Q: You have a job that millions of people can only dream about having. Is becoming a cosmonaut and exploring space what you always wanted to do with your life?
Image at right: Expedition 12 Flight Engineer and Soyuz Commander Valery Tokarev
Preflight Interview: Valery Tokarev
A: Frankly speaking, it’s not. When I grew up in a small village, the boys my age and I never knew about space. At that time, just you try to imagine. It’s just small village, it’s far from Moscow to [the] north. We did not see a bus because [there was] no bus, just horses, cows and tractors. We did not have good roads because it was far from the big city; it's even far from a small city. In the summertime, just [as] in the spring and autumn, the roads were broken completely. We could have access to the nearest city, only by riding horses or going on a tractor. We didn’t dream about space because it was so far away from our life. We played soccer, we went fishing and rode the horses -- I loved to ride the horses; I like horses, but all my free time I spent on a horse farm. I knew a lot about the horses on that farm. I really work for that farm. Of course, when in 1961, Yuri Gagarin flew into space, we heard about this. But, I want to say we did not understand reality of what happened for whole world in that time, because it did not influence our life. At that time, we had maybe one or two TVs in our village.
Then tell me how it is that a little boy in that remote village, how did you, what did you do in terms of your education and, and your career that led you to become a cosmonaut?
It’s step-by-step. What I really wanted to do when I was growing up in my small village, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Why? I had not seen a plane, because [there was] not one plane in that area, and I didn’t know enough about aviation. We didn’t have a newspaper, and especially we did not have people who knew what aviation meant, what it meant to be a pilot, or flight engineer. And no one advised or explained to me at that time. But I went to the library in our small village and read whole books about military pilots in the Second World War. It was so influential to me. It was serious impact to my mental [development], and I just wanted to be like them, like a pilot. I just dreamed of being the same, to have the same job. When I finished elementary school, we didn’t have intermediate and high school in our village, [so] I moved to the small city, Rostov Great. It wasn't a big city, but it was the nearest to our village, and continued my education in an intermediate and high school. Anyway, in that city also, I didn’t meet a true pilot or aviation specialist. No one could explain to me how to be a pilot, what I need to do, how I need to prepare for this life, to become a pilot. But, I read and sometimes I have found explanations. When I finished high school, I reported to be a military pilot. I went far south -- it’s a, a couple of thousand miles from my small city, to enter to the High Military School. High Military School is like West Point but smaller than West Point. But boys that finished high school and could pass exams, and it was possible.
And, that led you into a career in, in the Air Force.
Yes. After I finished this High Pilot School, I became a flight [aeronautical] engineer, and I specialized as a fighter pilot, in the move to the wings and start to my military career as a, pilot, military pilot. I became a first-class, a real, professional pilot. And I became a commander in our wings. I learned more and I felt that I could accomplish more. I wanted to become a test pilot. I reported to be a test pilot, passed hard exams, finished the Test Pilot School and worked as a, worked as a test pilot.
And that’s where, that’s where many of the cosmonauts come from.
Yes, you are right. Of course I learned more about not only aviation but about space. I became a first-class test pilot. I tested fighters for the Navy and for the Air Force. In 1987, I reported to be as a cosmonaut in the Buran program. It’s a program like the Space Shuttle program. It was the greatest space program for Soviet Union, but it was secret, of course. At that time. I had a good physical condition and was ready to pass exams. I was selected for the Test Pilot Buran program. It was the start of my space career.
You didn’t get the opportunity to fly on Buran, but you did fly on the U.S. Shuttle. You’ve been to space and you know what dangers there are when you do a thing like that. But here you are, ready to fly in space again. I’d like to know why you think going to space and exploring is worth the risk that you’re apparently willing to take.
If you are talking about me, I want to say that it’s my life. I never heard of work without risk. Of course, flying in space is always risky, but we accept this risk because we understand we had to go forward; fly to space. It gives us an opportunity to know more about planet, space, and our self. And [we must] never stop this research; because our planet's resources are limited; we know well about this. It means we accept the risky for researches, new technologies -- new planet maybe, new resources. It’s exactly needed; a necessity.
Of course, you have flown to the International Space Station before. Tell me how that experience has helped you as you have prepared for Expedition 12.
Image at left: Valery Tokarev last visited the International Space Station in May 1999 during STS-96 when it consisted of two modules -- the Unity Node and the Zarya Control Module. Credit NASA
Definitely, spaceflight experience helps to fly again. Each experience helps. It gave me more confidence. I saw, I felt, what space means. I make sure that my body and my mental adapt well and quickly to space. It means I have the ability; I can work in space. Of course, it just, to feel more confidence, just if you answer short about this.
