Soyuz Training - Russia
August 27 -- 31, 2007


I left for Moscow on Saturday.   Normally, I would have been on the standard government issue Delta flight like I took last time when I flew over in June.   However, because it took "them" so long to decide when I needed to start my training in Russia, that by the time they went to make reservations, it was impossible to make decent connections.   At first, the reservation was for me to leave Houston on a 6:30 a.m. flight to Atlanta, but leave Atlanta at 3:45 in the afternoon.   No thank you.   And, come to find out, that Delta's winter schedule is such that one cannot simply do the Moscow to Atlanta flight on the return.   They do not fly that route in the winter, evidently. So, one has to fly first from Moscow to New York City (JFK Airport).  But, naturally, there is no flight from JFK to Houston, which, by the way, boggles my mind.   How can there be no direct fight between the fourth largest city in the country and the largest?   They used to fly that route. Silly hub and spoke airline plan. But, I digress. . .

So, leaving JFK the route is first fly to Atlanta and then finally on to Houston. Needless to say, that adds several hours to the trip and makes the total travel time over 24 hours. Plus, you get into Houston at something like 11 p.m., which means you are home after midnight. No thank you to that, as well. So, after a little bit of prodding from me, the travel folks were able to find a travel regulation that said in cases where you would have to leave your house before six in the morning or get home after midnight, you do not have to fly the government required airline between the cities. But, I do still have to fly an American based carrier. So, my trip turned out to be a United fight (code shared with Lufthansa and operated by Lufthansa) to Frankfurt, then Lufthansa to Moscow. On the way back it is Air France to Paris and then Continental to Houston. Much better routing and much less "time on the road."

The United/Lufthansa flight left later in the day than the Delta flight, though it did leave from Intercontinental rather than Hobby. But, I liked having half a day at home before going. That way I did not have to rush out of the house first thing in the morning. And Andy and I were able to get a run in, which was really nice. As expected, my luggage was overweight. It is not easy packing for three months. Who knows what you may want/need to wear in October. . . But, since this is my initial training trip over, the government was willing to pay for excess baggage. I would say that fifty dollars was money well spent, though I am sure I did not pack enough. By the way, if I had been in first or business class, my luggage would not have been overweight. I guess wealthy people's clothes weigh more.

My thoughts on Lufthansa - seats are just as uncomfortable and cramped and the movies are just as inane, but, you do have to pay for alcohol and the food is marginally better. Plus, after they have served the food, they come around with bottles in hand asking if anyone would like more wine. And, if your glass was full when they cam around with the bottles, but empty when they were serving coffee, it is "no problem." Quite civilized, if you ask me.

It was interesting being on this flight because the announcements are made in German first and then English. I found myself trying to remember my German from so many years ago. It was 21 years ago when I studied German in Germany. Yikes! It used to be that when I struggled for a word in Russian, my German would pop in. Now, it is the other way round.

OK, Lufthansa officially beat the pants off of the American carriers. They came around after the tea and coffee service with a Bailey's or cognac service. How many times have you seen that back in coach? The only problem with the flight to Frankfurt was my row partner. I do not know why but at the airport my seat was changed from 30c to 39d. Both were aisle seats (my preference on long flight since I like to get up and walk around). But, the person I was next to in row 39 (actually, a very nice German young man), unfortunately, seemed to subscribe to non-American standards of hygiene. That is something that is hard to ignore.

But, even if my nose was tormented, my ears were happy. One benefit of being a Russia-training crew member is that I am eligible to check out a Bose noise-cancelling headset. That is some amazing technology. It will drown out a crying baby (two rows in front of me), but, it will significantly cut down on general plane and engine noise. They definitely made sleeping a bit more restful.

By and large the flight to Frankfurt was uneventful. I had a few hours to kill in Frankfurt, and then it was on to Moscow and Star City.

Back in the Soviet times, Star City was a closed city where the cosmonauts would live and train. In fact, everyone who worked there lived behind its walls. These days, it is on the map, but it is still semi-closed. You have to have an access card to get in. But, it is still a little city where people live, although you do not have to live here if you work at the training center. It is about an hour from the airport on a good traffic day. Three hours on a bad traffic day. The airport is on the northwest side of Moscow and Star City in on the northeast side. But, when you have twelve million plus people in a city, you are mostly going to have bad traffic days.

On the way out to Star City, we stopped at a grocery store for a supply of food. There are only the food basics (sort of) in Star City. If you want any variety or want what they may not have gotten in that particular day, you have to shop elsewhere. Usually, that meant a trek into Moscow for food. Now there is a large "hypermarket" in a neighboring town (think Walmart), so one does have to go so far to shop for something other than bread and cheese. Food in Russia is not cheap, but at least now there is some variety. It is definitely better than when I lived in Moscow previously and it getting better all the time.

