11/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Flight School: Day 0

I will be posting a thread of "Flight School" blogs about my cosmonaut training over the next few months, recounting my space EDventures as backup to Charles Simonyi, a civilian who will be going into space for the second time next March 25. I hope to get a rhythm going soon. For context/background, you can see the Space Adventures site, or recent coverage of Richard Garriott's launch, which was organized by Space Adventures, a US company.

SA is also organizing everything for Charles and me, and is our official interface with the Russian Space Agency. Day by day, of course, we will be living within the Russian system and experiencing it face-to-face, living in the Russian section of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, where NASA's astronauts also train but are housed in a "foreign" section. (On the Space Station, Charles will live in the Russian modules.) So we are either more local than the US astronauts here, or we are double foreigners... Photos at, often quicker than I can get these posts up.

Disclosure: I am an investor in and client of Space Adventures, which edits these posts.

My training - Day 0

So, here I am at Star City near Moscow, getting a medical check-up in order to go into training as a backup astronaut. That's not a simple one-day procedure; in fact, I already did three days of tests last spring at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (which is now scrubbing up after costly devastation from Hurricane Ike).

That was for the Americans -- Space Adventures -- to make sure that I was healthy enough to present to the Russians. Now the Russians are having a look for themselves. Yesterday was a whirlwind of EKGs and various physical inspections -- lung X-rays, dental survey (they found what may be a new cavity), drawing of blood (five tubes) and so on. Right now I am wearing a Holter monitor, so I can't go swimming (or wash) until they take it off at 9 am.

But of course what's really happening is that I'm getting an overwhelming introduction to the Russian system. I can tell right now that this is going to be a battle of the wills -- me against the Russian system. Of course in one way I will lose: The Russian system will not change. But I will also win: I will learn how to change myself, but voluntarily, bending my own will to survive and thrive, while maintaining some inner core. After all, I'm doing this of my own volition... something I may have to remind myself of from time to time in the months ahead.

For now, I just need to get through the next few days. Over the next three months, I'll be spending about half my time in Russia and half in the US. I spent last night in the building that will be my home half-time over the next three months, and full-time from mid-January to mid-March. After that, I'll move to Baikonur with Charles Simonyi, the person to whom I am backup. (If for some reason he can't go, I get the chance to replace him -- but only if I can come up with the funds.)

This building, called Prophi 1, is actually nicer than I expected. The "rooms" are in fact two-room suites, Russian-style, elegant but slightly threadbare. Each of them has a little balcony looking out over the woods -- which will soon enough become a snowy wilderness.

They are cosy -- no need for the space heater I was planning to bring. On the other hand, no Internet access until I return in a couple of weeks. And I still haven't managed to see the pool. I have heard all kinds of stories about it: It opens at 7 am. No, it's open only from 9 to 6, weekdays. (Guess I'll have to go into Moscow on weekends to swim.) It's a pleasant temperature. No, it sometimes goes down to 50 degrees. It's filthy. No, it's just that they use a silver compound rather than chlorine to keep it clean. In any case, for the next few nights I will be staying with a friend who has his own pool.

Of course, that adds complications because the next three days of tests are in downtown Moscow, but it's not yet clear where. I speak passable Russian and can find my way around the city... but the challenge will be to find the right person, in the right wing, in the right corridor, in the right room, of giant state institutions designed only for those who have worked there for years. Addresses often include maps because you simply can't find places without a visual guide.

Tech support for an astronaut

On the plus side, I have already spent time chatting with a variety of astronauts in a non-photo-opp way... In fact, I even provided Owen Garriott (Richard's father, who has flown twice) with tech support for his e-mail! He was with us for the launch and is now staying here in Star City in Richard's room -- which is the one that does have Internet access. So Charles and I and our two Space Adventures handlers and Dr. Jennings all sat around in his living room switching the cable from one PC to another. And for dinner, we went over to the NASA compound where Sunny Williams (an astronaut who is now a deputy in charge of operations) and Mike Faul and other folks were just hanging out. I first saw Sunny Williams from Russian mission control back in 2007; she was on the Space Station when Charles arrived on his first trip. And here she was in person, considerably less fuzzy!