Q: The Expedition interviews continue with Expedition 7 Commander Yuri Malenchenko. Yuri, first of all, I'm always fascinated by why astronauts and cosmonauts do what they do. Why was it that you wanted to become a cosmonaut to fly in space?
Preflight Interview: Yuri Malenchenko
A: This is a very interesting profession, to fly to space, to see what it looks like. I have always had a great desire to fly to space. And so, when I was offered to, I happily accepted the proposal and I have never regretted this decision. I've been a cosmonaut for 17 years, and I've been happy with that.
Your mission has obviously changed pretty dramatically since the loss of Columbia. How did you find out the news about the Columbia accident? What was your reaction? And, what have you and Ed Lu been doing in the weeks that have followed to prepare for a very different type of mission?
At that time, we were in Houston, going through our training. And, we were waiting for the Columbia crew to return. I learned about the accident almost immediately, because this news traveled fast because at that time we were waiting for them to return. We were all very shocked. It was a great tragedy. And, immediately, it became clear that everything will change from this moment. That the program will change. Our future work will change. There was a certain time period where we were trying to figure out what is going on. And then, a week later, we got a more or less clear idea of what we need to do next. And, a week later, we started working on our future work. But, during that one week, all our minds were occupied with the fact that we lost our friends, and it was a great loss for each one of us.
Yuri, you had planned, obviously, for three people on board the station during your Expedition. Now you'll fly with Ed Lu; just the two of you. Less supplies, less consumables. No shuttles visiting. How do you expect your increment to be? How challenging will it be without all of the other things that you had planned to do in your normal flight plan?
Of course, we will have fewer resources and fewer capabilities available to us. We won't have any shuttle flights. Originally, there were three shuttle flights scheduled for our Expedition, and we had a lot of activities scheduled for the construction of the station. All of this has been postponed. We will use the resources that we have remaining and all our capabilities to continue. We still have our program. It looks different, but we will continue working. We will continue supporting the station. We will continue performing scientific experiments. You were right when you said that we will only have two people onboard of the station. We will be missing our third crewmember, but we realize that two people are enough to maintain the station in a working state. And, additionally to conduct work on science experiments. That's how I see our future work.
How important has your increment become, Yuri, at this critical time for human spaceflight? Do you view an extra responsibility in the sense of your increment keeping the station manned to prevent an interruption for manned operations? How critical will your Expedition be?
I would say that as far as keeping the station manned is concerned, I don't think it is too problematic. We have resources. They might be limited, but we do have them, to continue the flight and to continue with our program. The work will be somewhat different. It won't be as dynamic. But, it will be a normal work, and I don't anticipate any significant program problems in continuing with the program.
I want to talk about the launch and landing phase in a Soyuz vehicle a little bit, Yuri. First of all launch. If I was seated next to you…for the launch, the ascent, through orbital insertion, if you could walk us through what that's like to be strapped into a Soyuz capsule and the whole launch and ascent phase.
If we compare this to the shuttle, I can say that launch on the shuttle and on Soyuz are more or less the same. Maybe it is a little bit more smooth on Soyuz, fewer vibrations. Our launch vehicle will be placed on a special pad, and the vehicle itself will be protected with a head fairing. After the liftoff, after we go through the atmosphere, different portions of the space vehicle will start jettisoning. And then, eight minutes later, just like on the shuttle, we will be in space. It's a very serious, very critical stage. But, I think that we can feel very safe, because every second has been thoroughly thought out, from the moment before launch until the moment we are on orbit. All possible solutions have been looked into. That's my brief answer to your question.
What's it like to fly for two days prior to docking in a cramped quarters like you will have in the Soyuz? What's life like during that two-day period?
It's very interesting. We will have two days, and we will travel very far. The starting orbit will be at an altitude of 120 kilometers; and then we will lift it to the station altitude, which is 400 kilometers. So, we will be busy building our own attitude so that we can dock to the station at a certain altitude, a certain attitude, and orientation. But, I would say that it will be very calm and slow. Because time goes by very slowly in space. It's a very important time period on which the whole successes of the mission will depend.
Yuri, once you've docked to the station - originally on STS-114 you had eight or nine days' worth of handover time with the Expedition 6 crew to get acclimated to life on board the station. Now, you're only going to have 6 days' worth of handover time, a more compressed schedule. How do you expect that period to be? What do you, what are the most important things that you expect to have to hand over and receive a handover from the Expedition 6 crew?
It's true that the work schedule, the handover will be more compressed. We will have to work harder, more productively. We will, of course, talk about all the station systems, about all the specifics of the work on board of the station with the crew that has been on board for a long time. We will try to share that experience. And then after that we will have to rely on ourselves and on the ground for help to get used to living on board of the station. But, I think that we will have sufficient time for the handover, although it might be a little bit more busy than we originally expected.
You know your colleague, Ed Lu, very well. You flew together aboard Atlantis on STS-106 in 2000. You performed a space walk together. What kind of a Board Engineer for launch and landing will he be? And, how is he to fly with?
It's true that I have worked with Ed Lu before. We worked together in space, and we have been working together for a long time here on Earth. I know him very well. I could pay a lot of compliments to him right now, but I don't want to do this because it's not a good sign to do this before launch. But, I can say that I rely on him. And, not only because he will be the only person that I can rely on when we are in space. But, because he is a very trustworthy and reliable person; and if he does something, he does this the best that he can. And, I can always believe that the result of his effort will be positive.
Just like you took us through launch, if you could carry on through landing now. If…I'm strapped in alongside you from the time of the deorbit burn till the time of touchdown, give us a sense of what that whole hour-long period is like returning to Earth in a Soyuz vehicle.
On Soyuz, this time period is very dynamic and intense. As far as overloads are concerned, the temperature modes are simply time dynamics. Everything changes very quickly. So, it's a very special mode of work and very important. The capsule…enters the atmosphere and the plasma, and then the parachute canopy opens. You feel vibrations. Very unusual feelings. Even if I described to you in great detail all of what happens, you will still be surprised when you experience it yourself. The system is very reliable, and it works very well. But, we will have to monitor all of the systems very closely, to be sure that everything is functioning properly. And, we're getting ready to do this. We're training.
A couple of final questions, Yuri. Do you expect your increment, given the changing nature of what you're going to be asked to do on orbit for six months, do you feel as if you and Ed Lu are more than just a caretaker crew? Do you feel as if you're going to have a fully productive six months on orbit?
Yes, I think so. Our whole program [will] be revised. Some of the things we will not do because…there won't be any shuttle flights to deliver consumables and the hardware. And, even the items that were originally planned to be delivered on Progress will not be delivered because Progress will be delivering something else. But, some of the scientific experiments we will do nevertheless. And, right now we are, we continue training, and we continue to prepare for the experiments. And, I think that it will be very interesting to work there. And, I think we will be pretty busy with science as well.
One final question, Yuri. When history writes this period of time in human spaceflight with the loss of Columbia and the interruption in shuttle flights and station assembly being interrupted, how will history view the importance of your increment, you and Ed Lu, and what you're about to go do in terms of keeping the station manned, keeping it productive until shuttles can resume flight?
It's hard to say. I think that the tragedy that has occurred, the fact that we lost our comrades, the fact is that they gave their lives for the continued space exploration. The fact that we are together and that it's an international project allows us to continue this effort. We have the capabilities of different countries that we can put together to continue. I think that our Expedition confirms that, shows that we continue working even in such a difficult time period.