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Preflight Interview: Pavel Vinogradov
02.20.06
Q: You have a job that many millions of people would dream about having; is becoming a cosmonaut and exploring space what you always wanted to do with your life?

JSC2006-E-00223 -- Expedition 13 Commander Pavel VinogradovA: Well, you know, it’s a dream that was always there and it transformed itself as I was growing up. I am one of the people of the generation who saw the first flights to space, Gagarin’s flight, Glenn’s flight. When I was a boy, of course, I dreamt about that but it seemed kind of a pipe dream at that time because cosmonauts and astronauts in our time, the 60s and 70s, were unique people, as I thought. And, for quite some time I was working on that thought, that maybe I could also become one of them. And it happened when I was an adult. I was almost 30, so at that time I believed in myself and I was certain that I would be successful in doing it.

Image at right: Expedition 13 Commander Pavel Vinogradov. Credit: NASA

So you remember when Gagarin made his flight, the excitement of that?

Yes, certainly. I was 7 years old, and it was general excitement and exhilaration. It was quite an unbelievable event, you know. It was hard to grasp the reality of things. I remember very well when Neil Armstrong made the first step on the surface of the moon. I remember that the sound was not very clear. There was a lot of interference, and it seemed something from the world of the science fiction. So maybe those two events were what pushed me forward. Even when I was still a school boy I was thinking that even if I don’t go to space, I’ll at least work on the rockets.

Tell me a bit about your background. I understand that you come from a small town in the far eastern part of Russian; tell about that childhood, what you did in school and, your profession, to eventually become a cosmonaut.

I was born in the Far East. The place is called Magadan, and it was a rather small town at the time. Then my parents moved even farther northeast in Anadyr. It’s on Chukotka Peninsula and it’s very close to Alaska, actually. Right on the other side—there is a strait and across from strait is Alaska. So I grew up in Anadyr and graduated from school there. The northeast of Russia is actually a unique area. I’m not sure what Americans' attitude towards Alaska is, but I think these two areas are most beautiful places on Earth.

Americans think Alaska is very beautiful.

I’m sure that is true. Then I entered the Moscow Aviation Institute and graduated it with a degree of rocket booster design. That was my major. And so then I went to continue my education and got a diploma in computer systems and system analysis. For six years I taught at the university, worked and performed research at the same institute which I graduated from. In 1982 I applied to be part of the Cosmonaut Corps, to go through the various checkouts. A year later I transferred to the space and rocket corporation Energia. I worked on the transport vehicles, I worked on the Mir station, and I worked in the Buran program for quite some time. That really helped to a great extent. But from the standpoint of becoming a cosmonaut candidate, that delayed it. Buran program was quite intense and my management kept telling me, "Well, after we have the Buran flying, we will move you to the Cosmonaut Corps." Unfortunately, Buran only flew once, and the program was suspended in ’91. Then in 1992 I was able to enter the Cosmonaut Corps.

And you have made a spaceflight before, a long-duration mission to Mir. As a cosmonaut you are more aware than most people of the dangers that are there in the job of flying in space, but you sit here today preparing to go fly in space again. I would like to know why. What is it we are learning, or that we gain, from flying in space that makes you feel, that it is worth the risk?

Well, talking about my personal feelings in that respect I would say spaceflight is something that is very hard to understand or feel. When you are on Earth it’s not possible. So, after you come from a long-duration spaceflight, or even from a short spaceflight, I would say that your internal perception of life here on Earth would change, and so your attitude to people is completely different. You understand very clearly how vulnerable the Earth is, how it’s small, and that the life here on Earth that we have, both in terms of the biosphere and the social structures, is not really protected from the forces that exist in space. So why, and what draws you to go back to fly again? From the standpoint of dangers, of course, space is very aggressive environment—zero gravity, radiation—however, I never really thought about what separates us from that lethal environment, that we are only protected by two millimeters of metal. I don’t think that test pilots or paratroopers or mountain climbers who climb Everest, for example, think that, oh well, the plane may not work, the mountain climbers’ thin rope can not support him. I think that it’s a different thing that drives people to it. It’s the desire to understand themselves, to understand their world and the environment around them. I don’t know if that many people are really eager to fly into space, particularly at this time. A lot of things get forgotten. It loses the poignancy and so a lot of people don’t even know who is now in space. But there is a small group of people who strive to go to space, to the mountains, underwater—they’re the ones that move humanity towards new discoveries and understanding of what’s happening around us.

The members of any flight crew must possess all the talents that are needed to complete all of the tasks during a given mission. As commander, what are your main responsibilities for Expedition 13?

