Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world but there are fewer than 50 cosmonauts. What made you want to become a cosmonaut and be one of those people who flies in space?
Image to right: Expedition 16 Flight Engineer Yuri Malenchenko. Image credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center
Preflight Interview: Yuri Malenchenko
A: I have always been drawn to professions that are unusual, interesting, that require a considerable effort, considerable knowledge and considerable practical experience in order to be able to perform the tasks required by these professions. I was a military pilot and worked and flew fighter planes on an aviation base. I was offered an opportunity to go into the space program and I agreed, and I never regretted it later. It is a very interesting profession. It requires a lot from a person. However, at the same time, it is a very rewarding profession because the tasks you need to complete are very important; they’re very complicated and require a lot of responsibility from different points of view. Also, it is a profession that impacts the future. I think the future of humankind will be closely related to space, so from the point of understanding the future prospects of this profession it’s very interesting as well.
So you were not ever interested in becoming a cosmonaut until after you were already a fighter pilot?
Well, not that I didn’t want to become a cosmonaut, it’s just at that stage I was thinking, about it in more realistic terms. When I was growing up almost every boy wanted to be a cosmonaut; every spaceflight was so unusual and so exciting. Everybody else was interested. I think we knew the names of those few people who flew into space when we were still in kindergarten and we were following the spaceflight from its start to its finish and everybody was excited and inspired. Those were my childhood dreams, thoughts in school. But as far as the real considerations concerned, I thought about it when I was a little bit more mature and when there was a real opportunity to execute it, perform it.
Tell me about, Svetlovodsk; tell me about the town where you grew up.
It is a town in Ukraine. It is a rather young town. It was built when a large hydroelectric station was built on the Dneiper River. There are also several large factories in the town that had very good future prospects and required highly-qualified engineers and scientists. A lot of young, highly-educated people moved to the town. That’s how the town was built, rather fast, along with the hydroelectric station. There are fewer than a hundred thousand people in the town. It is a beautiful town built on the bank of the Kremenchukskoe Water Reservoir. There are beautiful pine forests, growing right on the banks of the river. People are wonderful; educated. Right now they’re not as young as they used to be but there are a lot of young people there, a new generation is growing up. I like going back there.
Do you have a sense that, of how that place and those people helped make you the man that you are today?
Definitely so. At the time when I was born and growing up, everybody lived a common goal. We all had common plans, more or less related to various professions. Everybody was trying to get an education, learn a profession, go into some serious fields, participate in some major government programs. That’s what the town lived with, and there were major enterprises and factories, that were important for the country as a whole. People understood that and appreciated that, so the whole mood of the generation brought in us the desire to strive to achieve goals and have something interesting. We were all very excited, inspired. This desire to achieve something in life came from that time and I think it has played its role.
Give me a brief version, then, of your background, of your education and your career.
After I graduated from high school I got into an institute -- it’s similar to university in the United States. Applied mathematics was my major. It’s related to computers, computer programs. About a year later I decided to change my major. I left that institute. I applied to and was accepted by a military flight academy. It used to be a very good school of fighter pilots. I completed it successfully and upon graduation -- five years I was in that school -- went to military aviation. It was exciting, very interesting work. I felt great, there were very good prospects, we were flying many flights in different parts of the country, and it was very interesting. At a certain stage I got the offer, as I mentioned previously, to work in the space program. I went to the space program, went through long-duration training. Along with that I graduated from the Zhukovskiy Aerospace Academy, got engineering degree, and at a certain stage I approached the time when I was selected as a crew member and started flying in space. I had a spaceflight in 1993, and then the space station program started; at the very beginning of the ISS program I was a part of it, and I already had two flights as part of the ISS program. And briefly, that’s the story.
We know that the part of the cosmonaut’s job that involves flying in space can be very dangerous. Tell me what it is you think that we gain from flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk.
A lot of people on the Earth get a lot out of spaceflight. It’s hard to overlook the technologies that are developed, from the spaceflight. Any person on Earth probably cannot even imagine -- maybe there are some people who can do without it but most cannot imagine their life any more without the capabilities, for instance, telecommunications, computer science, television. We have also been performing different science experiments for many years, and they were a starting point to start experiments on the ground, involve more scientists and develop certain areas. And a short time period has passed -- as we said, just 50 years and so many things are happening related to the space exploration. It is a huge, business venture and nothing really can be done without it any more. No serious government-level goal can be completed without the capabilities that were obtained as a result of space exploration, not to mention the future prospects. Very recently we didn’t know there were different continents. Right now we’re aspiring to research different planets. I think this is our only path. We need to look into space.
