MIR’s 30 Years: Beyond the Stars, Inside the Russian Space Program (VIDEO)

MIR’s 30 Years: Beyond the Stars, Inside the Russian Space Program (VIDEO)

(Douglas Grimes is co-founder and president of MIR Corporation.)

Of all the dozens of tours we offer to MIR’s 35 destinations, the one that I unabashedly like best is our behind-the-scenes Inside the Russian Space Program, which harkens back to the Cold War days of the U.S.-Soviet space race. I have personally led every departure of the program to Russia and Kazakhstan since first launching this trip in 2005. I’m old enough to remember the U.S.-Soviet space race, when it seemed every boy dreamed of being an astronaut, and when I spent a lot of time making model rockets, like the Saturn-V.

Tour of a Lifetime To me, Inside the Russian Space Program symbolizes MIR’s expansive spirit that even space can be the focus for intrepid travelers intent on learning more about history, politics, and science on their travel journeys. This tour – with its immersive experience in everything related to the Soviet, and now Russian, space program – won an award from National Geographic’s “50 Tours of a Lifetime” in 2012. The highlight that I never tire of is the opportunity to witness the manned launch of a Soyuz spacecraft to the from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in the remote outback of Kazakhstan.

Beyond the Stars This tour could be dubbed “beyond the stars,” since it was beyond my wildest imagination years ago that such a travel experience could be created, and that I’d one day be sharing this space-race journey with adventurous travelers from around the world. The idea for the trip came out of a discussion years ago with the travel program director of the American Museum of Natural History, when we were brainstorming “What cool things can we do in Russia?” Seeing a space launch was definitely on the list.

1975 U.S.S.R. stamp: This historic Apollo-Soyuz docking in 1975 symbolized the end of the Cold War U.S.-Soviet space race since 1957
Photo credit: Helen Holter

(click on photo for larger version and caption)

It wasn’t easy or simple: it took three years of meeting the right people in Russia, and eventually making our way to once highly classified Star City hidden in a forest near Moscow, with its cosmonaut training facility named after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. I remember the first time I was there, thinking to myself, “Oh boy – this used to be top secret!” It was very eye-opening. The first meeting with Russian space officials was a bit tough, like “Who are you? Why do you want to do this?” But then there was some warming up, and we made a connection. We also flew down to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh desert, seeing the facilities and watching a manned-Soyuz space launch.

Douglas Grimes with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy in Baikonur, Kazakhstan
Photo credit: Christopher Prentiss Michel

Pioneering TourThat inaugural tour back in 2005 with the American Museum of Natural History was quite a journey and very exciting for me, personally. Our first travelers were avid space fans, former NASA employees, and those who had witnessed space launches but had never seen one in Russia. Since that pioneering journey, our clients have had the opportunity to rub shoulders with Russian space experts from the Roscosmos Space Agency, space veterans, families of the space crews, and foreign dignitaries. I’ve met celebrities as well, such as Martha Stewart and Microsoft’s Charles Simonyi, the first “tourist cosmonaut” to travel twice in space, in 2007 and 2009.  

Soyuz Insider’s AccessThen and now, we have superb insider’s access, from high-level space experts and cosmonaut training facilities to Soviet – and now Russian – space traditions, rituals, and ceremonies.

  • Rollout of the Rocket Ceremony: This is one of my favorite events. The massive hangar doors open for the early dawn rollout of the Russian rocket; we’re only a few yards away from these gigantic exhaust vents on the Soyuz. Later, the Soyuz crosses a road in the Kazakh desert – yet another up-close photo opportunity.

    The Soyuz rolls out from its assembly hangar in Baikonur, Kazakhstan
    Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

    (click on photo for larger version)
  • Raising of the Rocket Ceremony: The rocket is slowly raised into position at the launchpad. It takes time, it’s noisy, and it’s unforgettable.
  • Cosmonauts’ Remember Conference: We can ask burning questions of not just the main crew, but the backup crew as well. After the press conference, the cosmonauts depart to prepare for their final preparations, and to suit up.