Well, as the crew commander, first and foremost I’m responsible for the safety of the crew, and my main task, the most important task is that we—Jeff [Williams], Thomas [Reiter] and I—would return safe and sound back to Earth and have completed the flight program. So this is the most important thing that we need to ensure. The second thing is the state of the station. We understand that two or three of us are entrusted with the vehicle that’s valued at maybe hundreds of millions in dollars. It’s not even the question of its specific monetary value but tens of thousands of people worked on it and provided their labor and knowledge for its creation and we’re entrusted to control this complex setup. So that’s a responsibility that is quite significant for us, that we would not break anything or make it perform worse. So, that is quite a significant responsibility and that’s the second function of the crew commander. The third important issue is our relationship as a crew, as a team. A small crew of two people creates a situation where even the smallest detail gains significant importance. Of course, spaceflight is different depending on its duration—during a short flight you can sort of do it as a one feat, but a long spaceflight, you have to make sure that you pace yourself, that you distribute your strength sort of evenly throughout the flight, and build the proper relationship with your crewmates. Even the smallest thing become quite important.

For Expedition 13 to the International Space Station, what are the main goals for you and your crew to achieve?

The main things that we’re working on now would be the station assembly and performing the experiments on board. I would say that the main goal and purpose is to continue flying as three crewmembers with a complete set of crew. We will start our flight with Jeff, and that’s expedition seven after Columbia when we are flying in this survival mode and maintaining the station just at the level at which it was two or three years ago. Unfortunately, this catastrophe with the Columbia accident moved our plans further away from being able to complete them, so our task now is to get back as soon as possible to the effective work on station assembly and outfitting. We will certainly be expecting the shuttle and I’m hoping that it’s not going to be the only shuttle that will visit us. Our task is to prepare the station to the maximum for the arrival of the shuttle and to be as effective as possible in terms of using the shuttle flight. We will see; maybe there will be one or maybe two. Those are our main tasks.

How would you, as a veteran of six months on board the Mir space station, compare for us the two space stations in terms of their abilities and, and how they provide for their crews?

If we compare the ISS today with Mir, the ISS is a completely different station; you could say it’s the next step forward. With respect to the Russian segment, we have used a lot of the systems that showed themselves from the better side on Mir and Salyut. The system of station control is quite different and the methods of using the interfaces is different. There are a lot of computers on the station, on both segments. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily like the fact that we’re using computers to such a significant extent, because it’s very, difficult to use them for, say, light switches—you have to use them to turn and off the lights. Maybe that’s another extreme view and so, so we will make the new station better given our experience with the ISS and Mir. This is the next step in, in exploration in space, and our capabilities on board of the ISS are a lot more significant than what we had on Mir, as is our potential. Another thing that’s unfortunate, and for a number of reasons, is that we’re using the ISS at this stage less effectively than we, the cosmonauts and astronauts, would like.

JSC2006-E-00225 -- Expedition 13 Commander Pavel Vinogradov in a Russian Sokol launch and landing suitYou will begin the in-flight portion of your mission on a Soyuz spacecraft for a journey to the space station. This time you will be the commander of that spacecraft. Can you describe for us in general what a Soyuz launch, and that Soyuz trip to the station, is like?

Image at left: Expedition 13 Commander Pavel Vinogradov in a Russian Sokol launch and landing suit. Credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

Well, a launch on the Soyuz is actually quite a comfortable procedure from the standpoint of the g-loads or things like that. I’ve seen a lot of recordings of the shuttle launch and I would say that the dynamic loads there are quite a bit more significant. You can see the vehicle shaking and moving this way and that way, because of the solid rocket boosters. Launch on the Soyuz is kind of milder so you will see from the recordings that it’s not shaking. The Soyuz is, I would say, an elegant machine, very soft and tender, in the sense that it very gently brings the crew up to orbit. Soyuz is small in terms of volume. It’s a vehicle that’s worked always very well. We always wanted it to be a little bigger, but it’s very hard to design something new in the system that has worked very long and reliably. You are only going through the launch phase for 535 seconds, less than 10 minutes, and then you follow the station in orbit. That’s the two days that you spend in orbit. So, on Flight Day 2 you dock, which means performing several maneuvers, and about five hours prior to docking we’re already sitting in our spacesuits and so that’s the most active phase of our flight rendezvous and docking. That’s probably the most busy from the standpoint of the crew. It’s kind of tense because sometimes there are different failures that could occur and so the crew has to be ready to take control at any moment. Despite the fact that it’s a small vehicle, it’s quite comfortable. I don’t think we’ll have any problems with the vehicle.

