Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are fewer than 50 cosmonauts. What is it that made you try to become a cosmonaut and be one of those people who flies in space?
Image to right: Cosmonaut Fyodor N. Yurchikhin, commander representing Russia's Federal Space Agency. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Fyodor Yurchikhin
A: Thank you for this question. You know, in looking at the modern generation, I feel sorry for the younger generation. It’s my point of view -- maybe they don’t feel sorry for themselves, maybe they have their own advantages, their own heroes. We had our own heroes. I was slightly over 2 years old when Yuri Gagarin had his historical flight, the first flight of a human to space. I remember, in the atmosphere of our yard around our house, all the boys wanted to be cosmonauts. John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gagarin, [Valentina] Tereshkova -- those were my heroes, the heroes of my time. And I remember the time, and I know I wanted to be a cosmonaut since I was very little. There was an interesting story that happened. I went to school for the first time, during the first grade, and a teacher asked me who we wanted to be when we grow up. And I said I wanted to be a goalkeeper of a hockey team. And the teacher explained it’s not really a profession. In terms of a profession, I wanted to be a cosmonaut. So for me it was not a question to debate whether I wanted to be a cosmonaut or not. So when I went to college I went to the Moscow Aviation Institute because most of the civilian cosmonauts come from that institute. I decided to be a civilian cosmonaut. A lot of our cosmonauts, however, come from the military as they do in the United States. I could have been a pilot. I could have been flying. I might not have become a cosmonaut had I become a military person. So, before becoming a cosmonaut I worked for a long time in the Mission Control Center in Russia because I was part of a program and I was very happy.
Let’s talk about your career. Start with your college and tell me how you ended up in the different jobs that you had on your way to becoming a cosmonaut.
Well, I didn’t have too many jobs because, as I mentioned, I chose my profession while I was still a child. I knew I was going to apply to the Moscow Aviation Institute; I knew that when I was already in senior high school, so I was going to the physics and mathematics-enhanced training class. After that I graduated from Moscow Aviation Institute, I worked at RSC Energia. I was close to my goal at the time. They had the civilian cosmonaut corps. I worked for a long time in the Moscow Mission Control Center. I worked on Mir, on the NASA-Mir program; Mir-Shuttle. Then we went to Houston for the first time training to dock with STS-74; it was an interesting period for me, first negotiations with the U.S. counterparts on creating a new station. It was the first time I realized there can be different points of view regarding the same problem, and your view of these problem is not necessarily the correct one. It might not be the wrong one, but it’s not broad enough, probably, so you have to be able to understand the partner, to understand the partner’s point of view, why it might be that something that is clear to you is not clear to your partner, and vice versa. And this experience came very handy later. In 1997 I started my career as a cosmonaut candidate; ’97-’98 we started training in Star City. It was a large pool; we were called candidates. We started space training in December ’99. We completed that course. We were very happy we graduated, so we were considered test cosmonauts after that graduation. After that I was assigned to flight, it was STS-112 in 2002; in 2001 I started my training in Houston as part of that shuttle crew. You know first flight, first crew, it’s like first love -- you can’t replace it with anything. Astronaut [Jeff] Ashby, my commander; Pam Melroy -- I have a, actually considerable chance of meeting Pam in space, that’s why I want Dan Tani to be part of our increment. One of the reasons is the shuttle Commander will be Pam Melroy, the shuttle pilot of the increment on the Atlantis shuttle where I flew for the first time. They have considerable experience. Undoubtedly, these years, the training for this flight, that cannot be replaced with anything. Since 2004, I’ve been training as a backup crew member for increment 13, and now this increment. And I hope I will be able to conduct this increment confidently and well. My confidence is supported by my knowledge of all my crew members, of all the crew members knowing me, of all of us knowing all the systems very well. I can say that both Oleg and myself are trained on the main systems of the U.S. segment as specialists, and this is something that is not easy to come by. You have to earn the trust from the instructors on the NASA side.
The part of your job that you’re getting ready to experience for the second time, the part where you get to fly in space, we know that that can be very dangerous. Tell me what it is that you believe that we, as human beings, get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth you taking that risk.
