A Rare Tour Of The Long-Secret Russian Town Where Cosmonauts Are Born

A Rare Tour Of The Long-Secret Russian Town Where Cosmonauts Are Born

If you went looking for Zvezdny Gorodok, aka Star City, on a map in the 1960s, you’d have no luck. This small town outside of Moscow was long a state secret, and for good reason: It was the base where Cosmonauts came to train for — and recover from — space flight. And it’s still cooking.

“Deep within the forest, surrounded by barbed wire, the highly secretive Star City holds the soul of the Russian people,” says British photographer Mitch Karunaratne, who spent a week exploring the once-classified town with a camera. “Star City is the symbol of Soviet scientific technical progress, strengthening and recovering Russia’s Cosmonauts prestige worldwide.”

Opened in 1960, Star City remained the secret spot where Russian’s space program blossomed in the Space Race — and endured a long decline with the Soviet Union fell. And while Gizmodo profiled the base back in 2008, Karunaratne’s recent tour offer a new perspective on the town.

Today, Star City is still an operational base: Every Russian cosmonaut still trains here, using the town’s full-scale mockups of both Soviet and international modules, from the Soyuz vehicle to the ISS, plus deep pools that simulate weightlessness.

NASA has had a presence here since the early 1970s, too, and plenty of other astronauts have trained here — though they haven’t always had an easy time getting used to the culture, which is still extremely secretive.

A 2011 feature on Star City in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine explained how sensitive Russia still is about the town:

In the old days, the GCTC published few manuals; cosmonauts took handwritten notes at lecture sessions. Staffers were reluctant to print and distribute written materials, because they saw the information as proprietary. (In early 2008, South Korean astronaut candidate Ko San was removed from a Soyuz crew assignment for taking workbooks out of Star City without permission. According to one former NASA astronaut, manuals are still officially restricted to the center.)

Just gaining access to Star City as a photographer, Karunaratne explains, “involves lengthy negotiations, permission letters and brown envelopes.” Her photos capture the sheer isolation — and the decaying infrastructure — of a place that’s suspended between a glorious past and a future that few of those early cosmonauts would have imagined.[Mitch Karunaratne]