At the Crossroads of Europe & Asia

Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Venturing Inside the Russian Space Program

Of all the tours we’ve offered to MIR’s 35 destinations over more than 30 years, the one that I unabashedly like best is our behind-the-scenes Inside the Russian Space Program tour, which harkens back to the Cold War days of the U.S.-Soviet space race.

To me, this tour symbolizes MIR’s expansive spirit – that even space can be the focus for intrepid travelers who are intent on learning more about history, politics, and science on their travel journeys. With its immersive experience in everything related to the Soviet and Russian space program, this tour won an award from National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Tours of a Lifetime” in 2012.

I have personally led every departure of this program since first launching the trip in 2005, and the one thing I never tire of is the opportunity to witness the manned launch of a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in the remote outback of Kazakhstan. It’s one of the many amazing, one-of-a-kind experiences that this tour offers.

President and Founder of MIR Corporation, Douglas Grimes, experiencing weightlessness on the Russian Zero-G cosmonaut training flight. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
President and Founder of MIR Corporation, Douglas Grimes, experiencing weightlessness on the Russian Zero-G cosmonaut training flight. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

The Beginnings

I’m old enough to remember the U.S.-Soviet space race. I spent a lot of time making model rockets like the Saturn-V, and every kid seemed to dream of being an astronaut one day. It was beyond my wildest imagination that an insider’s look into the once secret Soviet space program would be possible – and that I’d one day be sharing this space-race journey with adventurous travelers from around the world.

This 1969 stamp depicts the Soviet rocket 'Vostok' (Russian for 'East') at the launchpad in Baiikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Helen Holter
1961 U.S.S.R. stamp: At age 27, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Photo credit: Helen Holter
1975 U.S.S.R. stamp: This Apollo-Soyuz mission was the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight, marking the beginning of galactic détente between the two nations. Photo credit: Helen Holter
1969 U.S.S.R. stamp: Sergei Korolev, revered mastermind of the Soviet space race. Photo credit: Helen Holter
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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
  • This 1969 stamp depicts the Soviet rocket 'Vostok' (Russian for 'East') at the launchpad in Baiikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Helen Holter This 1969 stamp depicts the Soviet rocket ‘Vostok’ (Russian for ‘East’) at the launchpad in Baiikonur, Kazakhstan. Helen Holter
  • 1961 U.S.S.R. stamp: At age 27, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Photo credit: Helen Holter 1961 U.S.S.R. stamp: At age 27, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Helen Holter
  • 1975 U.S.S.R. stamp: This Apollo-Soyuz mission was the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight, marking the beginning of galactic détente between the two nations. Photo credit: Helen Holter 1975 U.S.S.R. stamp: This Apollo-Soyuz mission was the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight, marking the beginning of galactic détente between the two nations. Helen Holter
  • 1969 U.S.S.R. stamp: Sergei Korolev, revered mastermind of the Soviet space race. Photo credit: Helen Holter 1969 U.S.S.R. stamp: Sergei Korolev, revered mastermind of the Soviet space race. Helen Holter
  • 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 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. Helen Holter
  • 1966 U.S.S.R. stamp: Launched in 1965, Molniya-1 (Russian for 'lightning') was the Soviet Union's first military communications satellite. Photo credit: Helen Holter 1966 U.S.S.R. stamp: Launched in 1965, Molniya-1 (Russian for ‘lightning’) was the Soviet Union’s first military communications satellite. Helen Holter
  • 1974 U.S.S.R. stamp: Soviet missions to Mars, Mars-4 through March-7, were all launched in 1973. Photo credit: Helen Holter 1974 U.S.S.R. stamp: Soviet missions to Mars, Mars-4 through March-7, were all launched in 1973. Helen Holter

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It wasn’t easy or simple. It took three years of meeting the right people in Russia and eventually making our way to the once highly classified Star City, hidden in a forest near Moscow with a 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!”

After some initially tough meetings with officials at the Russian space program, we developed a rapport with them and flew down to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh desert to see the facilities and watch a manned-Soyuz space launch.  

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

Since that pioneering journey back in 2005, travelers that have joined us on our visits inside the Russian space program year after year 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 even met celebrities like Martha Stewart and Microsoft’s Charles Simonyi, the first “tourist cosmonaut” to travel twice in space (in 2007 and 2009.)

Insider’s Access

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

Backup crew cosmonauts finish shooting photos of 'their' Soyuz rocket. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Backup crew cosmonauts finish shooting photos of ‘their’ Soyuz rocket. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
  • 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.
  • 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’ Press 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.
  • 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 are whisked away by bus to the launchpad – in the same manner of the U.S.S.R.’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Garagin.
  • 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.
The Soyuz rolls out from its assembly hangar in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
The Soyuz spacecraft towers at 162 feet, ready for takeoff in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
A visitor asks a question at the cosmonauts’ press conference in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Cosmonauts salute space officials in their Ready to Go report, before heading to the launchpad. Photo credit: Don Cohen
Soyuz liftoff from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Don Cohen
  • The Soyuz rolls out from its assembly hangar in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes The Soyuz rolls out from its assembly hangar in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Douglas Grimes
  • The Soyuz spacecraft towers at 162 feet, ready for takeoff in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes The Soyuz spacecraft towers at 162 feet, ready for takeoff in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Douglas Grimes
  • A visitor asks a question at the cosmonauts’ press conference in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes A visitor asks a question at the cosmonauts’ press conference in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Douglas Grimes
  • Cosmonauts salute space officials in their Ready to Go report, before heading to the launchpad. Photo credit: Don Cohen Cosmonauts salute space officials in their Ready to Go report, before heading to the launchpad. Don Cohen
  • Soyuz liftoff from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Don Cohen Soyuz liftoff from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Don Cohen

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Star City

Sandwiched between all of our insider’s access at the launch is a deep dive into the evolution of the Soviet/Russian space program headquartered at Star City, one component of which is a 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 and space exploration, like the Monino Aviation Museum. We also view artifacts from the Cold War space race, including a Tupolev Tu-95 bomber and Yuri Gagarin’s space suit. 

Learning about the specifics of space suits. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Learning about the specifics of space suits. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Train Like a Cosmonaut

Travelers 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, to don a Russian space suit and practice maneuvers, to dive underwater for spacewalk training in the Hydrolab, or even to feel what 4Gs is like in the world’s largest centrifuge.

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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, during which time we become weightless. It pulls about 4Gs and you recover, and then it does another one, repeating this about 10 or 12 times over several hours.

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

Go Inside the Russian Space Program

The elements on this trip collectively offer a great insider’s view of how the space program works, and how well it works. Over the past few years, the US had been reliant on the Soyuz for delivering our astronauts to the International Space Station. 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
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.

Want to go inside the Russian Space program yourself? Check out our Inside the Russian Space Program tour and contact us today!

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