Well, you know there is such an interesting expression: A negative result is still a result. I think this is a very bad expression for us, and for spaceflights as well, because the results should only be good, should only be positive, so we’re looking forward to positive results. We’re facing very complicated work in space. We understand that astronaut and cosmonaut is a dangerous profession. At the same time we’re saying that behind us there are a lot of highly-qualified people who are preparing the systems, who are responsible for them. We understand that while we’re asleep, even, a lot of people are monitoring the station status, monitoring the pressure, temperature, a lot of other items. We understand we’re backed up by the governments of our countries, who are investing a lot of money into this program. And we’re only a part of this tremendous team. Of course, a lot depends on us as well. We understand the main idea is not to fail all these people, to continue work, and to provide momentum for others to come after us -- to do work so well that the next increment doesn’t have to do catch-up work after us and will be working only their own tasks. And this is a task that is faced by every increment, and we need to handover a new station, to have the station without any problems, open for other crew members.
You are the commander of Expedition 15 to the International Space Station. Please give me a summary of the goals of your flight and what the commander’s main responsibilities are.
Thank you very much for this question, because this is a rather interesting question and a rather complicated one as well. Because, up to now, I still do not believe that I’m an Expedition Commander, even though it is true. You probably understand that it is a rather responsible and an honorable task, and my role as a commander I see as follows. Now Expedition 14 is working on board; Michael Lopez-Alegrìa is an exceptional commander. Before that Pavel Vinogradov was the Commander and I was his backup. And I would like to provide the continuity for all the exceptional work they were working on because those guys had a lot of work to do. Increment 14 is the first after the Columbia disaster that started working with three crew members on board. Before that there were only two crew members on board through increment 13. The main goal of our increment will to be continue the assembly of the station and at the same time we have a lot of people who have a very brief spaceflight experience. I have only one spaceflight; Oleg Kotov has no flight experience, Suni Williams has no [prior] flight experience, and astronaut [Clayton] Anderson has no flight experience. We would like to really prove that we are very good crew members compared to our previous colleagues. We would like to continue their good work. So, all of us are highly motivated to complete our goals, our personal goals. My personal goal will be to maintain all the crew members’ motivation within the goals of the increment, and to make sure all my crew members are working as a team to achieve not their personal goals, rather the increment goals. This is my primary, should I say, headache for, for now.
Tell me what you see as the main goals for the increment you will command.
The main goal of this increment, of course is the following. Primarily, increment goals depend on how the flight program is going to be implemented. Going back to the tragic situation that was created after the Columbia disaster, the ISS program, the International Space Station program, was slowed down. This year has given us the hope that in the future everything is going to go according to the plan, and we very much hope that’s going to happen that way. We’re all ready, all the countries are ready, and NASA, first and foremost, is ready. This year there were two shuttle flights, and in December we’re hoping that our Suni -- as she will start as increment 14 but she will work with us as well, so that’s why we call her “our Suni” -- will fly to the station, and we’re hoping everything will go per the plan. The main goal will be to receive two Progress flights and to work with two shuttle flights, rather complicated flights. One of the shuttles will bring S5 Truss, and the other shuttle will bring Node 2. ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] flight -- currently for our increment there is a plan to dock with the ATV vehicle, rather ATV docking to the station. We’re hoping that will happen. And all these rather complicated tasks, along with the other will be EVAs performed by our increment crew members. This is all going to make sure we pull ourselves together and work well. We are adults; we are adults, and that’s our advantage, but as far as our “cosmonaut age” is concerned we’re young, and we hope that we will give a good momentum to all the increments that are going to come after us with not with no significant flight experience.
As you mentioned, while you and Oleg will spend the entire mission on orbit together, you will be joined by Suni Williams for a part of it and by Clay Anderson for a part of it, and perhaps by Dan Tani for a part of it. Does having that change make it, is it easier or harder than if you were all together for the whole time?
In up to now, almost all the increments were launched together and landed together. At the initial International Space Station development stage, always rotated by shuttle flights, then it moved to Soyuz flights. Now that the shuttle flights resumed we do combined crew rotation. As you correctly mentioned one crew member is going to meet us on board, then we’re going to meet the new crew member, and I asked other colleagues, because my experience is experience of other crew members as well; that is going to be a help. The main problem all the increments are facing is the short time allocated for crew handover. And to have somebody on board -- Suni will have already spent three months on board, that will have several EVAs as well experience working with robotic operations, and experience working on the unit, USOS [United States Operating Segment]. The main problems were when the previous crew members would close the hatch and would undock and then we realized, "Oh, I forgot to ask this." We’re not going to have this problem because we’re going to have Suni with us.
