Located within the formerly top secret (and still guarded) Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center on the outskirts of the Russian capital, the Hydrolab is a gigantic ‘neutral buoyancy’ water tank that offsets the force of gravity that causes objects – or people – to sink or rise. It’s the only effective way of simulating weightlessness on Earth for extended periods. “It’s very close to being in open space,” says Andreas Bergweiler, chief operating officer and mission director for Space Affairs, an agency that organises training sessions at the facility.
“The only difference is that in space you are in a vacuum and there’s no atmosphere you can feel. Here, you have the mass of the water around you, but the movements are just the same.” First, you don a real Orlan spacesuit before being lowered into the pool and guided to submerged, full-size mock-ups of the International Space Station’s Zvezda Service Module and the Soyuz spacecraft.
There, you’re hooked up to an oxygen supply and connected to ‘Mission Control’ via an intercom, before carrying out authentic maintenance work on the module’s exterior. From this point, you’re in space. But beware: one false move and you could float off into oblivion… or at least to the other side of the monstrous tank. “You have to drag yourself around the module one hand at a time,” says 48-year-old German artist and aspiring astronaut Michael Najjar. “But that’s the best part. It’s incredibly exciting and challenging to be weightless in this kind of suit.”
Requirements include a PADI scuba-diving certificate, a certified health check and a visitor’s visa for Russia, as well as a good level of physical and psychological fitness. Underwater cosmonaut training is fun, but gruelling: the heavy suit will test your strength, while the sessions – some as long as seven hours – will stretch your stamina and endurance (a high-intensity cardio training regime is recommended as preparation). It all adds to the authenticity, though. And when you get to follow in the footsteps of Yuri himself, it’s an exclusive adventure that’s hard to beat.
Claustrophobics need not apply. “It’s not good if you feel like tuna in a can,” says Bergweiler. “Take a deep breath. You must learn to control your body and mind before taking on this challenge.”