You are flight engineer on Expedition 16 to the International Space Station. Yuri, please summarize the goals of your flight and what your main responsibilities will be on this mission.
I am flight engineer 1 for this flight, as you mentioned, and I will be the only Russian space agency representative during that flight. I will be responsible for the Russian segment; that is my area of responsibility. That will also include all of the Soyuz operations. That means ascent and docking, also working with the Soyuz vehicle if necessary as a rescue vehicle, and landing. That includes on-orbit operations with Soyuz such as relocation as required. Along with that, as far as the Russian segment responsibilities are concerned, I have some utilization operations prepared by our specialists. I’ll be working on that plan, and during our increment we’re going to perform a lot of assembly operations. There will be three shuttle flights. There will be a lot of activities including the assembly operations for the U.S. segment. There will be the European agency module, European transportation vehicle, Japanese module; I will be participating in all those activities. One EVA is planned for me, together with Peggy Whitson. I will be working on supporting ATV docking; I will also participate in, in European segment, Columbus, operation. I also trained in Japan. So the scope of my responsibilities also includes some activities on the U.S. segment. I trained for various operations so I’m ready to work on the U.S. segment as well. So this is the scope of my responsibilities.
Both you and Peggy Whitson have already completed a long-duration mission to the International Space Station before. Has that made a, a big difference for the two of you in your training to, get ready to fly there again?
Certainly. Certainly. Flight experience and long-term training allows us to understand what you need, what we need in terms of training, to complete the flight successfully. This allows us to take into account this knowledge and focus on the main items, our effort, and save our energy, not to disperse our energy because the training volume is considerable and it takes a long amount of time. And I can say that even with flight experience and previous training experience, I cannot say the training this time was easier for me than before.
Your increment is scheduled to receive three shuttle flights that will deliver new station hardware that comes from four different space agencies, and overall there are 14 spacewalks that will take place during the time that you are there. That’s a, a more lively pace of activity than there was during Expedition 7, isn’t it?
Certainly. The arrival of three shuttle flights, each of those will have a lot of goals, a lot of EVAs planned for the time frame, and EVA is a very specific activity that requires full concentration of the person’s effort. The responsibility is enormous because the results of an EVA will have a considerable bearing on the subsequent EVAs and the entire shuttle program. The time will indeed be intense. There will be a lot of shuttle flight participants, the shuttle will bring a group of astronauts who will be actively participating in the station activities, and other work outside ISS. It will be a very intense time and that is good; that is great.
Image above: From left are the participating crew members of Expedition 16, flight engineers Clay Anderson, Yuri Malenchenko, Dan Tani and Leopold Eyharts, Commander Peggy Whitson and Flight Engineer Garrett Reisman. Image credit: NASA
In fact, you have three different exchanges of flight engineer 2, during your mission; you’ll be working [with] four other different crew members throughout the time. I wonder if that has made your training for this mission more complicated.
I wouldn’t say so. Each program participant has his or her own individual schedule, individual plan, and this plan, both here at Johnson Space Center and in Russia and at ESA and at the JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency], each is working individually on their respective goals, but in certain areas they overlap. At certain, stages, we train together. I understand it was very difficult for those who were preparing the training program to put it all together because there is a shortage of time and one, one person needs to be at one place and somebody else needs to be elsewhere, but I personally did not experience considerable difficulties. We’re mostly done with the majority of our training; everything was organized very well; I’m very happy with it. We still have some training left, both here and in Russia we have the final stages of training.
STS-120’s shuttle mission will arrive just a few weeks after you and Peggy Whitson get to the station. Tell me about the hardware on that mission, the Harmony node. What is that going to add to ISS?
A new module for the station, and the new node, that has equipment inside, and additional volume. This volume can be used for different purposes. It also gives a new important capability to dock new modules. It has docking compartments that can be used for the station assembly that are really important. We can continue developing the station this way. Also ahead of us we will have time for station assembly, and the station will have the European and Japanese modules docked. This is a goal to complete, the station assembly. Node 2 has an important role in that goal.
