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February, 2012

"They think what they are doing is isolating.  This is bullshit."


Sergei Kholodov is imposing even at eighty-one, his burly six-foot frame filling his small office at the National Research University in Zelenograd.  The office is decorated in an ornate, almost Victorian style—far more lace and filigree than Kholodov's gravelly voice, Tolstoy beard, and five years of service as a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Defense Forces would suggest.  I haven’t even asked him any questions yet.


"I have been to space.  What they are doing, in that desert, it is not space."  Kholodov sighs.  He looks tired, and his pale blue eyes—which had been fixed on me intently when he met me in his building's foyer—are unfocused, staring somewhere far beyond the wall behind me.  "They have put five cosmonauts in a box in the Nevada desert.  And they have made it look like space, feel like space, I know.  But it will not smell like space.  Those cosmonauts know they are not really alone.  They know, one sledgehammer to a cheap wooden wall and they are breathing in Earth's own oxygen again."


I’m still scribbling key words in the last sentence down when Kholodov stands up from behind his desk.  "Let us go for a walk.  In the sun."  He gestures to the door.  I save my notes and recording on my tablet and head out of Kholodov's office, but the old lieutenant stops me with a hand on my shoulder.

"I have been to space," he says, and this time his eyes are boring into mine.  "There is no beauty.  What you are writing, I don't care.  Just remember what I am saying.  Space is a pit."


•    •  •  •    •


Earlier this year, in March, I visited NASA's simulation site in northeast Nevada.  My guide around the facility—little more than a shantytown of tents surrounding the large geodesic dome that contained the terranauts—was Michael Bloom, a senior NASA communications engineer.  Bloom is slender, with thick-framed glasses and a shaved head, and he was dressed more like an arctic explorer than a laboratory scientist.  There was half an inch of gray, slushy snow on the ground, and a dense sky threatened more overhead.


"I assure you, our five crewmembers are completely isolated," Bloom said as we walked from my car to the tent that housed all the tools used to communicate with the group inside the dome.  His voice was steady, but he was shivering in the cold.  "We've replicated everything.  Everything except weightlessness.  And radiation, but they're doing that at Ames."  Bloom opened the flap to the comm tent and ushered me in.


"It's day two-oh-three, so they're about forty-five million kilometers out from launch.  Factor in Earth's orbit and you're looking at a fifteen, sixteen minute comms delay.  That's hardwired in—we can't communicate instantaneously."  Bloom sat down in a large leather chair in front of a bank of keyboards.  "You can email them from here, but for security we only have them connected to an internal network.  We send them a news digest each week, usually, but nothing too potentially upsetting.  Your emails will, of course, be subject to approval."  I nodded, and asked about bandwidth, but was assured anything I sent would be fine—if it was text only.  Bloom told me the simulation was scheduled to land in ten days, so I'd better get my questions off to the terranauts quickly.  They were about to get busy.


NASA's simulation in Nevada is a full mock run of the manned mission planned for five years from now.  Two hundred and thirteen days of travel to the red rock, six months setting up a prefabricated structure on the ersatz Martian surface, and a two hundred day return trip.  If everything goes well, the actual mission gets the green light.  If not, well, back to the drawing board, and NASA once again finds its neck under the sword of senatorial budget subcommittee.  The Nevada dome is designed to mimic the flight completely—the wooden "spaceship" sits on a three-axis motion-simulating carriage, capable of up to four gs to imitate takeoff and landing.  The entire interior of the dome is lined with LED screens depicting where in space the ship should be.  It is, in Bloom's words, "consummately immersive."


After Bloom left the comm tent, I sat down to type out my first question to the crew.  The five terranauts consist of one Chinese, one Indian, one Russian, and two American astronauts.  The mission's captain is Dr. David Ellis, a pilot and aeronautical engineer who's spent two months onboard China's space station.  I decided he would be my first target.  My early questions were simple:  Why'd you choose to volunteer?  What's been the hardest thing so far?  How's the crew getting along?


An hour later, I had a response from Dr. Ellis—who insisted I call him David.  How could I not volunteer? he wrote, when there's so much to discover?  David said he was enjoying the mission immensely, though after prodding in future emails he did admit to being upset about missing his daughter's tenth birthday.  The crew is meshing well, he said.  Yang and Dmitri have taught us how to play Dandu, and it's a good way to spend what we think are Friday nights.


