cosmonauts-to-be await a harsh training programme in the Gagarin Centre. They will undergo more G’s (gravitation) than normally is possible on Earth but is common in Space and they will be working under water in cosmonaut’s full outfit and will blindly (eyes shut) find their way in the mock-up of space station Mir, built as an exact duplicate of the real space station, for cosmonaut training. This is all symbolised in a statue at the entrance of the main building and seen in the photo on this page with the author standing beside it.

The same turning-in-a-circle cosmonaut is seen in the facsimile of the cover at the top. (Postal stationer) of the Soviet Union, “issued 01.06.84” it says on the reverse.) The Zakaknoe (Registered) imprint on the left tells the envelope was posted in Zwozdnv Gorodok (in Cyrillic.) The 5K stamp (SG 5781 – marking the Soviet-Syrian flight of TM3 in July ’87) does not belong in the right corner for there is an imprinted stamp on the envelope beneath it, so now I cannot prove this is stationery. Nevertheless, the stamp is a beauty, giving a glimpse of the training programme. Both stamp and cancellation “22.07.87” depict an Intercosmos flight.

Now look at the extra 5k stamp where there is a normal day cancel for Star City. On the reverse of the envelope it is post marked “,” the last two number^ referring to the hour which indicates the arrival time of the letter at the addressee – such were the postal customs in the former Soviet Union.

Seven years before, the postal authorities of the U.S.S.R. issued a set of three stamps depicting the Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Centre. This 1980 set (SG 5032/4) commemorated the Twentieth Anniversary of the Centre. It was common that foreign candidates for space got their training at Star City. These foreigners were restricted to the “friendly countries” of the Soviet Union – Eastern Europe, Cuba, Mongolia, Vietnam etc. They took part with Soviet cosmonauts in the Intercosmos manned Spaceflight project. But times changed and nowadays you can see all kinds of cosmonauts and astronauts in Star City.

It was therefore possible for me to visit the European candidates for the joint space mission Euromir 94. It was a “quickie” but that was understandable with their severe programme. In the cosmonauts bar we drank tea. for beer and spirits are forbidden. It was September 1993 and the youngest of the Euronauts, 30 year old Pedro Duque from Spain, sincerely hoped to go with the ’94 mission.

The hardest experience for all four Euro candidates (the group also included Ulf Merbold (who flew.) Thomas Reiter (Germany) and Christer Fuglesang of Sweden) was NOT the training, but the language. Russian is very, very difficult to learn, especially getting used to the Cyrillic alphabet, they said. But there was no mercy from the trainers, for the language on board Mir is Russian. Even in the sparse spare time allocated the guest cosmonauts it was not permissible to speak in any language other than Russian. If you could not ask for food or drinks or whatever, you couldn’t get it. It’s harsh of course, but the best method for quick learning.

Of course at the training centre all the candidates are constantly watched by doctors and nurses, who keep records of their Physical condition. This we can see on the illustration – stationery with imprinted stamp (6k by air) and with a special 6k stamp extra for the registered mail. (SG 5032.)

The first country to issue stamps depicting cosmonauts training was Cuba (SG 1838/44 – in 1971. commemorating the tenth anniversary of Gagarin’s flight.) The country to issue stamps most recently on this theme was Russia itself on April 12th (Cosmonautics Day) when a set of three stamps with face value 100, 250, and 500 roubles was issued – inflation has struck the country you know! These three stamps can be seen in the last illustration which is a first day cover, sent by registered mail from Moscow to Holland. The pictorial cancel shows – as in the first stamp – the famous centrifuge, the “torture'” instrument for any cosmonaut.

By Bert van Eijck