You made reference earlier to the fact that your crewmates are Jeff Williams and Thomas Reiter. The European astronaut Reiter is not going to arrive with you; he will arrive some weeks later. But that will return the International Space Station to operations with a crew of three people. Can you tell me about what you see as the importance, or the significance, of that milestone?

Well, I think that it is a very important milestone because it’s not only important from the standpoint of technicalities—at this stage we can support a crew of three or more. But from the human standpoint, it’s important because we do have to notice that over the last two years the ISS program is kind of slowing down and the interest is not what it used to be on the part of the Russian government and congressmen in the United States. There are certain notes of dissatisfaction on the part of the people who are working on the science and experiments on board of the station because unfortunately the rate of station assembly and deployment is quite different from what they expected. And so the arrival of the third person, Thomas Reiter in our case, greatly improves the capability of the crew in terms of performing science program and experiments. The other thing is that Thomas Reiter is a representative of Europe. Europeans.are quite important and we are working with them very closely. The European Space Agency contributes considerable effort from the standpoint of research. I believe it’s a very important step to show that the ISS program is not going to just stop. It’s not going to end just like that. Our goal is to demonstrate to all the partners with the ISS that we can work, and that we’re very effective at what we do.

Reiter will arrive on board the space shuttle Discovery on mission STS-121, and when that shuttle arrives you and Jeff Williams will have an important role to play in examining the exterior of Discovery for possible damage. Could you tell me about the, the photographic examination that you and Jeff will do from inside the station?

Over the last several days, we actually were training on this procedure very extensively. It’s very important today and from the standpoint of real flight it’s actually quite a quick procedure because the shuttle can stay in that position for only a very short time, not more than three minutes. During those three minutes we have to take 250 photographs. Those photographs have to be really good quality because the specialists on the ground are going to make a judgment based on them as to whether it’s possible to have a nominal, safe landing of the shuttle. This is extremely important information, and we worked with Jeff very well. It’s not right to praise yourself, but I would say we are doing this type of work well. It’s a pleasure to do it. We looked at several hundreds of photographs made by Sergei Krikalev. So I would say we are ready for that. The most important thing I think is that our photos, photographs would be informative and I hope that they would not create any trouble for the ground support. That’s my hope.

After Discovery docks to the station there are eight days of operations involving all of you that are on the schedule. Tell me about what role you will play during that time, during supplies transfers and spacewalks that are planned for the joint mission.

That period of joint flight with the shuttle is quite busy in terms of the crew of the station and the shuttle crew working together. It’s quite intense work. First you have to move a very considerable amount of cargo, you have to get it out of the MPLM [Multi-Purpose Logistics Module] and stow it on the station. It’s quite important—extremely important, I would say—because that provides the supplies for our continued flight. And the shuttle crew would have to perform several EVAs also to ensure the future work on board of the station for subsequent station assembly. Maybe it’s nothing particularly glamorous, but it’s quite important because that would be the next stage for the station assembly. We should make sure that there are no failures. Both the crews understand it very well. As of now we have significant problem on the ISS with the stowage, with storing the cargo that is delivered on board, on the shuttle and the Progress, and unfortunately the part where we had to implement this work is such that we frequently have to leave a lot of things on the station that will have to be used later. So our main task is to make sure that we place everything for stowage, science equipment, in such a way that it is not in the way of our subsequent work, that we can easily access them and activate them if we need to. So the arrival of the shuttle would also be important because we are installing new science equipment on the lab, we are replacing the old one. And so that’s kind of a stepping-stone for our subsequent work.

You have also noted that there is the possibility that you may see a second space shuttle mission arrive during Expedition 13. That mission would bring a new piece of the station’s truss structure. Tell me about what this, this hardware is, the P3/P4 Truss? How is that going to make the space station improve its capabilities?

The truss is first and foremost necessary for the purpose of subsequent assembly of the power supply systems, so this part of the truss would enable us to have over the subsequent two or three flights, a complete configuration of the station as it will have to exist for many years to come. This is a key point of that flight, the next shuttle flight. Definitely we have quite significant capabilities in terms of power supply for life support systems, etc., but we are planning on the station to be as effective, as possible when a lot of science research is performed. We are talking about the arrival of the Columbus module and about arrival of the Japanese module, and so in order to ensure the effectiveness of their functioning and performance, the truss is a key point. Another thing is that we will not be able to expand the station unless we have the power capability to support it. The procedure of the truss handover from the shuttle and installation must be a view that you can only see in science fiction, you know. It’s a shame that you couldn’t see it from a side, but do believe me it’s quite impressive because it’s a huge piece of hardware. It’s almost 20 tons, and it’s hard even to convey to what extent it’s impressive. When I was training for that I was very proud of the people who have created it, designed it, constructed it and checked it out, and it’s really a unique piece of hardware.