During the early part of your mission, before Suni departs, your crew is scheduled to install and activate a new oxygen generator in the U.S. segment of the station. Tell me a little bit about the work that’s involved, and the capability that that new system will provide to the ISS.
Well, first of all, undoubtedly only one system working on board that generates oxygen; that works on the Russian segment, it’s called the Elektron system. Unfortunately, over the past time, this system experienced several malfunctions and there was a rather tense period when we couldn’t start it for several days and we were using oxygen candles in order to maintain the required oxygen level on board. And of course, the system operating on the United States’ segment is going to give us the flexibility, so we’re going to have a backup equipment. If the Russian segment system fails, we can use the one on the American segment, and vice versa. In this case we will have complete backup and redundancy aboard, on board of the station. We very much hope that the system on board of the American segment will work well. It’s a first experience of the U.S. counterparts to have their own oxygen generation system on board. We’ll do our best to help install it, and to make sure it works well.
Is it a difficult task, the physical task of installing this system?
Well, we can’t call it difficult because moving a heavy cargo in zero gravity is not really difficult. The complexity is going involve, to involve the installation of this equipment, making connections starting the software, and maybe the main complicated question is going to make sure it communicates, talks to the Mission Control Center in Houston to make sure we make sure we do all of these steps -- MCC step, a crew step, MCC step. So it depends how well we’re going to work with the MCC on the ground, so I hope it’s going to work well, and I hope the work will be fairly simple.
As you mentioned, the plans also call for the first European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle to arrive at the station during your increment. Tell me a bit about this vehicle, and how it will contribute to the station operations.
Well, this is a vehicle -- a rather large vehicle, about  tons in weight -- that can bring on orbit a lot of cargo. It’s an automated vehicle, it has an autonomous docking system developed by the European Space Agency. The vehicle, for me for instance, is interesting for the following reason: Oleg and myself, as well as Suni, had several training sessions in Cologne; on this vehicle you can, at the same time, observe the experience incorporated that was gained by both the U.S. and Russian sides. For instance, the docking system is identical to the Russian system, and the cargo placement system is used as on the U.S. side. It has a large capability for delivering cargo, a lot of science equipment, a lot of food items, a lot of air, oxygen, plus fuel, propellant. This vehicle is able to add propellant to the Russian segment. It can perform reboost operations for the ISS. I hope that testing of this vehicle is going to be a big positive step for European Space Agency. It’s going to be a very big experience for NASA and for other agencies in terms of integrating different vehicles, different technologies, in building one common space station. And it’s, this vehicle is called Jules Verne. I hope it’s going to be the first of a whole line of ATV vehicles built by European agency for International Space Station.
How would [you] compare the ATV to the Russian Progress vehicle, which has been very important in keeping the station supplied?
Well, one ATV would replace three Progress vehicles in terms of delivery of equipment, propellant, and other cargo items. On the other side, Progress vehicles have been used for a long time, and right now it’s much cheaper to deliver cargo on Progress than on ATV, and that’s the way it should be, I think, because the ATV is a, is a new vehicle. We need Ariane 5 in order to launch ATV. It’s a big rocket launcher, a new one; it’s expensive. So, we cannot really compare the cost. Progress is a vehicle that’s been used for a while, and ATV is a new step in space exploration.
Image to left: Expedition 15 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin dons a training version of the Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit prior to being submerged in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near the Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
Your training for this flight has included work with the shuttle crews that will visit the station while you are there bringing new hardware. Tell me about those pieces of equipment -- tell me about the S5 Truss and Node 2, and how they improve the station’s capabilities.