    A visitor asks a question at the cosmonauts’ press conference in Baikonur, Kazakhstan
    Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

  • Cosmonauts’ Alley: Every cosmonaut who goes up in the Soyuz from Baikonur plants a tree along this alley. Of course, Yuri Gagarin’s tree from 1961 is the oldest, towering over tiny saplings of more recent cosmonauts.
  • “Ready to Go” Report: Cosmonauts are fully suited up, walk out, and approach the Baikonur Cosmodrome director and Roscosmos space officials. They indicate they are “ready to go,” shake hands, and whisked away by bus to the launchpad – in the same manner of the U.S.S.R.’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Garagin.

    Cosmonauts salute space officials in their Ready to Go report, before heading to the launchpad
    Photo credit: Don Cohen

  • Liftoff From VIP Viewing Area: In the U.S. you’re typically five or six miles away from the launchpad, but at Baikonur we have a VIP viewing area that’s about two miles away. It’s close enough to feel the earth shake beneath our feet – always thrilling.

Seconds before liftoff at the Baikonur launchpad in Kazakhstan
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Star City Sandwiched between all this Soyuz insider’s access excitement is a deep-dive into the evolution of the Soviet space program, headquartered at Star City with its premier cosmonaut training facility. We visit both the now-retired Mir Space Station simulator as well as the current International Space Station mock-up and Soyuz simulator. Throughout our tour we also visit museums dedicated to aeronautics as well as space exploration, like Monino Aviation Museum. We view artifacts from the Cold War space race, from a Tupolev Tu-95 bomber to Yuri Gagarin’s space suit. 

Optional Cosmonaut TrainingTravelers on our Inside the Russian Space Program tour are offered optional cosmonaut training activities at Star City.  They’re perfect for those who’ve always wondered what it feels like to be weightless aboard a zero-gravity simulation flight, or don a Russian space suit and practice maneuvers, or dive underwater for spacewalk training in the Hydrolab, or even feel what 4Gs is like in the world’s largest centrifuge.

Soaring and floating in weightlessness aboard an Ilyushin-76
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

(click on photo for larger version)

I’ve done zero gravity training twice, and it’s a lot of fun. We fly in a padded Ilyushin-76 up to 30,000 feet, where it stalls out at the top for about 35 seconds and we become weightless during that time. It pulls about 4Gs and you recover, and then it does another one, repeating this about 10 or 12 times over several hours.

Mission AccomplishedThe elements on this tour collectively offer a great insider’s view of how the space program works, and how well it works. In the U.S. right now we are totally reliant on the Soyuz for delivering our astronauts to the International Space Station and bringing them back. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union we’ve had a very good working relationship in space with Russia. You see it in the camaraderie between American and Russian crews going up in the Soyuz; they are friends for life.

Russian Maksim Surayev and American Gregory Wiseman fly together on a 2014 Soyuz mission to the International Space Station
Photo credit: Christopher Prentiss Michel

It all fits in with MIR’s original ideology, with our name in Russian meaning both “world” and “peace.” For us at MIR, such friendships, travel, and exploration know no borders or boundaries – even into space.

More on “MIR’s 30 Years”

Learn more about “MIR’s 30 Years” in the stories below, all embedded with videos. They include MIR’s beginnings and the mindset and mission of MIR’s president and co-founder, Douglas Grimes; MIR’s utterly unique travel offerings at the crossroads of Europe and Asia; and Siberia, one of MIR’s favorites specialties.

You can also view the video series of “MIR’s 30 Years” on MIR’s YouTube channel, , specifically under the playlist,

MIR’s Beginnings

MIR’s One-of-a-Kind Journeys

Siberia, A MIR Specialty

MIR, in a Nutshell

(Top photo: Soyuz liftoff from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Don Cohen)

PUBLISHED: November 28, 2016

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