Q: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?
Preflight Interview: Sergei Volkov
A: Very tough question. It wasn’t just a kid dream. Actually it wasn’t a kid dream, because my father was a cosmonaut and I was able to see all pros and cons of this job, and when I was a kid it was more minuses than plusses always busy, studying all day long, exams. That’s why as for kid, it was really a, I think, not scared but kids usually not too ready, or at least imagine that will studying all their life. I think it’s the worst case scenario for all kids.
So you saw all the work and none of the fun?
Yes. That is why when I made a decision to become a cosmonaut it was sort of deep understanding that I can manage to do this job, and I wanted be useful to my country. That was one of the input, I wanted to be a cosmonaut, when I grew up and I thought, I’m a military pilot, why can’t I be a cosmonaut, it’s interesting job and I would like to participate.
Let me ask you, excuse me, a little bit about how you grew up and became a pilot, and start with your hometown. Tell me about where you grew up and what it was like there.
I grew up in Star City because my father was a cosmonaut and in our house, 11-story building, only cosmonauts lived, all famous cosmonauts: Valentina Tereshkova, Alexei Leonov, Yuri Gagarin’s wife, and all this famous cosmonauts, and I was able to meet them and Leonov personally covered all kids because father was always somewhere in trips or trainings or in space. That’s why he was sort of our mentor in our house, and then, I finished school in Star City and then I graduated from Tambov Military School of Pilots, and then as an air force pilot I flew on air force base, and then was selected a cosmonaut.
What was it that got you interested in wanting to be a pilot?
I always dreamed about to being a pilot since my first time I’ve been in a cockpit of the fighter, because originally my father was instructor of military school and when I was three years old he took me to the airfield, and while he flew with cadets his friends gave me a tour of the airfield and, of course, I was able to sit in the real fighter and that’s how the dreams appear and since that time I couldn’t imagine that I can be somebody [other] than the pilot.
But you did. As you said you went to college, to pilot school in the air force. Did you enjoy being an air force pilot?
Yes. It was great this first solo flight and to be able to fly the airplane, is great.
What was it, as you were a pilot then, what was it that made you feel, perhaps I could be a cosmonaut, too, that made you want to, to apply to do that job? Especially since, as you said, you had seen the hard side of it as a boy?
Maybe because the life of pilot wasn’t enough for me. I wanted something more to be able to fly a little bit higher.
So as a cosmonaut you have a job that, not unlike an air force pilot, does have a risk associated with it, but being a cosmonaut is a different kind of risk. So, Sergei, I wonder why you think that risk is worthwhile? What is it that we’re getting or what is it as people learn about, that makes it worth taking the risk for you?
I think the curiosity of mankind, that we want something unknown. Like 500 years ago, humankind wanted to know what the other side of the ocean is, and it was a very risky project and then we decided that probably we can fly; let’s fly higher. And now we’re flying space station, and still it’s not enough for us, we want to know what’s beyond. And I think there could be many answers on this question from very simple—because we are curious and we want to know what is beyond—and the complicated answer that we can stay longer, all time on our world and in Earth, and we need to somehow reach other planets because it’s always interesting for us. It’s not from the destination, but what was always the key point, try to find something, doesn’t matter when it happened, try to find something. Five hundred years ago it was spices, gold; right now, we don’t know what to expect when we reach Mars surface, we don’t know what we may expect from flying beyond the solar system, but we always wanted to know and I think its inspiring us and we continue to fly, even if it’s a really risky job.
Sergei, you are a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 28 and 29 crews. Please give me a summary of the goals of your flight and tell me what your main responsibilities are going to be on this mission.
The main goals, I think, pretty the same as most of the crew does. It’s launch from Kazakhstan, and I’m going to be commander of Soyuz vehicle, S27, and then docking with International Space Station. Then we are ready to dock with three progresses that will be during our increment, one Russian EVA, potentially another EVA from Russian side, and at least one American EVA, and of course we are looking forward to see shuttle guys with us flying 10 days and landing according to schedule in middle of November. That’s a main milestone of our expeditions.
