A childhood obsession with space travel led the author and adventurer to a greater understanding of what it really means to reach for the stars.
When I was a small boy, I dreamed of travelling to outer space. What small boy doesn’t? But my childhood dream didn’t diminish during my savage and curious youth. Perhaps I never grew up.
I was in Antarctica, a former paratrooper and no longer small – 193 centimetres tall and 120 kilograms, to be precise – when I received word that I’d been accepted into the Russian space program. It was, given the magnitude of this news, a bad time to slip awkwardly in deep snow and snap my cruciate ligament.
Racing against the clock to regain strength and fitness after a knee reconstruction proved to be the least of my challenges. To reach the maximum allowable weight for the seat shock-absorbers inside the Soyuz descent module, I had to shed 25 kilograms. Fast.
Back in Sydney, I suffered in the gym for three hours a day, every day, and ate nothing but chicken breast, salmon, eggwhites, avocado and spinach. It’s not a regimen I’d recommend but it worked. When I touched down at Sheremetyevo International Airport, I was as smug as a poodle in skinny jeans.
The Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center lies within a gated military community known as Star City on the outskirts of Moscow. It was once a top-secret luxury enclave for the Soviet aerospace elite. Now its unkempt grounds, fading murals and weathered monuments are relics of a far more heroic age.
Photo: Bradley Trevor Grieve prepares to suit up at the cosmonaut training centre in 2004.
The cosmonaut medical testing program was confronting. Stress-performance standards are two to three times higher than those for jet-fighter pilots. I wore a heart monitor day and night and avoided thoughts that might result in suspicious data.
On one occasion, while whirling around in the world’s largest centrifuge at sickening speeds, a mechanical malfunction caused the pilot module to spin chaotically, quadrupling the already overwhelming g-forces. It felt as though my brain had been pounded with a meat mallet. When the emergency shutdown was complete and they were able to drag me out, I couldn’t even crawl in a straight line.
Cosmonaut training isn’t glamorous; much of it involves vomiting into helmets. I was constantly reminded that I was the largest primate ever to attempt space flight. To squeeze into the unyielding metal interior of my Orlan spacesuit, I had to dislocate my left shoulder – neither as easy nor as painless as Mel Gibson made it seem in Lethal Weapon 2.
Today my framed cosmonaut accreditation hangs in my study. I never did get selected for a launch and have yet to see the view from heaven. Was it all worth it? Absolutely. I loved my time in Russia and feel humbled to have stumbled in the footsteps of the extraordinary men and women who made space exploration possible. My hope for humanity has increased exponentially after witnessing, first hand, how uniting great minds for a great purpose can take us places we can barely begin to imagine.
However, my most poignant recollection from Star City was not clambering into rockets or defying gravity but standing quietly in front of the unremarkable apartment belonging to Valentina Gagarina, the widow of Yuri Gagarin – the first human to travel to outer space. Valentina’s picture window overlooks an enormous concrete statue of her long-dead husband. There, as I contemplated my feeble attempt to slip the surly bonds of Earth, I learned an important lesson. While great journeys can change your life – and, in some cases, change the world – coming home is what matters most.
Penguin Bloom (ABC Books), by Bradley Trevor Greive and Cameron Bloom, is out now.