Well, in mid-summer, we’re expecting shuttle 13A.1 [STS-118] to arrive to the station. That will, first of all, bring Clay Anderson, our new crew member, on board and Suni will complete her long flight -- she will have spent more than six months on board. I hope everything goes as planned. At the same time the shuttle will bring S5 Truss on board. We’re very much looking forward to receiving this segment because it will balance the station. The left wing will be heavier by that time, because P5 will have been already installed. And on the right side we will only have the S3/S4 Truss. When S5 Truss arrives on board then the station attitude will go back to normal. We will have handled the problem with the Ku-band antenna, and the relocation, in terms of the complexity, is rather difficult. We’re going to involve the station arm and the shuttle arm; we’re going to hand off the truss segment from one arm to the other. Then we will complete some work that will be done by the shuttle crew. Right now, they’re considering a fourth EVA that will also include Clay Anderson. Maybe if that EVA does not happen then this work was trained for my plan as well, so probably after the shuttle goes back we’re going to do this with Clay Anderson. Every shuttle flight is very compressed in terms of time. Can you imagine, our increment is planned for six months and there are only two EVAs planned. Right now, increment 14 has (I’m talking about stage EVAs) when the shuttle arrives, over eight to 10 days they perform three or four EVAs. Shuttle flight as a, I would call [a shuttle flight] a compressed, and times a large station increment, is compressed, because first of all there’s seven crew members on board, everybody knows what he or she should do, where to go, there are a lot of cargo items go to station and to the shuttle from the station. They assemble the station, they work with the arms, shuttle and station arms, they work with a lot of structures. The next shuttle flight, 10A [STS-120], will bring the next crew member, Dan, and will deliver Node 2. Can you imagine, it’s going to be fantastic: we’re going to relocate PMA-3, we’re going to prepare that port to make sure Node 2 will be able to be placed at that intermediate location, then we’ll have to do a lot of work to prepare Node 2, to dock it to its nominal location on Destiny. Relocation of the Node 2 to Destiny will be increment 16 task.
Before Node 2 arrives, as you mentioned, your crew will have to move the Pressurized Mating Adapter that’s now on the port side of Unity and that’s a job that involves the Canadarm2. Tell me about that, that maneuver. How hard is it to, to move that PMA from one side to the other?
The complexity of this activity is caused by the steps that require involvement of a lot of systems. This is a docking system of PMA-3 itself, then work with the arm, then relocating the PMA-3 to another docking port, activation of the docking port, the installation, and the time. While all of these operations are performed they are, all these steps are compressed in time because the station is in free drift. We cannot perform the docking operations while the station is maintaining a specific attitude. It has to remain in free drift. We are very much hoping that they will trust us with performing this operation. As you know we are young in terms of our space experience. We have done some integrated training involving the flight directors, the Mission Control Center operations. Clay is going to work with the Canadarm, I’m going to work with the docking system, Oleg -- we call him the conductor -- is going to help Clay, he’s going to help me. Well, when Clay tells us it’s time to work with docking system, then Oleg comes and works with me on the procedure. We had some training sessions, so we believe they went really well. We are ready, we are looking forward to the opportunity to perform this work. It’s very interesting and complicated work. It’s not fun just to be in space; it’s interesting to be in space doing interesting and complicated work.
There is another complicated task during the STS-120 mission: movement of the P6 Truss from off of the top of Z1 out to the port side of the truss. That looks like that will be dramatic, but that looks like that might be a little difficult, too.
The complexity of this task is caused by the fact that, by that time, both the left and the right wing of the truss will be fairly long. And to move something from Z1, move to the very edge and dock … and to perform this activity rather far from the main structure of the station with rather small angles for observation when the clearance between structures are small and the cargo items are rather large … Those truss segments need to dock and not damage the contacts that are used for electricity, data, etc. And all that has to be done fairly slowly. At the same time, can you imagine, huge structures held on by the arm, and with the stars and the deep space and the background; can you imagine the beauty? And we need to do it very carefully and mate it very carefully, and we’re going to get additional solar arrays that have already been used on the station and get additional solar array capacity to make sure we get additional energy supply in order to be able to get Columbus module from the European Space Agency on board.
The P6 move is a good example of just how essential the space station’s mobile robotics system is to building the station in space.
That is undoubtedly so. If we build huge buildings on the ground, a lot of experience exists in the United States. Here, on the ground, we have something we can push off; we can have a crane building a huge building, a skyscraper. In space, it’s impossible. So, the system created by the Canadian Space Agency is undoubtedly very interesting; it’s needed; it’s essential; it is the system that allows the human being to remain inside the station but work with systems outside and continue building on its station. This experience will be very useful during flights to the moon and to Mars. I have no doubt that will happen; it’s just a matter of time. And the use of similar systems by people -- maybe a similar MT [Mobile Transporter] transportation system, a robotic system that can move cargo items, that can perform drilling, incorporate itself into a planet -- we can set different goals for these systems. This is a first major step of the humankind to advance the technical developments in space. And I hope I answered your question as far as needed; they are needed.
Let’s turn our attention to some of the activity that goes on the station in between the shuttle missions. You and your crewmates have been training for Expedition spacewalks of your own. Tell me about what’s on the plan right now.