It was probably close to 8:00 p.m. Sunday by the time I finally got to where I was to live. The astronauts who train in Star City live in what we call "The Cottages." (See attached picture - I am in "Cottage 6", last door on right.) These are a set of duplexes that NASA had built. They are not bad. They are basically six three-bedroom houses (in sets of two). The Cottages are about a 10 minute walk from the training facilities, so it is quite convenient in terms of your commute. If you are out here when there are only a few people training, then you may get your own house to live in. If there are a lot of people, then you have to share. This time, I will be sharing a house with one other person for a week, and then I will have the place to myself. It is a basic house – kitchen, dining room, small study and living room downstairs and three bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs. And, since NASA provided them, they have them wired. So we have NASA computer connections and a NASA provided phone (which pretends it is in Huntsville Alabama - I am not sure how that works - some sort of technological magic). The phone is nice, because if people from the U.S. want to call, then it is only as if they are calling Alabama. I got lucky this time and have the master bedroom, which means I have my own bathroom. Bonus.    

Once I arrived, I did a little unpacking, picked up some of my training materials, had dinner and then pretty much crashed.

Bright and early-ish (9:30) Monday I started into my training week. The first thing I had was a training pre-brief. It was not at all what I expected. I expected a small group of the Russian trainers explaining what I would be doing here. It, in fact, was all the training heads (I think) and who knows else in a large auditorium type room. I had to sit up front with the leader of this affair. I have no idea who he was; he did not introduce himself to me. He gave an introduction and then turned it over to me for me to talk about myself (yes, there was an interpreter there). Then the lead training scheduler did a short presentation to the group on my plan of attack. What I got out of it is that I have a compressed schedule because the time is short and they have cut back on language training to fit everything in. What made this the most bizarre was that the cosmonaut training facility is currently run by the military (that is who has always done it historically – next year it is being changed over to being run by civilians). So, everyone in the "audience" was in a military uniform. It was strange and I felt out of place. I wish I had known I needed to make a speech. . .

Afterwards, I had a short tour of the training facilities. These are behind another layer of security. I am not sure why, but you do have to pass through a security check point to get to the "training territory." As best I can tell, I will have all my classes or simulations in 3 or 4 different buildings. Then it was on to my first class. I was supposed to have a familiarization session in a Soyuz simulator. But the simulator was occupied, so we went straight to a lecture. The lecture was basically the start of a structures and mechanisms overview of the Soyuz. The Soyuz is made up of three compartments, they are made out of aluminum, the walls are very thin, yada, yada, yada. After a break for lunch back at the cottage, it back for more of the same subject.

Lastly I had a class on "panels." This class was on the interfaces the crew has to input commands to the Soyuz. It was REALLY hard to stay awake by the end of the training day. After dinner I tried to do some studying in the evening. It was also hard to stay awake then. But, of course, when I needed to go to bed, I got a second wind and then it was hard to sleep. Ah, the joys of jet lag.

My training days here are broken into four two hour blocks. The day starts at 9:00, the second period is at 11:00; lunch from 1:00 - 2:00, then back to class at 2:00 and the last period starts at 4:00. I will mostly be having lectures at first covering the theoretical side of the Soyuz spacecraft. Later, I will be doing hand-on classes and finally simulations.

Tuesday the alarm on my phone alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. Urgh, I was in a good sleep at that time. It took me awhile to figure out how to make it stop and how to ensure it was not going to ever do that again. By then, I was far to awake to go back to sleep, so, I went to the gym and spent some time on a treadmill. One of the advantages of The Cottages is that in the basement of one of them, NASA has made a little gym. It has weights and various cardio machines. Those in training here use it regularly and those back from space use it for rehab.

My first class of the day was another lecture on the Soyuz panels. It was more detail on what we covered yesterday. Then, I had a lecture on what is called the onboard complex control system. This class is on the guts behind the panels. How the system process commands to fire thrusters, control your atmosphere, etc. It is kind of like the central computer system of the Soyuz. After my lunch break I had an introductory lecture on the life support systems. The instructor talked about the basics of the atmosphere - how much oxygen a person needs, how much carbon a person creates, how much humidity is present, etc.

My last period of the afternoon was scheduled physical training. It appears that I am going to be scheduled for gym time twice as week. Instead of going to the gym I took a nice, long nap. And then I went to the gym and lifted weights. My housemate made dinner for the folks here so I did not have to cook anything. Right now there are about eight people at the moment between the astronauts, the flight doctor who support us here, and some of the training folks from Houston who also support our training here. It seems to be the standard that a couple times a week, someone will cook for the in-town gang.