The Station that you’re getting ready to go to is far larger than the Station when you were there. What are, are you most looking forward to seeing?
Of course, there are big differences in the Space Station in ’99 and the Station in 2005. It’s not only the size of the Space Station; it’s much more capable to do things. And, also it’s responsibilities; we should have to work harder, we should know more about Space Station. But what I want to see is not only the Space Station. I understand quite well what a module in space looks like. We’ve got video from space; we train on a simulation, just not to be surprised in space when we get ready to work and start working in space. But there is some unusual feeling in space. It’s a spirit, it’s awareness of your flying, and it’s also good to see our blue planet.
Can you summarize for me, what are the goals of Expedition 12?
At first, we have to dock to Space Station and bring some equipment and change the crew. And, we have to work long time on Space Station. We have to maintain the Station, and to assembly Space Station when Shuttle brings trusses, like P3/P4. We'll work together with the Shuttle crew on this huge -- I think it’s huge -- event. We expected that the next Space Shuttle will fly during our mission; and in this case, we have to have at least two EVAs. One is a U.S. EVA in EMUs and probably one Russian EVA in Orlan suits. It’s also a big point of our Expedition that we continue to assemble the Space Station.
Let’s talk about some of the specifics, because you start your mission in a Soyuz spacecraft, which you will command, and it’ll be your first Soyuz flight, and you’ll also have the third Station participant joining you. Tell me about the, that first week, that Soyuz portion of your mission and the flight with Greg Olsen.
I know Greg Olsen. I met him in Star City. I have trained with him several times on a Soyuz simulation. He’s a great man, he’s a, a very focused on the spaceflight, he desire to be in space, and he works hard. It’s good to see it, as real man his age want to fly in space, and he’s pay money for this. I want to say he invest in the space program. That's is good for us, for all of us.
During the time that you’re on board the Station, your role is as the Flight Engineer. Tell me about what your main responsibilities will be throughout the course of the six months that you expect to be there.
Again, we are, if you are talking about Flight Engineer responsibility in general, just, my responsibility as a ... it’s all the Russian modules, all the Russian devices, it’s just a part. Of course, each crew has a responsibility about whole Station. We have to know -- sometimes well, sometimes a little bit less well – about some devices and modules. It means one of us is a specialist, one of us is the operator, but at least two people have to work on each of the devices. And it’s reserve, it’s redundancy. It’s a rule to fly in space. [For example,] I passed the exams as robot arm operator. It means in general we have to know the whole Station. Each of us has a very similar responsibility, but just one qualifies for a little bit more high level, but next a little bit lower. But, next part of Station, you should know better or be just as qualified for that as a specialist.
So everyone has to know everything.
Everyone has to know everything.
You also made reference to the continued assembly, of the Space Station and the arrival of the P3/P4 Truss. Can you tell me a bit more about how that piece of hardware is going to expand the Station’s capabilities?
Image at right: STS-96 Mission Specialist Valery Tokarev works inside the young International Space Station in May 1999.
OK. If this happens and the Space Shuttle bring a new truss, new equipment, and we reconfigure the Space Station (I hope we will see that), it will look unusual; it’s unsymmetric. But it’s one more step to complete the Space Station, one more step. Now the Station is in its intermediate stage; intermediate configuration of the Station. It is impossible to go to the final configuration from the intermediate configuration; therefore, changing the configuration in this way we will need to reconfigure all of the systems that are on the Station. First of all, this goes for the electrical power system, the EPS, the thermal control system, again, the thermal control, and that will require a new software that will control those systems and so forth. There will be several steps or levels that will be necessary, and if I go in too much detail we will run out of time with this interview. But this is a big event, a big step towards the completion of Station construction. And that will allow us to eventually do a full scope of work on experiments and also to include international partners in our work, and also eventually will bring the, the necessary result from the investment that we’re putting into the Station, and that is the task that we have ahead of us.
Tell me about what role you will play as a member of the Space Station crew inside during the spacewalks that the Shuttle crewmembers conduct to deliver and to attach the P3/P4.
What I would like to say is that, again, if we go into too much detail, a lot of technical terminology and a lot of abbreviations as well. For example, we will need to do a spacewalk with Bill to install several items of the new hardware; it means we will need to replace MDMs and so forth. We will also use special scientific hardware that will be installed on the outside of the Station. We’ll also have to do monitoring or observation of different communication systems, of the thermal control system, thermal provision system. In other words, these are tasks that are very detailed and have a full scope of different elements to them. When, hopefully, the Shuttle arrives and the reconfiguration takes place, we, in addition to our operation responsibilities for the Station, will also take part in the preparation for the spacewalk and also for the reconfiguration of the Station. And so, these are the operations that are directly related to the installation of these trusses. This is very serious work, and it’s a lot of work.