Over the next few hours David and I traded half a dozen messages and a good picture of the captain emerged: affable, sense of humor, and exceedingly excited about the prospect of going to Mars, of moving mankind beyond living on just one planet.  I feel like Columbus, Ericson, Gagarin, he wrote me towards the end of our first exchange.  Sometimes I forget the stars we see in here are lights and nothing more.  But can you imagine?  A completely new world?


•    •  •  •    •


Kholodov's usual peregrination through the grounds of the university is strikingly beautiful—tree-lined paths around buildings decorated with imposing soviet cenotaphs.  In early June, it's warm and sunny with clear blue skies overhead.  Kholodov is quick to point out this was the route the university rector took Supreme Premier Vladimir Putin on when he visited last year, but also quick to point out that he himself was not invited to meet with Putin. "They told me to stay home," he chuckles.


When we reach a bench on the outskirts of the cobblestone quad, Kholodov reaches into his coat and produces a small bag of sunflower seeds.  "Zelenograd's animal symbol is the squirrel.  We will feed the squirrels now.  It is good luck."


I tell Kholodov about David's first email.  He smiles slightly and tosses a seed to one of the brown squirrels in the courtyard.  "I know Dr. Ellis.  He is a—how do you say it?—optimist."  It's the only time I've seen Kholodov struggle for an English word.  "Do you know about Mars-500?  It happened about twenty years ago.  2011.  You must have been in high school."


Kholodov is referring to an experiment in isolation undertaken by the Russian Academy of Sciences two decades ago, simulating a 520-day voyage to Mars.  Six men from four countries were sealed into a 600 cubic meter plywood box in the basement of the RAS' Institute of Biomedical Problems—a "big coffin," according to Kholodov—and observed as they pretended to hurtle through space towards the Red Planet.  There was a simulated landing, but nothing close to the level of simulation going on in Nevada.


When the six men emerged from the capsule in November of 2011 and were declared healthy (and sane), the experiment was quickly declared a success—mankind could survive the isolating nature of space exploration.  But seven months later, the wife of one of the Russian terranauts filed for divorce, claiming the man who came back was not the man she married.  Five months after that, on the anniversary of his departure from the plywood spaceship in the basement of the IBP, the Russian terranaut shot himself in the head with a 9mm Grach pistol.  Plans for a manned Russian mission to Mars in 2025, announced in the months following Mars-500, were put on hold.


"If that man had gone to space…" Kholodov trails off, then chuckles, a raspy noise against the gray hairs of his beard.  "A lot more people would be dead."


•    •  •  •    •


The five terranauts in Nevada are all very similar to David.  Kyle Baker is the other American, a young mechanical engineer on leave from Raytheon.  Yang Wu is the oldest at thirty-eight, a member of the team that designed the Ri-Chu space station who is reserved and quiet about everything except space.  I get the most exuberant emails from Raj Mangeshkar, the youngest terranaut, but even Dmitri Baranova, a reticent Russian surgeon, has sent me emails about his great duty to explore the space in mind of man.  During my time in Nevada, the five crewmembers seemed eager to talk about their reasons for signing up for NASA's experiment, if not their day-to-day lives.  I learned far more about them than they did about me—Bloom constantly appeared, hovering over my shoulder, to scan the emails I had written for any sort of "upsetting content," which usually takes the form of anything that could remind them too much that the outside world is changing: new music, trips I've taken, politics.


I argued with Bloom to let me ask Raj and Yang about the rise in Chinese-Indian tensions, but he said they hadn't been told.  "The Sino-Indian border dispute is completely off-limits," he told me on one of my last days in Nevada as the two of us hunched over a plate of microwaved beans in the mess tent.  "We'll brief them on it when they're done.  Besides, the whole mess should be sorted out by then."  Bloom snorted into his beans.  "Look, here's the deal.  We're going to go dark sometime towards the end of July.  We're still monitoring on video, of course, but we don't want to risk anything."


Bloom meant NASA is planning to cut the terranauts' communication off while they're at work setting up the mock Mars base.  Earth and Mars revolve around the sun at vastly different radii, which contribute to different year lengths—one Martian year is almost two Terran years.  For approximately two weeks out of every two years, the positions of Earth and Mars are such that they're blocked from one another by the Sun, a time referred to as the synodic period.


"It's a huge problem for Mars settlement," Bloom said.  "No data in or out for two weeks.  Can you imagine if the U.S. dropped off the face of the earth for two weeks?"  I asked him if there was a way to bounce the signal around the sun.  "Sure there is," Bloom pushed his beans away, pulled a blue ballpoint pen out of his breast pocket, and started drawing on a napkin.  "You put a relay satellite at the L4 or L5 Lagrange point, here or here.  But that's a big satellite in an area of high asteroid activity.  You'd be replacing it every three months."


