Garrett Reisman was on his way to this formerly secret military base for several weeks of training, making his way through Kennedy Airport, when his cellphone rang. It was his boss, Steven Lindsey, the head of NASA's astronaut office.
"Come back to Houston. They've canceled your training — they're playing hardball," Reisman recalled his boss saying. He was caught in a momentarily important dispute between NASA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
Ultimately, Reisman's aborted trip was just a bump in the road on the way to space: he spent three months aboard the International Space Station earlier this year, performed a spacewalk and even traded jokes over a video link with Stephen Colbert.
Everyone who works with the Russian space program has similar stories to tell of implacable bureaucrats, byzantine rules and decisions that seem capricious at best. And many of those stories are played out here in Star City, where cosmonauts and, now, astronauts from all over the world train to fly on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to go to the $100 billion International Space Station.
Star City has become an important second home for Americans working with their Russian counterparts, and it is about to become more important still. During the five-year gap after NASA shuts down the space shuttle program in 2010 and the next generation of spacecraft makes its debut by 2015, Russia will have the only ride for humans to the station.
The gap, which was planned by the Bush administration to create the next generation of American spacecraft without significantly increasing NASA's budget, is controversial. But it is also all but inevitable, because much of the work to shut down the shuttles is under way, and the path to the new Constellation craft would be hard to compress even with additional financing.
Those who work side by side with their Russian counterparts say that strong relationships and mutual respect have resulted from the many years of collaboration. And they say that whatever the broader geopolitical concerns about relying on Russia for space transportation during the five years when the United States cannot get to the space station on its own rockets, they believe that the multinational partnership that built the station will hold.
"It's an amazing political achievement," Reisman said. "We've gone through so many different administrations," not just in the United States and Russia, but in the dozen other nations that have taken part in building the orbiting laboratory. "It survived all of that," he said. "It's held together, and it's only strengthened over time as we've learned to work together."
To understand why people like Reisman believe the next 7 years can work, it is important to understand the previous 15, when the United States and Russia joined forces, first putting Americans aboard the Russian Mir space station and then building the International Space Station together. That joining of forces occurred here, at Star City. And in some ways, it did not have an auspicious start.
In the earliest days of the partnership, in the mid-1990s, after the Soviet Union had crumbled and the new Russia was struggling to be born, scarcity of supplies meant real hunger. "There was no food on the shelves at all," said Dr. Michael Barratt, who worked among the first crews to prepare astronauts who would serve aboard the Mir. "Five nights out of seven, we had rice and beans." John McBrine, the current director of American operations at Star City, lost 30 pounds during his first stint, from July to October of 1994.
Those early days were also marked by wariness and distrust, and the first Americans had a strong impression they were being watched. Mark Bowman, an early contract employee in Russia who is now back in Moscow as deputy director of NASA's human space flight program in Russia, recalled a weekly teleconference with his boss in Houston. "Thirty minutes into the call the line would go dead," Bowman said. "And that would happen every 30 minutes."
One day during the teleconference, Bowman warned 28 minutes in that the line was about to go dead and said testily, "I sure wish these damned KGB guys would get longer tapes."
"The next telecon we had," Bowman recalled, "I swear to you, it went 45 minutes and then it went dead." Apparently, he said, his hosts had upgraded to 90-minute cassettes.
Energia, the spacecraft manufacturing company near the Mission Control Center in Korolev, near Moscow, would not let the Americans enter its facilities. Instead, Energia rented part of a nearby engineering college to prepare American hardware for the station. "The heat didn't work," Bowman said, and the winter of 1994-95 was particularly bitter, he said, with temperatures that reached minus-30 degrees. The workers wore gloves and parkas indoors. Delicate biological experiments designed for use inside the climate-controlled station froze and had to be replaced
Energia ultimately put a heating unit into the Americans' office: workers wrapped a wire made from a heat-resistant alloy, nichrome, around an asbestos-covered pipe and plugged it into the wall outlet. The exposed wire was doubly dangerous, Bowman recalled: brush up against it, and "you'd get a zap and a burn at the same time." The glow was warning enough; no one touched it.
