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Pinellas delegation visits 'Mir' facility

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and City Council member Bill Foster join a group touring the space center.

Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 8, 2003

STAR CITY, Russia - It is a decrepit symbol of the state of the Russian space enterprise, a city of 6,500 where the astronauts live in run-down high-rises and buildings are simply abandoned when they no longer serve a purpose.

At the Gagarin Space Training Center, where two U.S. astronauts adjust to Earth after a tour in the international space station, the Russians take no pains to hide the flaws: the rusted playground slide near astronaut housing, the missing floor tiles in the centrifuge room, the peeling paint nearly everywhere.

St. Petersburg City Council member Bill Foster, a member of a 40-person delegation from Florida visiting Russia to celebrate St. Petersburg, Russia's 300th anniversary, tripped over a peeling linoleum tile in the room where the Russians keep a 306-ton centrifuge. He expressed what many were thinking.

"It's amazing; they have enough to maintain but nothing else," Foster said. "I'm guessing they don't have it, and so they have prioritized. They've put their money into programs and equipment but no infrastructure."

Ivan F. Sivak, a senior specialist with Russia's Foreign Economic Department, passes a brick high-rise with bent window frames and no window glass, and nods dismissively at the empty shell where the Buran shuttle program was once housed. The program died, and so did the building, he says.

He prefers to talk about what the Russians accomplished: the defunct Mir space station and the 8,000 experiments in it during 15 years, the Russian part of the international space station and the Soyuz spacecraft. He showed the training modules for all three, allowing the delegation even to enter one section of Mir.

But he acknowledges the problems.

"Unfortunately, our country doesn't want to finance these programs, and we don't want to sell this information and these secrets to companies," said Sivak, a retired high-ranking military administrator at the training center, speaking through an interpreter. "We think it's unfair."

Surrounded by acres of birch trees and accessible only through a gate with guards dressed in camouflage, Star City is home to the widow of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. The first woman in space, Valentina V. Tereshkova, also lives here. It is a mishmash of drab tan brick buildings built 20 to 40 years ago. Its residential section has the look of public housing that is similar to the massive, decrepit high-rises found in pockets throughout Moscow and its outskirts.

"I think it's sad the way it's deteriorating and not being maintained, because I think they have a jewel here," said Ken Cherven, a member of the St. Petersburg delegation and chief executive officer of First Community Bank of America.

Russia has 26 astronauts who train here. America has 28. It is also used to train specialists from China, Japan and Canada, as well as space tourists, Sivak said through the interpreter.

The city has 16 stores and provides an education to the children of its 2,000 employees. Tereshkova's granddaughter goes to school here.

A mere 15,000 tourists a year see the Russian training center, which is accessible only with permission from Russian authorities well in advance. The Russian ambassador to the United States gave the Pinellas group permission as a gift during its visit to Russia.

"Growing up, I never would have dreamed I'd ever be inside the Russian space program," said St. Petersburg Mayor Baker, who is leading the delegation. "Obviously they've shifted some priorities away from the space program to get their economic house in order."

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