Tell me why did you want to be a cosmonaut?
Preflight Interview: Mikhail Kornienko
I’m a military brat, you know. My father was a military pilot and he was flying helicopters, rescue helicopters, and we lived in the Urals in a small town, and then the space exploration was only starting and every young boy was dreaming of being a cosmonaut, and I was not an exception, especially because my father was a rescue helicopter pilot. So of course, I have been dreaming of becoming a cosmonaut, and this dream has been a guiding light to me, and the road was clear to become a cosmonaut. And then I joined the cosmonaut corps; it was difficult, I had to overcome many obstacles, but I did it.
Let me get you to tell us a little more about yourself. Start from the beginning about where you were born and where you lived—I guess as a military brat, you may have lived in many places as you grew up.
Yes, of course. I was born in Syzran and there was a helicopter institute there, and then we moved to the city of Yuzhno-Uralsk and I don’t remember a lot, I was four or five years old. And when I was six years old my father crashed. He and his helicopter crew were over a small city and they were on fire; they could not land and the helicopter exploded. And I tried to go there every day to lay flowers on the site. There were six people in that crew that perished. And then I lived with my grandmother, and my mother and my brother were in Chelyabinsk at that time, and when I was in the seventh to ninth grade I was in Chelyabinsk…When I was studying in Chelyabinsk in eighth, ninth grade there was a flight school there which was called young cosmonaut school, and I joined that school and studied for two years and we were not too young any more, we were basically young adults, and we were studying navigation and also we were allowed to do some parachute jumping. I was about 16 at the time and, of course, it made quite a big impression on me to do a parachute jump. And I got a special diploma which said the subjects I studied in the school of young cosmonauts and the parachute jumps I performed and, of course, my first parachute jump left a deep impression…And then I joined the army, it was in 1978. And then I joined the Moscow Aviation Institute, and I started to work for the Moscow militia, Moscow police, and also study at the Moscow Aviation Institute. And then I graduated and started working as a ground launch specialist [at the Baikonur Cosmodrome] and Vladimir Pavlovich [Barmin], who was [Sergei] Korolev’s co-worker, was the head there, and he was a part of Buran launches, and myself and my team were responsible for the servicing of Buran after landing. And then I had to go through all the medical evaluations that are very difficult for the Russian candidates for cosmonaut corps, and then I joined the cosmonaut corps and I worked two years there. After, of course, I passed a lot of tests, and then after working for 12 years I’m closer to my spaceflight, so the road to the space station for me was filled with obstacles and hard work, but I’m here.
Twelve years is a long time between being selected as a cosmonaut and getting the chance to fly. Did you have a specialty in your work during that time?
First of all, I was training after I joined the cosmonaut corps; we had to go through a general training for two years and after that you are assigned the title of a cosmonaut, and when I had some free time from training, of course, I was working in our design bureau doing some technical work and work on the space vehicles. And as an EVA specialist I was also inspecting the external outfitting of some modules, for example, handrails. My work was to make the job of astronauts and cosmonauts performing the EVA easier, and of course there was endless training sessions, for example, on the Soyuz motion control. It is very difficult to understand it and to pass all the tests, especially for Soyuz manual control. It took a lot of time.
The flying in space part of your chosen career is one that we know can be dangerous, so I wanted to ask you, finally, what it is that you feel that we, humans, what do we get, or what do we learn, as a result of flying people in space that you feel makes it worth taking that risk?
It’s a very philosophical question, and there are many opinions on the subject. Some people think that unmanned flight exploration is the way to go, but the majority of people who are in the field of cosmonautics are of the opinion that there is no automatic equipment that can take the place of a human being to perform some scientific activities on board or to fly to other planets and do the tasks that a human being can do. And secondly, it’s unavoidable that humans have to venture into space, so we need to understand how a human being can fly for hundreds of days to Mars and how we’re going to feel. And of course we are going to colonize the planets that are close to us, and the mindset of forward-looking scientists and other specialists is that we do have to continue the space exploration and it has to be human. We have to see the space with human eyes.
You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expeditions 23 and 24 crews. Please summarize your main responsibilities, and what the overall goals of this six-month flight are.
The assembly of the station is mostly complete and we will be doing some in-flight maintenance but that will be our secondary goal, and the experiments will be the primary goal, which is the main purpose of the station. We will have three Progress flights during our expedition. There will be the Soyuz with Fyodor Yurchikhin, two shuttles and as far as I know, we will also have an American transportation vehicle, commercial vehicle, Dragon. And also there will be an EVA with Fyodor Yurchikhin and myself when the Russian Mini Research Module arrives. We will have to replace some cameras and do some additional activities which will be determined in the future.
Now this will be your first trip to space. Tell me what are you looking forward to the most about getting to spend six months off of the planet.
Mostly we would like to perform our tasks flawlessly. A cosmonaut is a professional. All the rest, of course, is secondary, but of course it’s very important for me to see the Earth from afar and to spend six months on the station and try myself in the work on the station. I’m really looking forward to it.
When you arrive you will join Oleg Kotov, Soichi Noguchi and T.J. Creamer just in between a space shuttle visit and a few weeks before another space shuttle arrives. Tell me how you imagine you and Alexander [Skvortsov] and Tracy [Caldwell Dyson] will be spending those first few weeks on orbit.
First of all we will have the crew handover. We will try to understand the activities on the station as soon as possible in order for us to help Oleg and Soichi and T.J. This will be our primary task. Of course, it’s impossible to tell how we will feel in our first days on the station. It’s individual to every cosmonaut, every human being, but I don’t think we’ll have any problems and we will start working with the station crew from the start and start helping them and working together with them. This is our primary goal.
