In Soviet Russia, rocket launch you!

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Post Mon Aug 23, 2010 1:12 pm

In Soviet Russia, rocket launch you!

I mentioned in my little intro that I went on a trip to Russia recently to check out their space program (among other things! Though that was the focus) through the National Youth Science Forum, and was asked if I could tell you all about it, so here it is! It's my report back to the NYSF about the trip (I left out the 'thank you's). It is also meant to be accompanied by pictures.


There were tears. There is always going to be tears when a boy leaves his family for a foreign and far-flung nation. But they’re never shed by the boy, and today was no exception.
As Stuart and I walked up the steps of our first plane we could see our parents smiling and waving us off, but there was no mistaking that they were crying as well. And it wasn’t that we wouldn’t miss them on our journeys that we weren’t crying, it was simply that too many other emotions were getting in the way. I think the line by Che Guevara in ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ is relevant in that, in crossing into a new frontier “Each moment seems split in two; melancholy for what was left behind and the excitement of entering a new land.”
At Sydney airport, Stuart Sharpe and I met up with four others who would become like our adoptive family for the trip; Jack Geoghegan, Sheree Venter, Micheal Hill and Michaela Newell, each of us with an interest of some degree in some area of the aerospace industry. As it turned out though, I did the “dumb” maths among us (2Unit Mathematics is challenging enough for me thanks!), though we all seemed to speak the same language.
Almost 24 hours of travel and half a Bollywood movie later (I tell you, they just keep going) we arrived in Domodedovo Airport, Moscow. Full of trepidation and ready for adventure, the six of us made our way out of customs and into the real Russia. And to meet our guide of course! Except he wasn’t there. So we waited. And waited. And waited. And then sent out a search party for the only three descriptors we had; short, mustachioed and responding to the name ‘Sasha’. And then we waited some more, some of us fretfully. Then he appeared! Fully apologetic and fitting our image perfectly! As it turns out, the car had broken down on the way to pick us up, but it was ready to go now, and so, we began the Russian Scientific Study Tour 2010.
The drive ‘home’ (so the flat in which we lived would begin to feel like) and first few days in Moscow are something of a blur now, but there are moments that always stand out of the rush. For example, walking into the Red Square for the first time was incredible. It could be some remnant of the cold war psyche, but I always had an image in my head of a bleak nation, colourless and cold, though what lay before me was anything but that. The colour of the surrounding country and the buildings themselves were like a leak from Pixar studios of some new film they were working on. As to the temperature and weather, I actually managed to get myself sun-burnt. The Kremlin too, was a marvelous place. Being from Australia, never had I been around so many wonderfully old buildings in the same place. And the frescoes! Oh, the frescoes were beautiful; there were stories of all the best artists in Europe at the time congregating to paint the walls and domes we were admiring now, centuries later.
Over the course of these days we did more than just visit historic sights and marvel at the length of the day; we went to the markets, at which it was quite easy to lose sight of how much you were spending, especially on only our second day with the currency (I wasn’t certain if I had nabbed a bargain or been robbed with a wooden chess set of political figures as the pawns for 1100 Rubles), launched model rockets with world champion amateur rocketeers, and visited the war memorial.
On war memorials: I have visited the Australian War Memorial and I’m often moved at ANZAC services, but never so much as when I visited the World War II Great Patriotic Museum. In Australia, we list the names of soldiers that have died, but in Russia, not only their soldiers but civilians as well were killed by war in such multitudes that they simply cannot list them. I was almost reduced to tears at one point when the sounds of a choir that was singing in memory of the day that the Germans were defeated echoed through the marble halls into the great dome where I was standing. Along the circumference of the dome, the names of towns and cities that were taken or laid siege to during the war were listed. This was near the end of our visit that day, and all of what we had seen flooded back into my mind. It was an immensely sad moment.
The moment was not to last. We rushed back into our tours of Moscow, visiting a great number of exciting sites and meeting a great number of exciting people. One such exciting person was Ms. Margaret Twomey, ambassador of Australia to Russia and Ukraine (among other ex-Soviet states). Our meeting with her was casual; we sat down, had some tea and coffee and easily chatted away two hours. It was unfortunate we didn’t have more time; I think we could have all talked much longer.
Luckily we had more than two hours the next day to get to know people when we visited a college of small businesses that also seemed to share it’s building with something akin to a cadet troop. Sadly, I don’t have the pictures of that day to include here, but there were some good ones! We competed against the students in a number of fun games (which we won the most of!) and also learnt how to disassemble and reassemble an AK-47 along the way! After eventually exhausting ourselves, we retired into the building for lunch.
We did have to leave sometime though, and we made our goodbyes and traded contacts (we were recommended to make ‘vkontakte’ accounts, something like Russian facebook) before heading to the train station where we caught our train to St. Petersburg. Never have I slept as good as that night; the benches were soft, the pillows felt like real feather pillows and I’m not sure how anybody could resist the gentle rhythm of the train.
St. Petersburg is a far more ‘touristy’ city than Moscow. In Moscow you hardly seem to meet foreigners but when visiting places like the Hermitage museum, if you listen, you can hear about five different languages being spoken by the people around you. Those speaking English were easy to pick out, not because it’s my mother tongue, but because so often it was being spoken with a noisy American twang!