Well, as I have mentioned, you probably understand that a shuttle flight is an expedition compressed in time, and it involves fairly complicated work and interaction between two crews. What happens after the shuttle goes back? First of all, we are always sorry to see them go because we are used to working together by the time. But after the shuttle goes back to Earth, though we’re going to have a lot of cargo items left, and we have to work with them. First of all when they’re unloaded into the station, we place them in temporary stowage locations. After that we’re going to open all the containers, pull out all the equipment that was delivered by the shuttle, and then place the equipment in the allocated stowage areas. So first stage we’ll be working with cargo items left by the shuttle. Then the next stage will be to each activate this equipment that was delivered by the shuttle. All these are activities inside the station. After that we’re going to do EVAs. There is already an activity for us to go outside and work on the Russian segment to perform some science equipment activities outside of the Russian segment, to install the debris protection shields. The arm is going to install those shields for temporary stowage on one of the PMA segments. We would very much like to be able to perform a U.S. segment-based EVA. On the other hand, we would like to make sure that all the activities proceed nominally. Nominally, there are four EVAs planned for the 13A.1 shuttle flight. If they all happen, then we’re not going to have any segment-based EVAs. If our flight directors trust us with some activities and they have us do it, then we are going to have fairly complicated work to undock, demate some connectors. Clay Anderson is going to be on the arm. We trained for this activity with Clay at the NBL [Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory], and Clay is going to be releasing a huge box. He’s going to jettison it strictly with the specified calculated velocity calculated by the ballistic community. So, right now the question is being discussed whether it’s going to be performed during the shuttle flight or during the stage, the increment. Otherwise, we’re going to have only two Russian-based EVAs.
Image to right:
Expedition 15 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin works with a Cryogem-03 refrigerator in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA
Along with unpacking and maintaining the health of the space station, your crew will also be doing laboratory science work. The primary focus of that kind of work on ISS is looking into how people can live and work safely and successfully in a microgravity environment. Tell me about some of those human life sciences and medical experiments that Expedition 15 will do.
I came to this interview right after a class that I had for using the MELFI [Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS] freezer, where we’re going to store some biological samples that we’re going to take during biomedical experiments. And there is a plan to perform a wide variety of biomedical experiments. Unfortunately, the Russian crew members are not going to be fully involved in some of the U.S. biomedical experiments. So Suni, Clay, and Dan are going to run some of those. The Russian side will have experiments such as Biorisk then growing some crystals in zero gravity that might help the humankind to create some new medicines in the future. The priorities are creating new medicines to fight AIDS; that’s one of the problems that the humankind is facing currently; that’s one of the goals of these biomedical experiments. One of the main, and I would say the main subject of all the experiments and research in space is the human being. Regardless of the fact that a human being has already been flying in space for 45 years, still this is still a new environment for the humankind. Humankind has started its research and will continue the research. This research might not be very exciting. It involves taking blood samples, taking urine samples, doing research on the eyesight, heart function, hearing. This might not be very exciting, it’s routine, but it is needed for the future, for future stations in space.
Well, the reason the International Space Station is there is not to conduct experiments on you, but it’s part of a plan that goes way beyond the Earth. Tell me about your philosophy of human beings’ future exploration of space, and how you see the International Space Station contributing to achieving that future.
ISS will be part of it, I believe. My philosophy of the, of the creation of the space station is the following. Let’s imagine there is ISS; currently it involves the cooperation of 16 countries, five agencies. Each of those has its own experience in space, its own healthy ambitions. Each of us has, has its own perspective of the problem, and its own option and scenario for solving the problem. Engineers, designers, creators of this program, we all sit down at one table and solve these problems, and the station comes out as a result. It’s growing. Maybe it’s not growing as fast as we would like it to, but it is growing. All of you now can look up in the sky at night and see that star. This is the flesh, the brain, the intellect of people from a lot of countries. For me, the station is the philosophy of the future of our Earth, when people, governments of differing countries, will be able to speak the same language. Having their own point of view, their own ambition, they will be able to agree on something. Everybody is going to look at that star and say, the Earth is growing; it’s getting more and more beautiful as the days go by. So the station is, for me, the philosophy of demonstrating that differing people from differing countries can work on the same program, can work well, and scientists who work in this program can contact their governments and say, if we are able to find common ground and speak the same language, maybe the politicians can do the same.