Wednesday was a very long day. I definitely did not have enough sleep the night before. I only managed about six and a half hours. That is not enough for me. My first lecture of the day was another lecture on the onboard complex control system. We just kept going through the details of the system and going over the schematics of how the system is put together.

I guess I should mention how the classes are structured. I am the only person going through this theoretical training right now, so I am the only student in my classes. I have an interpreter in every class who will interpret as much or as little as I want/need. Right now, I am pretty much having most everything interpreted. I am following a great deal of the Russian (more than I expected), but just starting off I want to make sure that I am really understanding what they are saying. I will end up having tests on every subject. From what I understand, the tests are all oral and the hardware and software designers come in to administer the tests. Sounds like fun… Most of the time, there is one other person in class with me. This is one of our Russian Training Integrators - folks from the training department in Houston who are experts on the Russian systems. They do a lot of things in Russia to ensure that the U.S. and Russian training is integrated properly. But, they are also here to make sure we get what we need out of the classes we are taking. If the interpretation is not quite right, they will step in; if the instructor does not go into the right level of detail, they will cover it. They make sure I have all the training materials in both Russian and English. And, because they are experts on the systems, they will help me make sure I am ready for the exams, if I feel like I need help. They are definitely a big help - someone "on your side" looking out for you.

So, after my onboard complex control system class, I had a Russian lesson. Then lunch, then another Russian lesson (4 hours total). The teacher turned out to be one of the ladies from my immersion training. She wore me out. By the end, I could not even sort through the most basic question from her. My day wrapped up with another lecture on the same subject from the morning - more going through the details.

Another person here made dinner for the gang, so I once again did not have to worry about cooking. Then I tried to study and fell asleep pretty early.

Thursday turned out to be a reasonably light day. My first class was another lecture on the onboard complex control system. I think we have covered just about everything in this system. At least, I think we have covered all the basics. Looking at my "look ahead schedule" for the time I am here, it looks like today's class was the last one in this subject for awhile. In about two months, I'll have some more classes on it, and then the exam. I am not quite sure why it is scheduled this way, but that is the way it appears to be.

Afterwards, I had a physical training session scheduled. I was pretty tired today still, so I went back to my cottage and took a nap. Afterwards, I felt much better. In the afternoon I only had one class. This one was on the life support systems. This system is one of the bigger one in that there is a lot of different hardware. Not only there is the hardware to maintain the atmosphere, but there is all the equipment that is associated with the space suits that keep you alive should there be a problem and the capsule depressurizes. I will be taking lessons on this subject for many weeks.

For my last period I was scheduled for "admin time." I used this time to go to the gym since I slept during my gym time earlier in the day.

In the evening, I studied, of course. Friday I start a new subject, the docking system, so I read ahead on some of the materials. It makes the lectures easier if I have some idea what they are talking about. Plus, it helps me follow the Russian. Even though I have the training materials in both English and Russian, I pretty much only read the English versions for now. But all the equipment names and acronyms are still given in Russian in the English texts, so, I am learning the Russian terminology.

Friday was as long as Thursday was short. I had four lectures. Two on the life support systems and two on the docking system. In the life support systems classes we covered the oxygen delivery system (tanks, valves, automatic operations vs manual operations) in one of them and the Soyuz toilet in the other. All I can say about the toilet is that that it is not pretty and it was not designed for women, but it is functional. Since it takes two days to get to the Station after a Soyuz launch, there is no getting around using it. And, I suspect that the toilet on the Station, being in the Russian segment and being Russian built, is similar (though, I don't know for sure).

In the evening there was another group dinner. I can definitely get used to someone else cookin. . . Afterwards a couple of us relaxed and watched a movie.

On Saturday there was a grocery store run. As mentioned above, going to a decent grocery store is more of an event rather than something you do on a whim. So, a handful of us arranged for one of the NASA drivers to take us to the "Walmart. " The total trip time between travel there and back and shopping - 2 hours. But, now I have another week's worth of food. After that, I spent my day procrastinating, napping, and doing a little bit of studying.

Sunday was also a nap and study day. And that was my first training week.

By the way, for those who are curious about the weather, I think it is safe to say that summer is over here. Most of this week the temperature was in the 60's during the day. Just imagine - sweater weather in August. . . It was also kind of cloudy and occasionally rainy, too. The weekend was a bit colder (though, good napping weather), but I think it is supposed to be back up to the mid-sixties next week. I hope.


© Shannon Walker   2009

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