There were far more adventures had in St. Petersburg than those within museums, though if I were to include all of them on the trip I would really have to consider publishing to make all the writing worth my while. It would take some time.
Long story short, we returned safe and sound to Moscow where we really got down to business, our first day ‘home’ was at Mission Control. We were not allowed to take pictures within the building, but this is why I’m writing a report, to show you with words! Before actually going into the ‘real’ Mission Control rooms we were shown a few things on the way, the favourite of mine being a large mosaic near the cafeteria, no doubt inspiring to the workers. On a red background with golden stars were three men, giants in the history of space flight; Konstantin Tsiolkovsky the scientist and mathematician remembered as the father of theoretical astronautics, Sergey Korolyov, the rocket engineer remembered as the father of practical astronautics and Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space and the first to orbit the earth, all of them looking up to the stars.
We were then taken into an empty control room (it would be inhabited by scientists and engineers in, according to a countdown above the screen, 45 minutes) that resembled a theatre, the stage being a monstrous screen showing a map of the Earth, the projected orbital path of a satellite, the position of the sun, the current position of the satellite and a red circle superimposed onto a segment of the satellite’s path. It’s when the satellite icon enters this circle that the scientists and engineers really get to work, ‘talking’ with the satellite, receiving new data and sending new instructions. We moved from this room with only a few minutes until contact was initiated into another, far more cluttered looking room of similar design. This room however did not control a weather satellite, but communicated with the International Space Station (ISS)! I asked if I was allowed to make a call with one of the telephones to them but was declined ☹.
Our trip to Mission Control was brief but intriguing and we had other places to visit yet! There was the museum of Cosmonautics, the Cosmonautics park (I’m not actually sure what it was called, but it was an inner-city parkland filled with monuments to Russia’s achievements and statues of those who helped to achieve them) and finally, of course, Star City.
Star City, formerly known as ‘Green City’ (it’s surrounded by lush pine forest), is not so much a city as a small town. The population is about 7000 and they all either work in training and assessing the cosmonauts or are the family of those who do, Yuri Gagarin’s wife still lives there!
We were first given a tour of their museum there, one that they are quite proud of; unlike other museums who buy most of their exhibits, everything on display was donated. Among the displays were the flight suits of some of the greats of space flight, such as Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, real re-entry capsules and a room of similar dimensions to that of Yuri Gagarin’s office with everything that was in the office exactly as it was when he had died.
After lunch we met with Alexander, who’s job it is to train and assess all the prospective cosmonauts and who was to be our guide of the real Star City. In this segment of our visit we saw the world’s largest centrifuge on which all cosmonaut’s train as well as a full size model of the Mir space station, the one that was deliberately burnt up in 2001. Although I think my favourite training facility there was the gigantic pool (5000m3 or 5000000 litres!) known as the Hydrolab. It’s here that the cosmonauts get a more realistic sense of what it’s like to work in microgravity; they have to go through the process of safely using an airlock and repairing and maintaining a small model of the space station, tasks that can be extremely dangerous and deadly to individuals or entire crews if performed incorrectly.
Saying goodbye to Alexander (I shook his hand quite vigorously after finding out that the hand that I was shaking had shaken the hand of Yuri Gagarin!) and Star City, we knew our trip was coming to a close, we had one more full day in Moscow before we left and we decided we best spend it relaxing and reflecting in the city and the country we had all come to love.
We departed from the same airport we had come into, this time Sasha was there. Just like before we left, our ‘parent’ was crying as we left for some foreign and far-flung nation. And Guevara’s words were still apt; there was indeed both melancholy and excitement.
Russia is a beautiful country of contrasts, it is hard, I think, to simply visit and observe it, you must fully immerse yourself to get a feel for it. And that feeling stays with you, even now (two weeks later) I find myself suppressing the urge to blurt out ‘izvinitye!’ apologetically when I bump into someone. But it’s more than words. Each country I visit has a flavour, a tone in your memory that you’ll remember long after you forget the details of events. And while I can’t speak for the rest of the country, I feel as though the people of Moscow and St. Petersburg have their astronautical achievements of the past always in the backs of their minds. And from this trip I know that I want to bring the future of such feats to the forefronts of the minds of the people not only of Russia, but the world over.
Yours sincerely, Geoff
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Post Sat Aug 28, 2010 10:18 pm

Re: In Soviet Russia, rocket launch you!

I really like this account, it's so full of color and fascinating detail. Thanks very much for writing and posting it here. I wish I'd had a chance to go on such a tour.

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Post Sun Aug 29, 2010 6:57 am

Re: In Soviet Russia, rocket launch you!

It was an excellent trip. You could always just go to Russia for the heck of it!
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Post Mon Aug 30, 2010 1:47 pm

Re: In Soviet Russia, rocket launch you!

Yes, that's a really fascinating account - cheers!

Posts: 130

Joined: Mon Aug 16, 2010 10:41 am

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Post Tue Aug 31, 2010 6:25 am

Re: In Soviet Russia, rocket launch you!

No problem :)

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