You have been training to be one of the robot arm operators, to move that truss into position? Which role will you play during that operation?

Well, my role, first of all, was to monitor the views of the camera so that they are placed appropriately and the robotic arm operator can work in the most convenient way. I would say that we all were pretty well trained on the robotic arm. It’s a complex robotic machine. In many ways you have to think in a manner different from what you would think on Earth, how all the joints of this complex robotic arm move. My task is to help Jeff; work with him on configuration of the system so as to understand how he would like the system to be configured, so as to avoid every possible off-nominal situation so that we wouldn’t have any kind of collisions or undesirable moves. So that’s my task.

You have mentioned the fact that this module will be necessary to provide power for additional modules which would expand the laboratory capabilities of the International Space Station, but you have a science agenda to carry out during your mission before that ever happens. Tell me about the goals of the, your Russian science agenda for Expedition 13.

The Russian science program for this expedition is the same as for the previous ones. It consists of several areas, and I will name them not in terms of importance but just as I remember them. First it’s biomedical research and those are biomedical research of our condition, and some others as well. We understand rather well this concept of “human spaceflight,” how one adapts to zero g. We also understand that the flights that we will have to perform in say 10 or 15 years—that is flying to Mars, for example—are a more complex task. At this time we're learning how to protect ourselves from the adverse impacts of the space, of zero g, etc., but we don’t yet have a complete understanding of this delicate mechanism of a human adapting to space. So part of the science program aimed at biomedical research is aimed at this issue specifically. Another important point, and that’s more fundamental research, is material properties in space. The Plazmennyi Kristall, which means plasma crystal, experiment, is one of the long-living experiments on board the station—in fact, I started working on that experiment on Mir, 1997. It’s quite a promising experiment in terms of understanding what happens in space; how, for example gas nebula can be formed and formation of more solid objects, and how matter behaves in space, not at the level of atoms but rather the concept of how dust behaves in space. It’s very interesting work. Another area is developing new materials. We will have several installations for developing unique materials in space. They would be, for example, high temperature syntheses, and you know that would take forever to explain various things that we are going to do. Another thing that we have is experiments for technology. We’re very interested in the Earth, in its atmosphere and in various other events that occur. We have a experiment that is called Uragan, which means hurricane, and we photograph Earth a lot. We photograph the processes that occur in the atmosphere and to understand the processes that occur, for example, in Midwest tornados and destructive winds. So the research from the ground is one thing, but it’s also extremely important to see the dynamics of how they move from sort of bird’s-eye view from 220 miles. That gives you a general overall picture of what happens. There's also the ocean research. The oceans change quite quickly. The currents change, plankton and movements. It’s quite a few tasks we would very much like to perform and complete.

In addition to that science research throughout your time, there are plans for you and your station crewmates to make spacewalks during Expedition 13. Recognizing, of course, that the plans may change, could you tell me about what is the current plan for American and Russian spacewalks during your increment?

Mostly those EVAs would be dedicated to some tasks that in part have to do with science. For example, we will take in the samples that were exposed externally on the station for quite some time. Then we’re going to study the surface state of the station in terms of whether it’s damaged or maybe contaminated by the combustion residues from the thrusters of the vehicles that visit the station. We’re going to install the vacuum system for Russian Elektron. It is an oxygen generation system. Over the last several Expeditions, we had some trouble with it, and there were some failures; we understand what the situation is and we know the reason for those failures. So, the system will be designed differently. We’re going to put in vacuum lines for the system. Another Russian EVA is supposed to be used for installing external hardware on the station. There may be several special antenna that we are going to install. We are working very well with the U.S. colleagues, and we understand that it’s probably not very feasible to train every crew on every task specifically, so we train the crew sort of towards certain objectives and every crew can perform pretty much everything that one would have to perform in terms of tasks during EVAs. So they’re like bricks that can be combined properly for performing the specific tasks associated with their EVAs, and I believe that’s very important and proper. We've had a lot of NBL runs with Jeff, and I would say that we work quite well on the EVA tasks.

Expedition 13 crewmembers will arrive at the space station on separate missions, and may leave on separate missions as well. Can you talk about the “game plan” for handing over to the next Expedition, and why it would be that way?

