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100 Wonders: The Secret City of the Cosmonauts

From the 1940s to the 1990s, the secretive USSR created a massive constellation of ghost geography. Hundreds of cities. Over a million people living off the map. Not “off the grid”—towns were literally left off of Soviet maps, kept from prying eyes. If you lived there, your city had no public name and as a citizen you were a non-person. 

In one of these secret cities, established in 1960 and known as “Military Unit 26266 in closed townlet number one,” young Russians were trained to be launched into the skies and beyond. Star City, located just east of Moscow, became the home of the Cosmonauts.

During the 1960s the Soviet Union planned extensively for a lunar landing and trained over 60 cosmonauts. Star City blossomed into a real town with its own post office, movie theater, railway station, and a couple of schools—all very, very secret. Its citizens were given special passports so they could enter and leave. Star City was a small world onto itself, kept hidden not just from other countries but from fellow Russians. 

The space program was once a powerful point of pride within the great communist dream, but in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it left Star City and the cosmonauts in serious trouble. At the time, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was on board the Mir space station, with the landing site in Kazakhstan suddenly no longer part of the USSR. Sergei was left on board Mir for months as Russia struggled with the Kazakhstan government. 

Star City adapted and began working more closely with NASA. By the mid 1990s, the curtain of secrecy of Star City had lifted slightly. 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 space travelers are swung around at dizzying speeds under eight times the force of gravity.

In 2008 control of Star City was officially handed over from the Russian military to space agency Roscosmos, making it a civil rather than military organization. It marked the first time since its establishment in 1960 that Star City became open to the general public, though still only with permission. Among the many travel packages currently available is a ten-day “Cosmonaut Overview Training” experience, a $90,000-per-person package that includes centrifuge simulator training, use of a space suit, spacewalk simulation in a buoyancy tank and dinner with a cosmonaut. 

Cosmonauts and their families, both past and present, still live in Star City, including Valentina Goryacheva, the wife of deceased cosmic pioneer Yuri Gagarin, and Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space. The town has recently built a new Russian Orthodox church, added a museum of space travel and human exploration, and established a monument to Laika, the first dog in space.