Another of the highlights of that docked time period will be the relocation of the P6 Truss from where it’s currently located on top of the station out to the end of the truss. Now I know that you’re not going to be the arm operator for that, but could you describe what is involved in moving that component out to its new location?
It is, indeed, a large structure; that’s why its relocation requires preparation. All the lines and circuits need to be prepared in advance. The relocation of such a large structure does indeed inspire awe for the capability of being able to perform such operations in space, and it is very good that there is a capability to perform such operations in space these days. This time the structure is going to be moved to a new location. It has to be activated, deployed; all the lines need to be connected. There might be a lot of latent aspects that probably might not work at first, but that has to be all developed and planned by a group of specialists, and I think they will do just fine and everything will end well.
You mentioned a minute ago that you’re scheduled to do one spacewalk during the flight; that is during the time that STS-120 is docked there, you and Peggy Whitson. Why will the station crew members be performing a spacewalk while the shuttle is still docked?
As I previously mentioned, there is a whole chain of EVAs; they’re all interrelated so the results of the previous EVA will impact the goals of the next EVA. The shuttle crew members have a certain range of tasks that are trained for here, and there is a range of activities that will need to be completed in order to simplify and perform such certain tasks, for the EVAs performed by the shuttle crew. And I think that is why the decision was made. I think it is sensible to use the capability and the experience of the shuttle crew in order to reduce the number of goals, for the shuttle crew members because their time is more critical than ours and they need to focus on their primary tasks. That would be difficult to complete for the ISS crew. I think it is a very sensible and rational goal.
So what are the tasks that you and Peggy will perform during this spacewalk?
Image at left: Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson and Flight Engineer Yuri Malenchenko. Credit: NASA
In our plan there is a preparation of the PMA [Pressurized Mating Adapter]. That means working with lines and connections. We’ll need to disconnect cables, stow them correctly, so we can move the module. We will also have some activities for the node module. They are also related to the PMA docking and some preparatory work in order to be able to integrate the new modules into the overall station volume. This is a whole range of responsibilities and tasks because they’re all interdependent. There can be certain updates for the tasks that will need to be performed. We perform training, even for the goals performed by the crew during the most recent EVA; our training included those tasks as well. We were training with a certain overlap. If they hadn’t completed that then we would be ready to finish it for them.
When that shuttle mission, STS-120, leaves, Clay Anderson will come home with them and Dan Tani will stay on board with you, and they leave Node 2 docked to the side of Unity. Describe for us what is involved then for you, the Expedition 16 crew, to get Harmony installed back on the front of the station where it is, is going to end up.
This is a serious operation and I know that Dan Tani spent a lot of time training for this operation and I’m confident that he is well-trained for this. The main responsibility lies on the shoulders of the robotics operation and, of course, on the, on the ground control personnel who are going to plan the entire process and monitor its execution. For the crew members, for me personally, I can participate in the deactivation and activation of the modules for Node 2. As far as the relocation itself, it will be Dan Tani.
After Harmony is moved into position on the front of Destiny, the next thing you know there will be another shuttle visiting the space station with another major payload. What do you see as the significance of the arrival on orbit of the European Space Agency’s laboratory module, Columbus?
The significance, I believe, is the fact that the European Space Agency’s one of the ISS program partners, and they now have the opportunity to implement their plan to dock their module and have their own laboratory as part of the International Space Station. This opens considerable opportunities for both the European Space Agency and other partners because subsequently there will be joint work performed on different programs, the main of those being the utilization program, payloads prepared by the European scientists along with NASA and the Russian space agency specialists. This will be the beginning of a major effort, and I think this is the significance of the Columbus module.
That shuttle mission, STS-122, will also leave behind a new member of your crew, the European Space Agency astronaut, Leopold Eyharts. Once the shuttle’s gone and you and Peggy and Leo are left, what is the job that is required to get Columbus ready to go into operation?
That will be, of course, activating Columbus, preparing it for operation on board as part of the International Space Station, as well as its systems. There are specific procedures for activation and that’ll be our task. We’re going to have a European Space Agency astronaut as a member of our crew and that will be more his range of responsibilities and, of course, it’s no coincidence that he’s going to be on board at that specific moment in time. Activation testing at that stage, that’ll be our task.