And between you’ll be doing a lot of science work and maintenance work on board the station.
Now you spent almost 200 days in space on your first flight, when you were the commander of Expedition 17 three years ago. How has that experience helped you as you’ve trained for this mission?
It helps a lot because now I understand what I really need to know. It’s like when you are in school you can imagine what you will need from your background. For right now I know I need to focus myself or maybe focus all my crew members, Mike Fossum and Satoshi Furukawa, we can discuss not in theory but I can share my experience with them we flew together with Mike 10 days on board the station, and we know each other well and at least we know how to settle our life better.
What are you looking forward to about getting to spend another six months on board the space station?
First of all it’s my job to fly to space, and of course doing what you need to do is a great feeling. As a professional I’m looking forward to do EVA from Russian side. I’m going to support as arm operator American EVA, and it’s also very exciting task for me because I’ve trained a lot for this and I think we’ll manage success. That’s probably the two most exciting things that I am looking forward to.
Well let me get you to tell us about the place we’re talking about. Describe the International Space Station as it exists today, with all the different laboratories and modules and robotics that are there.
International Space Station, it’s huge I would say, space building. When you just can see it—and you can see it actually from five kilometers perfectly well when the sun is rising—and you can’t imagine, or can’t believe, that this miracle was built by people, by humans. Then your closer you can see all those modules and nodes. It was done practically during our Expedition 17, but still some new modules appeared, and now it’s, a very good house to live in and a great place to work. We have everything we need, we have equipment for the experiments, we have scientists who support us and provide those experiments to us, and the station’s great.
Well, let’s start by talking about the experiments ’cause now you’re going to a station where you’re going to have six crew members and several laboratories to take advantage of, so there’s a lot more science that is being done these days…
…than Expedition 17. A lot of this is designed to find out how people can live and work in space.
I agree with you.
Tell me about a few of those kinds of experiments that you and your crewmates are going to be involved in.
One of the newest experiments from the Russian side, it’s sort of following previous it’s, the main problem is bone [mass loss] and now we have the piece of bones with us and we will manage to see the actual degradation of the calcium from the bones, it’s not only a problem for the cosmonauts and astronauts but for many of people who live on Earth. I think it’s very valuable to have another result and maybe find the cure from this disease because, that’s the newest one that we didn’t perform before. And, of course, the benefits of the station, that you continue experiments for a long period of time, and a lot of experiments will just continue, some of them I’ve already done before during my expedition, now it’s just a sequence of those experiments, and it’s going to Plazmennyi Kristall [Plasma Crystal] and it’s going to be a lot of research of human body, what we can do, we need to know, and how we going to live on Mars and beyond, and that’s a great source to have this data is from astronauts and cosmonauts flying International Space Station.
Is just the fact that you’re there and living in that environment is really one big experiment in itself?
I would say, it’s part of the experiment but for the scientists it’s not enough just to send people somewhere, they stay in weightlessness, have fun, and then successfully return. We need to do a lot of tasks to succeed in all these experiments and from each side we have thousands, and 24 hours is not enough for us right now.
Are there other life sciences experiments that are going to be new for you this time?
I don’t think so. Most of the experiments are just like continuing of previous experiments.
I guess then there is some value in getting data from the same subject again a second time?
Absolutely, and all the same subject do the same experiment, what had happened when you did it like two years ago. Now with your knowledge, your experience, and analysis from the ground, you may see the improvement my expectation is to see some improvement in some experiments.
Now there are a lot of other kinds of science besides the human life sciences that you and your crewmates will be doing. You will be the operators of experiments. Give me a sense of the different kinds of research work that you guys will be doing on board the station this time.
Studying the radiation in space and actually on the Earth, it’s a problem. We sort of know how to prevent our bodies from these extremely dangerous rays but to be able to analyze the data, to collect this data without any safety layers like ozone layer or atmosphere, the space station is a perfect place. Of course, Earth science, Earth observation targets, we not just observe the events that had happened during our flight like volcano erupture or maybe the results of earthquake, but you can see how the people ruin the world, their home here, and this is also very valuable because when you stay inside of the woods, you can’t imagine how huge this forest is or how huge the damage or impact of the human beings is. But from space, when you can see at the same time like 10,000 kilometers square, you can imagine how harmful we are.
