20 February 2017
Over the half term break, 11 Abingdon boys and 18 girls from St Helen's joined a group undertaking the Cosmonaut Space and Leadership Experience at the Russian Space Agency's Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre near Moscow.
The first day of the trip was spent seeing some of Moscow's iconic sights, including guided tours of Red Square and the Kremlin. Travelling on the city's metro system gave everyone an authentic introduction to life in the city and the lasting legacy of the Soviet era, with huge bronze sculptures decorating the grand station platforms.
The group spent the next four nights living in the Kosmonaut Hostel within the secure Star City complex surrounding the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre. Here they were under the constant guidance and instruction of a true expert in the field of space exploration, ex-NASA Astronaut Dr Mike Foale CBE. Mike, whose father was an RAF officer, was brought up in the UK but his mother was a US citizen, enabling him to join NASA after completing a Ph.D. in Astrophysics at Cambridge. He was amongst the first NASA astronauts ever to live in Star City, where he trained to pilot the Soyuz space capsule and to live and work aboard the USSR's Mir (Peace) Space Station. The pupils were therefore able to hear first hand accounts of life in space and undertake training exercises under the guidance of one of the most experienced and versatile astronauts in any, international, space exploration programme.
The training itself was very varied, including classroom exercises, Soyuz docking simulators and hands-on emergency evacuation and first aid procedures. Overall, most people's favourite was the survival training in the forest surrounding the complex, where top, military experts taught the students how to build shelters and signal fires to survive sub-zero temperatures until rescuers arrive.
Following an evening of celebration and certificate presentations, the group was up early and travelled back to Moscow on the final day. There was a visit to the Cosmonaut Museum and to see a real example of Russia's mothballed space shuttle, the Buran. The trip finished in style with an evening cruise on the Moscow River, ice floes bumping the sides of the boat as it passed through the brightly lit up and snow covered, riverside districts.
All the students, from both schools, thoroughly enjoyed the trip and made a fantastic impression on their hosts who were genuinely impressed by their knowledge and enthusiasm. The best compliment though came from Mike Foale, astronaut extraordinaire, who was overheard on the bus to the airport saying 'That was the most fun I have ever had at Star City!'.