Beyond the lack of creature comforts, the high level of secrecy in the Russian program troubled Americans even more deeply. The Russians did not fully explain in June 1997, for example, how risky an attempted manual docking with a cargo vehicle would be for the Mir and its crew. When the rendezvous resulted in a collision that endangered the lives of two cosmonauts and Michael Foale, the American astronaut aboard the rickety station at the time, the Americans were largely in the dark.
The next seven years look brighter, and warmer. "Things have improved so much since then," Bowman said. The Russian system has become more open, and the level of personal comfort and convenience has improved greatly.
Instead of the unreliable telephone service of the old days, Bowman's digital phone system can be reached as if it were a local phone on the NASA network. "It's just as if I was at the Johnson Space Center," he said.
The American offices at Star City are in a building known as the Prophy, for Prophylactorium, where cosmonauts lived in quarantine before flights. Today it is called the Apollo-Soyuz Hotel, in honor of the historic rendezvous. At least the Americans call it that, McBrine said; the Russians, he said, "call it the Soyuz-Apollo Hotel."
NASA rents the second floor, dull offices with wood paneling and greenish fluorescent lighting. "We're not very aesthetic here," said McBrine, apologetically. Here translators interpret the voluminous course materials for the astronauts — who learn Russian and take their classes in the language — and administrative assistants schedule the vans that ferry visitors from the airports to Star City and into Moscow.
All told, 7 NASA civil servants, 9 American contractors and 55 Russian contractors are working in Russia for the American space agency. A steady stream of astronauts, flight controllers, doctors, scientists, engineers and officials cycles through — and many of them want to be taken to see the sights and restaurants of Moscow.
"It's a work hard, play hard environment," McBrine said, but he added that the play used to be much harder. Tales of excess from the early days of the American-Russian partnership are legendary; many involve the Russian hosts urging their guests into epic rounds of vodka toasts. Over time, McBrine said, "The novelty has kind of worn off." Instead of testing one another's ability to handle alcohol, he said, "we've become colleagues and great friends. There's none of that pressure anymore."
Many of the Americans live in a set of duplexes at Star City that look a little like suburban condominiums that have been dropped, seemingly, from space into this Soviet landscape of brick buildings, fences and barriers. They were designed and built to United States standards so that visitors could, for example, plug their laptops into the wall without having to dig around for an adapter.
McBrine and his staff work at building a sense of community. Each day starts in McBrine's cottage with a gathering around a large coffeepot for Americans who are working long term or just passing through. Regular potluck dinners are an even larger part of fighting the sense of isolation. On any given evening, McBrine's dining room might be crowded with American astronauts, NASA staff members, Russian cosmonauts, spacefarers from agencies in Japan and Europe, or the occasional multimillionaire space tourist.
At a typical dinner in April, two astronauts, Barratt and Commander Scott Kelly, were bantering about food. Barratt had earned raves for a homemade Thai peanut chicken dish with a surprisingly hearty burn and excellent smoked salmon ordered from Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. Kelly, taking a more Jersey Guy perspective, extolled the virtues of Jimmy Buffs, a restaurant in West Orange where the hot dogs are served with onions, peppers and potatoes in a big half-moon roll. "Heart attack on a plate!" he said with pride.
Downstairs, Shep's Bar waited for them. It is a dim basement room down a flight of rough wooden steps, with a few couches and chairs, a big-screen television, a pool table and tired bar decorations. Duck through a low rectangular hole in one of the room's walls and there is the gym, full of American-made treadmills and other exercise machines that McBrine often has to repair himself. "You become a jack of all trades," he said.
"Shep" is William Shepherd, the first commander of the International Space Station, who set the place up with private donations. McBrine lauds the gathering spot as "our own little Americana," a homey place in an isolated location.
These days, Shep's is a sensitive subject. NASA is still stinging from a report in 2007 that suggested astronauts may have flown while drunk. The report referred to two incidents in anonymous accusations from flight surgeons, and no one was found to have actually piloted a shuttle while drunk. And nothing in the report had anything to do with Shep's Bar. But the late-night jokes and editorial cartoons created an image of a space agency packed with boozers, and workers like McBrine remain a bit sensitive about reinforcing that impression by talking about their modest clubhouse.
