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Space, the Final Frontier: Becoming a Cosmonaut in Russia

What’s it like to fly into space? Luckily rookie astronaut Reid Wiseman arrived at the International Space Station two weeks ago and has since taken to Twitter to describe all the fun and foibles of life in zero gravity. (The toilets, man… the toilets!)

But getting up there is another story — and Yahoo Travel has the behind-the-scenes scoop. Photojournalist Christopher Michel shadowed the Russian-led Expedition 40, on which NASA’s Wiseman was hitching a ride, prior to its launch.

Here’s a peek at being a cosmonaut, one of the “Sailors of the Universe.”

Space, the Final Frontier: Becoming a Cosmonaut in Russia

TMA-13M Moves into Vertical Launch Position”

At 0607 UTC on April 12th, 1961 Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin shouts “POYEKHALI!” (Let’s go!) as his Vostok 1 rocket lifts off from the super-secret Baikonur launch complex in a remote steppe of central Kazakhstan. 53 years later, I find myself standing on that very same platform as the TMA-13M Soyuz Rocket is hydraulically lifted into the vertical launch position for it’s scheduled launch two days later. This is Expedition 40.

First launched in 1966, Russia’s Soyuz program’s “low-tech” approach may surprise some but it simply works. Today, with the end of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, America now looks to our space-age rivals to get our boys into space. It’s the longest running, most successful space franchise in the world, and Russia takes it very, very seriously.

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“Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal.”

In Star City, a.k.a. Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC), about an hour outside Moscow, cosmonauts practice extra-vehicular activity (EVA) in the Hydrolab Neutral Buoyancy Trainer. 

During the Soviet era, Star City was known as Closed Military Townlet No. 1. and retains the feel of a 1960s military base today: lots of family housing, a memorial to a cosmonaut or scientist on every corner, and a collection of large training buildings. Overgrown wildflowers along endless roads and plants overtaking abandoned high-rise buildings add a tinge of the eerie. Book a tour to see for yourself. 

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“As Close As I’m Going to Come to Weightlessness”

When cosmonauts exit the ISS into space, they use an Orlan Spacesuit. The Orlan is essentially a self-contained spacecraft. In this trainer, pulleys are used to simulate weightlessness. First order of business is to open the ISS access hatch and connect life support umbilicals. Second order of business is to fly around the room without being called back to Earth by Dimitri. Those were a fun five minutes!

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“Welcome to Baikonur Cosmodrome”

After Star City, we boarded a very vintage chartered TU-154 “Kosmos Air” flight for Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The guy behind me on the plane said, “I hadn’t realized any of these were still flying.”

The 150 or so passengers on the plane appeared to all be NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), or Roscosmos (Russian Space Program) employees or current/former astronauts and their families. It was an insider group and great fun to chat with such accomplished people.

We emerged from the plane onto the 100-degree Kazakh steppe to the shouts of “No photos!”  Not sure what they were worried about – all I could see were camels, abandoned Soviet buildings, and the occasional rusted radar dish.

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“Mad Men”

About 45 minutes from the airport, we arrived at Baikonur Town and were shuttled through security and into the Sputnik Hotel. Everything screamed 1960s: ashtrays, propaganda posters, a “disco/pub.”

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“Crew Prep”

About 12 hours prior to launch, we return to the “quarantined” cosmonaut living facility to watch the crew and backup crew board the buses for the Assembly Building, where they will don their spacesuits.

Reid Wiseman is waving on the right, Russian commander Max Suraev is in the middle and German Alex Gerst is on the left. The cosmonauts and astronauts are kept separated from us to maintain quarantine status. 

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“Poignant Farewell”

It’s a very emotional time for the crew and their families. Here, astronaut Wiseman says goodbye to his daughters through the glass of his bus.

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“In the Shadow of Giants”

A few hours later, the crew emerges from the Assembly Building wearing spacesuits. This will be the last time they will be seen in person by their families until they return to Earth in six months.

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“Lift-off”

At 1:57 AM, TMA-13M lifted off toward its rendezvous with the International Space Station — exactly on time. We were only one kilometer (about .6 miles) from the launch pad and the roar was both deafening and exhilarating! A few seconds after lift-off, the rocket lost all definition as it looked more and more like a Nova.

Everything around us was illuminated as if it were mid-day.

Champagne corks popped as the cosmonauts began to sing. All the way back to the Sputnik, there was toast after toast heralding the bravery of the crew and all those who have come before. “To Gagarin!

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“Mission Accomplished”

Six hours after launch, the Soyuz capsule docked with ISS and the old and new crew gathered together for a congratulatory call with their families in Baikonur. Near the projection screen was a portrait of Yuri Gagarin reminding each of us perhaps the most important lesson of space travel:

“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!” —Yuri Gagarin

Click through for even more images of the Russia Space Program.

Christopher Michel is a photographer, writer, and entrepreneur. He has photographed some of the world’s most unusual places and people, from the jungles of Papua New Guinea to the edge of space aboard a U-2 spy plane.

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