Imagine a city where only astronauts live, with otherworldly, yet archaic training facilities and no public access under any circumstances. Until few years ago, Star City, the cosmonaut training centre on the outskirts of Moscow, was that place a secret military facility that was unmarked on the world map. But today, the demilitarized town where the first man in space Yuri Gagarin once lived, is open for business, ferrying cosmonauts and billionaires to space while also offering wild spins in a giant centrifuge to visitors who only dream of the great beyond.
Driving through the gates of the space town, Star City looks like nothing more than a collection of grey concrete homes, seemingly frozen in the 1960s. A few birch trees loom out of a pine forest, potholes cover the road and perfectly-aligned houses sit on parallel streets. It is hard to imagine that just 30km away, Moscow’s wide boulevards are lined with soaring Stalinist buildings.
And, yet, the town’s Soviet rust is undeniably charming. A coarsely chiselled statue of Gagarin stands tall in front of the house where his wife Valentina still lives. The Soviet legend, now with a sheen of green copper oxidizing his plain suit, has a flower in his hand, as though he is offering it to his wife.
Inside Star City, a life-size simulator of the Russian part of the International Space Station (ISS) are housed next to the cosmonauts’ living quarters. A life-size replica of the Russian Mir space station, the predecessor to the ISS which operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001, sits rusting away outside, now of little interest even to tourists.