Now that the station assembly is nearing the completion and there are six people on board, there are more crew hours that are being devoted to science in the laboratories; a lot of it is about how people live and work when they’re in that environment. Tell me about some of the human life science experiments that you’ll be working on during your time on board the station.
One of our tasks is to perform from 48 to 50 experiments including life sciences, medical experiments. I cannot describe each of them, of course, there is not enough time, but the general area of these experiments is adaptation of the human body to zero g environment and to optimize the recovery and adaptation of human body after landing—we would like for people to not spend too much time on trying to recover their strength after a spaceflight. And also we have some research into human psychology in order to make it easier for humans to work in space, now and in the future.
There are experiments in other disciplines as well. Tell me about what other kinds of science you’ll be working on while you’re there.
There are some physics experiments, for example, plasma crystal experiment—it’s a joint Russian/German experiment with Max Planck Institute. It is fundamental science and it is actually a futuristic experiment; it’s for our long term goals. It will not produce any quick results but it will provide some scientific foundation for the future. And I will have one other experiment, I would like to describe at least one, although I cannot describe all of them, or maybe I can do it later.
You and your crewmates are expecting a visit from shuttle mission STS-132, or ULF4, that’s coming in the late spring with a new component for the Russian segment of the station, the Mini Research Module 1. Tell me about that new Russian module and about the new capabilities that it will bring to the station.
MRM 1 is going to be delivered on the shuttle and installed by the American crew members, the shuttle crew members, using the SSRMS [space station remote manipulator system], the Canadian arm. And first of all it is going to be utilized as one more docking port, and we will have extra volume added to the Russian segment, it will increase the volume on the station. It can be used for stowage and also it will have some hardware for experiments. But first of all the module has to be activated and our crew will do it during the EVA, and after we ingress the module we will have to do a lot of work there to transfer the cargo for some experiments and some other hardware, and we will have to connect the communication channels to activate the commanding, and so on.
You’ve mentioned that you will have work to do on the outside of the new module during a spacewalk. Tell me more about the plan for what will be your first time to make an EVA.
As I said before, there will be an EVA to integrate the Mini Research Module into the station. We will have to connect the cables on the outer surface of the MRM 1 module, connect the MRM module to the station network. We will have to replace some cables and to perform some additional activities that are being decided on now. The EVA is scheduled to last about six-and-a-half to seven hours and I think it will not be too difficult. For example, the Expedition 17 crew, Mr. [Oleg] Kononenko and Mr. [Sergey] Volkov, they had an unplanned EVA and they were working towards the Soyuz so that was a difficult EVA, and our EVA, we will train for it in the NBL [Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory] so I’m sure everything will be successful. Of course, it will be very exciting for me. It will be my first flight, my first EVA, and, of course, our primary task is to do our work and then we can maybe enjoy some views from the window of the station.
You and your crewmates will also be doing some work on the inside of the station in anticipation of the first of the test flights of the Dragon spacecraft, which is part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program through NASA. Tell me a little bit about this program and about the importance of adding this commercial supply vehicle to the Russian and European and Japanese supply cargo ships that fly to the station.
In my opinion it’s a very important element for the work on the station because when the shuttle flights are completed the cargo flow will be the lifeline for the station. Unfortunately some other vehicles, for example Japanese vehicles, are not flying too often, and we will miss their shuttle. Therefore, the Dragon commercial cargo vehicle will be very important for the station and its nominal operation.
There is another space shuttle that is scheduled to visit the station during your time there, the STS-134/ULF6 flight. It’s delivering another logistics carrier and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Tell me in general what the station crew will be doing to assist the shuttle crew members when they arrive with their cargo.
As far as I know, of course, we have been prepared for this, the payload integration people will be working on this, but if we are able to assist in some transfers and installation, for example, we will do it, and if the shuttle crew requires some support, of course, we will provide it because we are one crew and we will do whatever they request.
You and Skvortsov and Caldwell Dyson are scheduled to return to Earth around the end of the summertime, just before the arrival of what we think is going to be the last space shuttle mission. What are your thoughts about the space shuttle’s place in the history of space, human spaceflight, human space exploration?
The shuttle program was a very important milestone for the United States and for the whole humanity. The one shining example is the Hubble telescope: how many discoveries have been made by it, and it was serviced by the shuttle. I was so surprised to see the shuttle approach the Hubble and how the astronauts repaired it and prolonged its life; it was really impressive. And 90% of the International Space Station was assembled due to the shuttle flights. Of course, we have the Japanese segment and European segment and the truss, but the main bulk of the work was done by the shuttle so it was a very important milestone…
…for the ISS.
…if I could ask you to look to the future: how do you see the human space exploration effort advancing in the years to come, and what role does the International Space Station play in contributing to that effort?
As to the International Space Station, it’s a priceless experiment in international cooperation. We are learning to work together, and in my opinion the next step is interplanetary exploration of space, the moon or Mars. As [Konstantin] Tsiolkovsky said, the Russian space scientist, the humankind cannot stay in the cradle forever, so we have to leave Earth, and the function of the ISS is to learn as much as we can about life in space. And from orbital flights to the station we will proceed to interplanetary flights, first probably a base on the moon and then the flight to Mars, and of course it will have to be a joint effort of many countries. It’s impossible to do it with one country alone, and the experience from international cooperation on the ISS will be very important here.