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Russia’s Star City has lost its luster

Designed by Soviet secret-keepers in the depths of the Cold War, Star City lies deep in the pine and birch forests on Moscow’s edge, and even now you can’t find it on many maps. The men at the gates and checkpoints ask for your documents, and when you get inside the legendary cosmonaut training center, you expect to find something splendid -- a glimmer of the cosmos, a flash of eternal striving.

After all, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has pumped vast amounts of petrodollars into his grand vision of recapturing the Soviet space program’s lost glory. You imagine Star City, then, as a crucial hub of science and progress, the prestigious launching pad for the bright young Russian minds that will drag Moscow back to the forefront of space research.

But the hushed fields and deep woods have an eerie, deserted feel. Between research buildings, stray dogs pick at frozen mud scabbing the snow. Here and there, retired engineers in fur-lined hats stroll unsteadily among the buildings of the compound, a cross between a village and an industrial park.

Alexander Belyayev, a slight, steel-haired man in corduroy pants and a turtleneck sweater, will show you around. The former instructor has a crushing whiskey hangover, he explains apologetically. He keeps ducking outside for a smoke.

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As soon as you arrive, Belyayev starts riffling through papers in a plastic briefcase, tugging out an invoice. No, you say. That’s not for me. We don’t pay for stories.

Oh, that is not yours, anyway, Belyayev says as he wrinkles his brow. That was for the journalists who came yesterday.

He slips it back inside, flushes, and digs out another sheet of paper. Give it to the photographer, you say, not wanting to touch it, feeling a little embarrassed as fabulously rich Russia squeezes foreign reporters for cash.

There had been months of negotiations. At first, the administration demanded $500 for the privilege of visiting Star City. Finally, officials agreed that the visit would be free but that the photographer had to pay $250 to shoot pictures of the cosmonauts training.

And so Belyayev marches you and the photographer into a cavernous, shiny hall where gaping windows frame a winter sky. The model spaceships look smaller and older than you expected, like huge, steel-tinted eggs, elevated on platforms and interspersed with thick clumps of houseplants.

In front of a bank of control panels and computers, two middle-aged women discuss methods of cooking potatoes and sausages. There are some men too, one of them in camouflage. Except for the cosmonauts in their bright blue jumpsuits, you can’t tell what any of them are doing, and you are not supposed to ask.

As for the cosmonauts, they stoically ignore you -- presumably they are used to being put on display as they clamber up and down the ladders leading to the spaceship hatches, doff their shoes and climb inside to study the controls.

There are American astronauts training here too, but the Russians forbid you to talk with them as well.

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“Don’t take pictures of the Americans!” Belyayev snaps.

He prods you up the ladder to peer into a model spaceship, where a lone cosmonaut is at the controls, pretending to guide a spaceship to dock at the International Space Station. “Take off your shoes,” Belyayev hisses. “And don’t talk to cosmonauts.”

“What’s his name?” asks the photographer.

“Just write ‘Russian cosmonaut,’ ” Belyayev says. “We’re not allowed to publicize his name until he flies into space.”

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In another pod, a white-haired instructor lectures his trainees, manual in hand. “You shouldn’t always trust U.S. indicators at the station,” he tells them.

“Why?” one of the young trainees interjects.

“Because we think our equipment is more precise.”

Watching them from the bottom of the ladder, Belyayev smiles nostalgically. “Many, many years the cosmonauts sit inside these small [spaces] and train many, many times,” he says.

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Yuri Baturin is the only cosmonaut authorized to speak with reporters. He has cotton-white hair, tinted glasses and the calm presence of a man who, after two voyages into space, has lost the capacity to worry over details. You ask him about the Russian program and prepare yourself for exuberance.

Instead, Baturin pauses and sighs.

“This is a very difficult and painful question, because it’s not very proper to criticize your own government, especially in a foreign newspaper,” he says. “But our politicians who talk about the space program don’t understand a thing about it. I state today that Russia does not have a real space program.”

You remember when you’d just gotten to Moscow and your Russian-language teacher mentioned Yuri Gagarin. She stared, stupefied, at your blank face, as if contemplating whether she could teach her language to a cretin who didn’t recognize the name of the first man to soar into space.

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And now here you are, eyeball to eyeball with an heir to Gagarin’s heroic legacy, and the more he talks, the more disappointed he sounds.

“Our space agency for several years is not calling the tender for a new ship,” he says. “They don’t know what for and where to fly.”

And: “The politicians don’t understand the complexity of the task. They announce Russia will land on Mars by 2030, which creates the illusion that Russia has a mission to Mars . . . [but] the government should not just try to be the first to put a flag on Mars.”

Finally: “Space tourism is only harmful to the Russian space program, in my opinion. In the corridors here you can find dozens of cosmonauts who would have accompanied a flight in the past seven years but didn’t because their seat was occupied by a tourist. It leads us into a dead end.”

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In the end, Baturin gives you a glossy photograph of himself, and a book he compiled, and walks you out of his office.

Later, you’ll try to figure out whether what he said was true: whether, behind the screen of extravagant political statements, high-rolling space tourism junkets and U.S. dependence on Russia for lifts to the space station, there is a vacuum of purpose and projects. You ask around, and others agree.

“Unfortunately, we can’t say right now that Russia has a powerful space program,” Igor Marinin, editor in chief of Space News magazine, says when you call. “For a very long time we simply lived on the verge of extinction.”

Meanwhile, Belyayev bustles you into a room to see a model of Mir, the space station that was decommissioned and sent crashing into the South Pacific in pieces in 2001 after 15 years in orbit. There are dummies in spacesuits, and grainy photographs of astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the space station. Belyayev snickers when he points out the space toilet. The room is musty smelling, and holes gape in the tiled floor. Then he takes you back over the snow to a building that houses the pool where cosmonauts practice moving around without gravity. But nobody is training today, and so you stare silently through a glass panel at murky water.

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Everybody, Belyayev says slyly, wants to see the big centrifuge. This is where cosmonauts prepare to experience the physical sensations of G-force during liftoff.

Schoolchildren on a field trip are also being promised a view of the centrifuge. They tramp up one flight of stairs after the next, excited at the notion of seeing a man being spun furiously. You follow them.

At the top of the stairs there is a window set into a wall; an adult has to lean over to get a glimpse. The window looks out over the centrifuge. It is a big contraption built of metal. It’s not moving; it’s not doing anything. There are no people inside.

One by one, the children turn away with fallen faces, and troop back down the stairs. You pause, and realize that nobody is coming to open any more doors, let alone perform any centrifugal feats. Then you follow the children down.

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megan.stack@latimes.com


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