"You know what we do in Shep's Bar more than just about anything else?" McBrine asked. "Just watch movies."
"We should really change the name to Shep's Theater," he said.
Whatever it should be called, McBrine said, it is a comfortable place to grab a beer and kick back on a slow night. "Or a Coke," McBrine said, a little nervously. "Or a lemonade."
Significant cultural differences remain between the Russians and Americans here, some that are deeply fixed in each space program. For example, working side by side with the Russians, the Americans say, has helped them understand the two nations' approaches to safety.
Barratt said that when he first walked the grounds of Star City, he was surprised by how uneven the sidewalks were. At NASA, he said, "there'd be big red placards" warning people to watch their step. And if someone did fall, a lawsuit would soon follow. In Russia, he said, people simply watch their step.
The underlying point, said Mark Thiessen, the deputy to McBrine, is that "Russians accept risk." Americans try "to eliminate risk instead of minimize it." The American approach is laudable, he said, but not always possible, and Americans end up more cautious than Russians. "No one is willing to say, 'I accept this risk,' " he said.
Many who write about the Russian space program focus on the impression of creaky age that the program can give — the abandoned buildings and rust at the launching site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, and the fact that the basic design of the Soyuz spacecraft has not changed in some 40 years.
But American experts suggest that the Russians' disregard for cosmetic perfection and development is immaterial, and that the age of the design shows a conservative approach to the risks of space travel that has served them well. "They spend their money where they have to," said Philip Cleary, a former director of NASA's human space flight program in Russia. "They're not so much worried about splashing a new coat of paint on a building if it's not required."
The Americans insist that, appearances aside, the Russians take safety every bit as seriously as they do. The result, several astronauts said, is that they have confidence in the Soyuz, which is as sturdy and dependable as a Kalashnikov rifle.
"Its inherent design is very robust," said Edward Lu, an astronaut who lived aboard the station in 2003 and now works for Google. He has flown to the space station and returned on a Soyuz, and he brought up two recent Soyuz re-entries, in which the capsule malfunctioned and tumbled back to Earth in a steep "ballistic" path that subjected those inside to g-forces higher than usual. The astronauts were safe, however, because of the simplicity and strength of the Soyuz design.
As Captain Mark Kelly, an astronaut and the twin brother of Scott Kelly, put it, "You could throw that thing into the atmosphere like a rock," with its orientation "sideways and backwards," and "as long as the parachute opens, the crew is probably going to live. You can't do that with the shuttle, as everybody knows."
But the shuttle will soon be out of the picture, and the collaboration between the Russians and the Americans here will get even closer. Those who are most familiar with the nations' joint efforts in space say that the controversial pause between American flights can go smoothly, if the politicians would only stay out of the way.
The Americans say they have learned a great deal about getting things done in Russia. They know that the first answer to any request is likely to be no, but that negotiations can often bring things around to yes. Getting to know the people you deal with is more important than the rules, which are ever changing and are often applied arbitrarily. "No agreement is better than your relationship," Barratt said.
And none of them questions the dedication of the Russian counterparts. "Despite the fall of Communism, there was still this core of people that kept the space program going," Barratt said.
At the worst of the Soviet economic crisis, Barratt said, there were years when the workers "were told to go on vacation" for a couple of months so they would not have to be paid. "They showed up at work the next day," he recalled.
Michael Foale, who has lived aboard both the Mir and the International Space Station, said, "Russia has always seen the United States as both Enemy No. 1 and Partner No. 1." The leaders take a very long view, he said, and "they do not play chess badly."
The most important thing to ensure future cooperation, Foale said, is to firm up a strategy for international cooperation in getting to the Moon, so that Russia will have a stake in the partnership and the outcome. "We only have to hint at a strategy, and I don't think we'll have a problem," he said. "But we have to have a strategy."
The American workers at Star City say that on a personal level, geopolitics simply do not matter. Thiessen said that when such issues came up in conversation with his Russian counterparts, they would say: "That's politics. Let the government worry about the government. We're engineers. Let's solve this problem."
7 months ago