You’ve made reference earlier to science experiments that you’ll be performing as well during your time on orbit. Tell me about the goals of your science agenda. I realize you can’t tell me about every experiment, but can, can you explain what the general goals of the, the Russian science agenda is for Expedition 12.
I want to say that the Russian part of science experiments include more than 30 experiments on board. One part of experiments is biological, microbiological. The second part is genetic; the next part concerns physics experiments. The next part of experiments gives us the opportunity to grow some plants on the Space Station to be ready to go for long-duration flights to the other planets. For example, there is an experiment called Plants. That experiment allows to obtain peas grown on the Station in the fourth and fifth generation, and we’ll be able to also grow greens that we will be able to consume as food. The volume is not going to be very high, but those are the experiments. As far as medical experiments go, here we’re talking not only about the experiments related to humans as such, but also to the blood cells that are impacted in extreme conditions and go through changes in the environment of the Station. But that also will allow to grow positive bacteria. The positive bacteria grown in the extreme conditions will be, so to speak, selected, which means only the strongest bacteria will survive. And after we return the strongest bacteria to the Earth, we will be able to grow an entire colony of these strong bacteria, and those bacteria will be able to defeat the harmful bacteria that contribute to such diseases as cancer or HIV and so forth. These are the fundamental experiments, fundamental research. As far as physics goes and the upper layers of our atmosphere, this is all fundamental research. Again, the research on the upper levels of atmosphere allows us to understand what happens on the level of space where we have separate ions, and how the space vehicles affect the upper levels of the atmosphere. The impact there is much higher than the impact to the lower levels of the atmosphere, even if we don’t believe so. We need to understand that as well. And if we believe that there is a threat from meteors or from a comet to our planet, then we need to understand that. Again, that is fundamental research. We need to understand how that will affect our atmosphere, whether the temperature will go down. If the temperature goes up, whose fault it will be and how will we need to prepare for it. All these experiments allow us, step-by-step, to actually bring some good results from this program so that the engineers and physicists could understand, on the ground, how to continue their work in the future. Because we understand that if we do, so to speak, blind work and if we do research work, this is work that doesn’t bring direct results. But if we accumulate experience that we can understand how to proceed into the future and how we could counteract the threats that will be impacting our planet. Of course, there is no guarantee that there won’t be such an impact. I think it’s clear.
You know, your mission to the International Space Station is beginning at the same time as the Space Shuttle’s returning to flight and, and looking forward to the return to Station assembly as the Shuttle moves on into its last few years of operation. Tell me your opinion about the Space Shuttle’s contribution to this next stage of the International Space Station’s life.
If you are going about contribution and the role of Space Shuttle during Space Station assembly, I want to say that it’s, of course, it’s a huge role; with lots of contribution. It’s a biggest spaceship, and with it, it is possible to bring some structure, big structure, to the Space Station. I also wanted to say here that nothing is born on an empty space. If we’re talking about the structure, there are modules that are supposed to be delivered by the Shuttle that were designed specifically for the Shuttle, for the Shuttle dimensions, and without the Shuttle such modules cannot be even delivered to the Station. I’m talking here about the Japanese module and I’m talking about the European module. So, the significance of the Shuttle can hardly be overestimated.
Of course, building this Space Station in Earth orbit isn’t really the long-term goal; it’s just a step toward that goal. So, from the perspective of someone who is about to leave this planet for six months, tell me how you see the International Space Station helping achieve a Vision for Space Exploration and paving the path to our future exploration.
In my opinion, the Space Station is only one step to the future exploration of space, but it’s a very important step. We need to do this step, because we cannot jump without orbiter flight, without the Space Station. It’s experience; it’s the knowledge. It’s experience for thousands of people who learn how to work in space, how to fly in space. It is also a school. It’s impossible without spaceflight, to go for the next planet; it’s not possible. We need to have experience. And I also believe that from orbital flights we will definitely go to interplanetary flights. It will only take time, and this is only an issue of developing the technology. But it is impossible to develop technology and gain the skills and the knowledge without using the technology that we have without flying. Theoretically it’s possible, but practically it is not. Therefore, each flight, each launch, brings us all an opportunity to understand more and to get closer to the time that I am talking about. And we are here talking about the next generation. Maybe it won’t be us; maybe it will be the people after us who will travel to other planets. But, in any case, we are now living in a world with limited resources. And therefore, people who don’t look ahead and don’t think about the future don’t live in the future.