So dark it is in July—Bloom and his team will pull the plug on the commlink with the terranauts for two weeks starting on July 25.  The crew doesn't know the exact date, only that their simulation enters the synodic period towards the third week of July.  NASA's hoping that when the comms go dead, the terranauts just carry on.  Bloom thinks it's an important step to getting this mission they're simulating approved.


Bloom's goal, after all, is ambitious: a space station—on Mars.  Continuously inhabited.  A human colony on a red rock millions of miles away from… anything.


•    •  •  •    •


When we've emptied his bag of sunflower seeds, Kholodov starts his walk again, and motions for me to follow along.


"It would be easier, of course," he says, "if they were not so concerned with coming back."  I assume he's taking the engineering position—less food, less fuel, much less cost—but Kholodov isn't that simple.  "The kind of man who signs up for a one-way mission to Mars isn't the kind of man who shoots himself with a Grach.  He is the kind of man who really wants to live forever.  In a way.  And—" Kholodov stops walking midsentence and turns to face me.  "He is the kind of man who does not give a damn about Terran politics.  No culture clash."


I ask Kholodov several questions after that, but he's silent or monosyllabic until we get to the main entrance of the university.  It's a long path lined with ragged trees that leads, eventually, to downtown Zelenograd.


"You know what was here, in Zelenograd, before the city?" Kholodov asks.  "Nothing.  We are here—I am here—because sometime between Laika and Gagarin, Khrushchev decided we should be here.  And the Soviets did it.  Out of nothing.  We are now number one exporter of integrated circuits in all of Russia.  Seventy-nine percent of the residents have college degrees.  Nothing around but forest.  We are a colony."  I’m picturing the map of Moscow’s districts, jostling one another for position around the Central Okrug’s Red Square.  Zelenograd, deemed a Moscow district by the administrative powers that be, sits alone to the northwest, disconnected from the rest of the map.


"And you know how the Soviets built Zelenograd from the air?"  Kholodov smiles, a slit in the gray beard that appears suddenly and stretches up his face, crinkling the skin by his eyes.  "No dissention.  Zero.  That is the secret to alchemy.  Can NASA and the U.S.A. say that about their science experiment in the desert?  I do not think they comprehend."  The smile disappears.  "No, I do not think so.  NASA wants to build a Zelenograd on Mars, a scientific Eden.  But I am not in Zelenograd because I choose to be.  I am here because I cannot leave.  You understand?"


I tell Kholodov I understand, and he says he has a lecture to give.  Without another word, he shakes my hand firmly and turns around, walking with long strides back to the crenelated brick buildings.  In the late afternoon light, the lieutenant casts a long shadow on the campus' stark white tile.


•    •  •  •    •


I pay a visit to Nevada once more after my trip to Russia.  Michael Bloom greets me at the military checkpoint that marks the entrance to the camp, and escorts me through the swinging gate, flashing his badge to anyone who looks in his direction.


"We upped security a bit," he mumbles as we walk through the boiling summer desert sun to the communication tent.  "We cut comms in two days, don't want anything… out of the ordinary happening."  Bloom has transitioned from arctic explorer to safari vacationer, a lightweight khaki shirt over khaki shorts and birkenstocks.


A blast of cool air rushes out from the comm tent when Bloom opens the flap and ushers me inside.  Bloom steps in and wipes his forehead with his rolled up shirtsleeve, then sits down across from me at a folding table in the center of the tent.


"I heard you went to Russia."  Bloom's tone isn't necessarily accusatory, but it gets the point across.  I figure there's no point in being coy, so I tell Bloom about my visit with Kholodov, how the old Russian doesn't think this mission can be done—doesn't even think this simulation can be done.


Bloom pauses and leans back in his chair.  He wipes his forehead once more and then leans forward again and asks me if I've ever been to Star City.  I tell him I haven't.


"Star City," Bloom says, "is where Sergei Kholodov would be living if he hadn't fucked up."


It's true, probably.  Star City is a town outside of Moscow, tree-lined and picturesque, a verdurous oasis in hoary Mother Russia.  It's the home of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, and to the families of Russian cosmonauts past and present—kind of a Beverly Hills for the space-faring Russian elite.  Kholodov has no place there.