It’s an extremely important stage of work, handing over the station from one crew to the next. No matter how much we try to train the crews back on the ground, no matter to what extent we tell them how things are on board of the station, it’s all still going to be preliminary work only. It’s not possible to reproduce certain things other than in-flight: you can’t really reproduce what’s on board of the station, where certain things are and how they are to be used, and so there’s certain nuances and subtleties so the previous crew always shows the incoming crew the situation on board—the overall status of the station and certain tweaks of using the equipment—and tells them about some of the difficulties that they might have faced. It’s an extremely important piece of work and it happens over a rather short period of time. You have to understand too that this is time when you prepare the vehicle for landing which is also extremely important—how you load the vehicle and how you stow things, that you make sure that you don’t forget the science research results. It’s normally a time when the crews work hours, sometimes 10, 12 hours a day. Because they have to hand the station over, there also is a bit of a symbolic significance, when the commanders shake hands and say, here, you accept the station and I hand the station over to you and have a successful flight and all. This is quite an important moment associated with a lot of responsibility, and it’s quite busy. Then the previous crew leaves and you stay there alone; it’s kind of sad, actually. And in a way it’s a little bit worrisome. You're there, and you don’t have anyone to ask or clarify things. When you part, it’s quite an emotional moment. I don’t think that there is a single crew that leaves with joy saying, oh fine, it’s finally over and I’m going to be home. It’s always a sensation that you’re leaving your home because always it’s that time that evokes a certain amount of sadness. Of course you understand the landing, your family, your kin and friends and all the joys of living on Earth, but it does make you want to go back and it’s quite a sad time when you have to leave the station.

When Expedition 13 has finished its time and is, and is coming home, what will be your standard of judging that your mission has been a success; what will you have had to have accomplished?

First of all I would say it’s this internal feeling that you’ve done everything that you could. The satisfaction with the flight actually comes later, after some evaluations are performed and it’s all kind of reviewed and summed up. But the most important thing I would say is the appreciation of your work, of the crew, is when the next crew comes in and can tell you, guys, thanks for doing this and that, it’s because of you that we were able to, sort of standing on your shoulders, continue this work. I would say that this is probably the most important assessment of your work on the station that those who are coming after you would be using your experience, would stand on the basis of the results of your work. It’s always a great pleasure when somebody says later, "I know this is great. Expedition 13 put this in place and it’s still functioning well, so thanks, guys, for doing that for us," that’s the most important thing. Of course, you try to assess what you have done, or how successful you were. Sometimes it’s quite frustrating because some experiment that’s quite important cannot be completed because of some minor problems and so with hindsight you would say, "I should have done it a little differently and it would have worked perhaps." When those things are few and far between then you can say that you didn’t waste your time and work on board and that you were able to accomplish something useful for the crews to come.

The International Space Station is historic in the sense that it has been an international effort to build and operate a space station in Earth orbit. But the station itself is not really the final goal, but a step toward a goal. I would like to hear your thoughts about how the International Space Station will contribute to the future of human exploration out into space.

I think that this project, the International Space Station, cannot be overestimated in terms of the future international programs and of future spaceflight programs. It’s enough to remember that when 10 years ago we just started our joint work between Russia and the U.S., they were enormous difficulties and problems and mostly they had to do with the technology, with the equipment and the hardware. The engineers learned how to work with each other. We also had significant political issues and intercultural problems, a language barrier, and things like that. People from different countries did not have a lot of experience of close cooperation. I think that one of the most important benefits of the ISS program and Mir/NASA program is that we learned how to cooperate, how to work together. It’s even hard to believe now how we worked in different countries, each in our own little corner. And it’s not only Russia and U.S. but it’s Europe, Canada, Japan. We’re much better integrated. We understand each other from a glance, and I wouldn’t say that we don’t have problems or questions or various mutual claims and things, but we have learned how to resolve those things. Another thing is in terms of long-duration spaceflight, or flight to other planets such as Mars and the moon. Now we’re much better at understanding to what you have when you have a crew of different people from different cultures and different countries and different ages. I would say that it also has the potential for creating problems. We have not completely resolved them but today we know how to work at those things, and how to resolve. I would not even try to estimate specifically the role of the ISS in this future spaceflight. It’s enormous. Other than the technical issues that we work on as a matter of fact, we also develop new skills in terms of interpersonal cooperation which is extremely important for future flights. As soon as we all learn to work together, I think that we will achieve more, and from the standpoint of any politician I would say that we needed to carry the banner of joint spaceflight. There is no other area—or at least it’s very hard to find another area—where we have such close integration of such major structures in different countries. Spaceflights make you integrate not only companies such as Boeing, Lockheed, Energia and others, but they help the governments integrate; they get the agencies to integrate. That's probably the most important thing. If we have more areas like that I think it would benefit the world at large.