Russia's Star City is so named not because it is home to movie stars or pop stars, but to cosmonauts, the heroes of the Soviet and Russian space programs.
Today Star City is a sort of space explorer's utopia, where cosmonauts of the past and present have lived with their families since Yuri Gagarin became the first human to visit space in 1961.
Formerly a secret Air Force facility, Star City was highly guarded even by Soviet standards. Not listed on any Soviet-era maps, the closed urban-type settlement is hidden in the woods some twenty miles northeast of Moscow.
As the Soviet space program developed, the need for a cosmonaut training center became evident and so Star City was born. And with the arrival of prospective cosmonauts and their families, the military facility became a legitimate city, at least by rural standards.
A post office, movie theater, railway station, and a couple of schools are all within the confines of Star City. The site even captured the imagination of sophisticated city-dwellers with rumors of its impressive selection of shops.
In the 1990s, however, the curtain of secrecy over Star City was lifted and the site was opened to the public. For the first time, visitors could catch a glimpse of the tank where cosmonauts practice their space walks under water, or the gigantic centrifuge where the soon-to-be spacemen are swung around at dizzying speeds, experiencing forces eight times the force of gravity in the process.
Today, a handful of companies offer special tours of the facility and visitors can even jump into a mock-up space suit, hop in the centrifuge, or board a "zero-gravity" flight that simulates weightlessness through a parabolic trajectory. But for those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground, Star City also offers more down-to-earth activities.
In fact, the cosmonaut simulation experience does not even require you to leave your seat at the planetarium, where you can learn to navigate using thousands of stars as your reference. Meanwhile, the museum of space travel and exploration has an impressive collection of vintage spacesuits, capsules charred from reentering the atmosphere, and a replica of Gagarin's office, which holds a book that is routinely signed by every crew before launch.
And if you're fortunate enough to visit on the Fourth of July, you might experience Star City's celebration at the homes built for NASA personnel in the 1990s. Just look for the American-style tract houses among the sea of Khrushchev-era concrete buildings.
Know Before You Go
Star City (Zvyozdny Gorodok) is located near Shchyolkovo, about an hour's drive northeast of Moscow. The nearest airport is Chkalovsky Airport and the nearest rail station is the Tsiolkovskaya stop off the Yaroslavl Railroad.