"Have you listened to the recording of him during Derbent?"  Bloom is trying to hide a smirk, but isn't doing a very good job of it.  "The Soviets had to bail his ass out three months early."


That was, definitively, the end of Lieutenant Sergei Kholodov's career as a cosmonaut.  Born in 1949, Kholodov was twelve years old when Gagarin floated around the globe in a cramped capsule and became the first human being to see the earth from space.  As his family watched the launch on state television, Kholodov claims to have whispered in his mother's ear that he was one day going to do the same.


He went to college and studied electrical engineering, enlisted in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, excelled in officer school, and—on paper—was the perfect cosmonaut candidate.  But his chance to walk in Gagarin's weightless footsteps didn't come until after the bureaucratic curtain of the Soviet Union fell.  In 1994, at the age of 44, Kholodov boarded the Russian spaceflight mission Soyuz TM-18, call sign "Derbent," as a research cosmonaut, slated to spend nine months on the now-decommissioned Russian space station Mir.


As the mission progressed, Kholodov spent more and more time each day at the station's small, circular viewports, gazing not at Earth, but in the opposite direction, into the vast gulf of interstellar distance that separated him from the stars.  After five and a half months, he stopped talking to anyone onboard the station and took to scribbling furiously and almost constantly in a large, leather-bound journal he had brought with him.  Three days before the mission's six-month mark, Kholodov snapped.


The recording from the space station's cameras got little coverage in the United States, but played almost pervasively on Russian evening news broadcasts after some Roscosmos engineer leaked it to a news outlet.  In the video, Kholodov can be seen tearing apart his bunk and using one of the metal legs of his fold-out desk to beat the reinforced porthole window over and over and over again, screaming the word "nichego."  When the other Russians in the station gathered around the small door to his closet-sized quarters, he began brandishing the desk leg and ranting about how mankind was "nothing" and that nothing he could do would change this, would make the universe care that he had existed, that his species had existed, that Earth was "just a blue pebble in an endless black sea."


"Everything," Kholodov said and turned to face the camera, "everything, everyone, everything that has ever happened—happened on nothing."  Dr. Valeri Polyakov can then be seen approaching Kholodov with a syringe before the leaked video cuts to black.


Soyuz TM-18 landed on Earth, with Kholodov aboard, four days later.


"Pretty nuts, right?"  Bloom smiles.


•    •  •  •    •


I got my last email from David about six hours before the comm shutdown severed his ties with the outside world for two weeks.  He was jovial as ever, joking about an argument between Raj and Yang over the flavor their freeze-dried ice cream was supposed to be imitating and even asking if I had seen the new Superman movie his kids kept raving about.  At the end of the email, he tells me I should pick up a copy of Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, the 20th century physicist.


Everything, David writes, everything we have ever known has happened on that dot.  Sagan calls Earth "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."  It's beautiful, isn't it?  That there's so much of the universe we haven't seen?  So much to discover, so much mystery?  I think Sagan would like what we're doing here.  We're pushing forward, into the unknown.  And the goal, the goal is to push humanity beyond that dot.  To have a rust red dot to match Earth’s blue.


The prefab structure came together, and the air is working, and the crew is happy.  All the experiments are going well.  Mankind can be spacefaring.  We're showing that.  A universe infinite in scope, ours to explore!


I think it's wonderful.  Everything up here is wonderful.


I thought about that as I walked out of the comm tent and looked across the encampment to Bloom’s consummately immersive dome. I thought about Earth, suspended in a sunbeam.  Down here, up there—Kholodov would scoff at me and mutter something about prepositions and how everything in the universe is relative.


We're all up there, in some sense.  There's beauty in that, and terror—the same terrifying beauty that confronted Kholodov during his orbits around the planet.  But even terrifying things can be wondrous, and after all these millennia of existence, human beings still see magic in the stars.  Because, after all, what are millennia to the stars but wisps of smoke?  Our lives, when whatever evidence of them reaches the stars thousands of light years away, are just a fading echo of our days, our thoughts, our joy, our pain, our laughter, of long-passed loves and long forgotten deeds.


The thought that something could be so far away—could live only in history and never grasp the present—that is the terror.  The wonder lies in our ability to live on this planet, at this moment, to breath its air and see its trees and love its people and not care if the footprint of our life is being whisked away to the edge of the universe, not care that the universe is void and humanity a small light in the darkness, not care that swathes of our galaxy will never be explored, but to realize, finally, that everything up there is beautiful—and everything down here is wonderful.

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