Just a couple of hours' drive outside Moscow, reality and expectation were breaching each other's orbit. The tree-lined entrance to the space-age-sounding Star City looked decidedly low-tech, but like other space tourists before me, it was a thrill just to approach the formerly top-secret Yuri Gagarin State Scientific Research-and-Testing Cosmonaut Training Centre.
When the Soviet Union crumbled and Russia transformed, so did its once-hallowed space program. Administration was handed over by the military to a civic scientific organization called Roscosmos. Budgets were slashed, and the last frontier was finally made available to adventurous tourists - and by tourists, I mean billionaires who could afford the entrance ticket of $20-million to $30-million. This is where Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté trained for his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be strapped to 40 tons of rocket fuel and blasted into space.
The squat, brick buildings have seen better days. Weeds crack through concrete pavement, the paint is chipped, the shrubs overgrown. My guide, Marina, one of several hundred personnel left in a facility that once housed thousands, seems slightly embarrassed, as if she personally should have cleaned up. Inside the main building, I look at proud photographs of famous cosmonauts, Soviet heroes with thick mustaches and fading hairlines. I'm led toward a hall housing an exact copy of the Soyuz rocket passenger capsule, designed in the 1960s, and still the most reliable method of sending humans to space. Seven metres high with a small circular entrance, it's a cramped, dark cubicle that pierces space like a bullet. Far from Star Trek, the Soyuz buttons and knobs look like something you might find on an old fax machine.
It costs a staggering $400-million for a single launch, and Marina explains that $30-million barely covers the price of the seat. But space tourists are hardly joyriders. They must spend up to a year at the facility, learning science and engineering, and how to withstand incredible physical and psychological pressure. "In America, they just take pills," says Marina, the competitiveness of the space race still alive in her voice.
As a day visitor, I'm not allowed to use any of the facilities, including the legendary Vomit Comet - a zero-gravity simulator in the form of a big plane spiralling out of control. If I had a couple thousand dollars, I could pay for a spin in the world's largest and most powerful centrifuge. The human body begins to deteriorate at sustained G-forces above 10 G. This machine can generate up to 30 G, which is enough to crush bones. I'm happy to move on to the Hydro Lab, a massive pool filled with 12 tonnes of water, where budding cosmonauts can accustom themselves to movement in space.
There's a display cabinet holding various cosmonaut utilities - toiletries, foil-wrapped food and, of course, fine Russian caviar. Those who do sign up to be a space tourist aren't exactly encouraged to eat before being strapped into yet another training chair. It spins at such a radical speed that it is guaranteed to make the occupant blow their borscht. Given the challenges, I wonder if those billionaires knew what they were getting into. At least they might appreciate the 100-kilogram space suit, which has a gold-plated helmet to protect its wearer from solar heat.
Rocket science may attract the best and brightest minds, but the mechanics are still nuts and bolts, not futuristic stun guns and tractor beams. The next hall houses a life-size copy of the legendary Mir Space Station, still used for training. Labyrinthine in structure, Mir housed a rotating crew of three for its 12 years in orbit, before being crashed into the Pacific to make way for the International Space Station. Walking around, seeing printer ports and duct tape, loose wires and circuit switches, I realize that science fiction is exactly that: fiction.
Budding space tourists can break their piggy banks and contact Space Adventures, which will be resuming Soyuz launches for paying passengers in 2013. Alternatively, you can drop $200,000 for a ticket on Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise in New Mexico, as 400 people have reportedly done. It is expected to launch in 2012, and Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group's chairman, believes that ticket prices will come down to just $20,000, which I suppose is a bargain for a suborbital space flight. Meanwhile, Hilton International announced plans to use space-shuttle fuel tanks to create an orbiting hotel, while Bigelow Aerospace, founded by a motel tycoon, is developing expandable space-station modules for the same purpose.
I might have been expecting a theme park, but Star City is a serious endeavour at the forefront of science, and the era of space tourism. Shown around the training facility, I might have been walking the assembly line of a Model T Ford factory. Could all these strange, clunky machines actually get us anywhere? Check back a century from now and the answer might be to infinity, and beyond.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is robinesrock.com.