Early next year, during that time period, the first of ESA’s automated supply ships is due to arrive at ISS. Tell us a bit about the Automated Transfer Vehicle and how it will contribute to International Space Station operations?
ATV is the largest transportation cargo vehicle, compared to the currently flown Progress vehicle provided by the Russian, that is provided by the Russian space agency. Proceeding from its size, its capabilities are much more considerable than those of Progress vehicle. It will be delivering to the station a large amount of cargo, different cargo that will be planned for delivery, consumables such as water, air, and everything that is required to support the station. ATV has more capabilities so its arrival will be supplementing the station resources considerably. Along with that, it’ll be the first transportation cargo vehicle launched by the European Space Agency, which in itself is a new test flight and experiment and it is very interesting. And we can say that the docking system of the ATV vehicle is unique. That’s why I think it will be an interesting flight, an interesting experience, a good experience that can be used in the future.
In what way is the docking system of the ATV unique? How does it differ from that of the Progress?
The difference is that the Progress vehicle is using a radio-technical docking system that has a number of antennas and that the final rendezvous, at approach stage one, Progress is close to the station, the station is actively participating in updating, the information of the docking system, and there are rather accurate, measurements of the location, and this way the radio-technical system is correcting the information in the docking, in the control system. ATV also has a radio-technical system. However it’s only used for monitoring, providing additional information for the crew and for the ground control personnel. Control is used by the video system that is utilizing video images to monitor the location of antennas and utilizing the values of the angles for the positions, transmitting that information to the Motion Control System, and that is the primary information used for docking, so this is the unique aspect of the docking system. That’s why it is interesting.
And the ATV’s docking system is similar to Progress in that it is an automatic system, correct? There’s not anyone flying it.
Yes. For the Progress vehicle there is a capability to perform manual control from the station; there is a different system that provides another control loop. ATV is not equipped with such a capability, the crew members cannot control ATV for docking. However, there are different tasks to ensure safety and there is a range of criteria to monitor how the docking is proceeding where the crew members are responsible for making the decision to abort the docking, and it is a high level of responsibility because it’s a very heavy vehicle. Velocity should be calculated very accurately; any deviations in velocity were angles, will either require the correct command or suspend the process or move away from the station and do additional testing and checkouts and postpone docking until the next day or cancel it altogether. These are the responsibilities. I would like to say that even though there is no capability to perform manual docking, the evaluation part is very responsible and requires appropriate training to perform it.
There is another shuttle due to arrive at the station in February. This one will carry new hardware coming from both Canada and Japan. Tell me about those new components, about the Dextre robotic hand, and the first component of the Japanese laboratory.
As far as the Japanese space agency, JAXA, is concerned, they are also currently at the stage when they are going to bring their module to the station. It is Japanese module. It’s very interesting. It has a considerable volume in order to be able to house a considerable science laboratory. They are going to have their own vacuum chamber for docking. They’re going to have an external platform. This module is going to dock to the main module; there is a module that is going to be docked to the main module. It is a very interesting module, very beautiful, and has a lot of capabilities. I liked it a lot. I think it has a considerable future for the programs that are going to be performed on board of this module. We will be very glad to work with the Japanese space agency. As far as the robotic hand is concerned, it is a unique device that’s going to augment the robotics capabilities that are currently utilized in space, and I believe that the station has a long life and there will be a lot of capabilities and opportunities to use this new capacity.
Just shortly before your launch, on Oct. 4 will be the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Tell me, in your opinion, what do you think of the progress that we citizens of Earth have made in the first 50 years of the Space Age?
I believe we have achieved a considerable progress over such a short time period. We learned to live in space just a short 50 years ago, but didn’t live in space. We weren’t even thinking or rather we were thinking but weren’t sure if it is possible, to live in space constantly. Currently we have a continuous presence of humans in space, not only living in space but performing complicated activities and tasks, performing science experiments, and it has been going on for years. Of course, space exploration is unique. All steps, all achievements, regardless of where, which country and when, have been completed, are important, and each step is an important stage for subsequent steps. And of course, the first Sputnik is very important, as well as for manned spaceflights. I believe space exploration is important, not only today, but I think for the future of the development of the humankind. I think such development momentum will be sustained.