You also mentioned a moment ago that you have like physics research, the plasma crystal experiment, there’s biological research other kinds of science that you’re doing, too.
Of course, growing some plants, it’s going to be one of our tasks we have a small greenhouse it can’t provide food for us but at least for the scientists they can make their, again, studying of these products, how well they are, were grown, and will we be able to maybe have fresh food when you fly far[ther] than 400 kilometers above the Earth.
Now, along with all the science work that you guys will do, you are responsible for taking care to make sure that the station is operating properly as well. Give me a sense of the other kinds of maintenance work that a space station crew member is responsible for.
According to my previous experience you train to react on all failures and you are ready to perform R&R [remove and replace] for some equipment, but nobody can tell you for sure to be ready that this device will have failure, or you need backup. That is why have scheduled maintenance because everything unfortunately that man can build get the expiration date. We need perform the replacement without any failures of equipment. but you probably have heard some issues with Electrons right now; I hope that we do manage to repair it or change the tank. So far I can’t see any issues that we have.
One of the first highlights that will come on your schedule will be the final visit from a space shuttle mission, and STS-135 is going include a spacewalk for Mike Fossum and Ron Garan. Usually it’s shuttle crew members who go outside during these spacewalks; why are station crew members going outside during a shuttle visit?
I maybe because Mike and Ron already done EVAs and they perform three EVAs during their flight, STS-124, during my mission, and to have, it’s always benefit have two experienced crew member who already performed EVA and the other reason I think because there are going to be only four crew members [on the shuttle] instead of six, and probably guys need somebody else in that some other specialists deal with autonomous flight and then docking phase, and to have this source of two very well experienced astronauts on board the station and not to use this resource, I think it’s not good.
Well, and you mentioned a moment ago that you’re going to be involved in this spacewalk as an operator of the robotic arm. So tell us about what tasks there are scheduled for this EVA.
There are three main tasks on this EVA. First, very important put the failed ammonia pump from the truss to the payload bay and then they need to take a new fluid experiment from the shuttle bay and install it on the truss. Those two tasks are very big and long, and the third task is repairment of external camera that’s installed on one of the truss.
So for your arm operations, I take it, you’re going to be maneuvering your crewmates around outside.
That’s my expectation, yeah. Somebody will stand on the end effector and I will fly him from one structure to another structure.
You look like you’re going to, look forward to that.
What else is on the timeline for this flight—what other sort of work will be done during STS-135’s visit?
Because it’s the last flight and all participants of ISS program would like to bring as much spare parts as possible, the shuttle will be full by the equipment and food and needed stuff. That is why it’s a lot of transportation work we will unload the shuttle and we’ll, I’m pretty sure that we will fill with some failed equipment and trash.
And the last opportunity to bring things back home…
…large things back home…
…like the pump module. Because this flight of Atlantis is the last mission in the Space Shuttle Program, what are your thoughts, Sergei, about the space shuttle’s place in the history of human spaceflight and the role that it’s played in building this space station?
I think thanks to this machine, we manage to build the space station, because all trusses, all modules from American side were delivered by the shuttle and were assembled by shuttle crew or some ISS crew members who flew with the shuttle crew members. I think that’s the biggest plus of utilizing the shuttle and I think almost 80% of success to building of International Space Station is built on shuttle wings.
Well, just a couple of weeks after Atlantis departs the current schedule calls for you and Alexander Samokutyaev to do a spacewalk out of the Russian segment of the space station. Tell me what’s on the plan for this EVA.
Because we continue to build Russian part of station, there were two modules new modules, appeared previous year, MRM [Mini Research Module] 2 and MRM 1, and the Docking Compartment [Pirs] is relatively old. That’s why we need to reorganize some equipment that was installed on surface of Docking Compartment. One is a Strela, and we will uninstall one of the Strelas from Docking Compartment and bring to the MRM 2. That’s also the biggest task, probably takes like one hour and a half. Then installation new experiment for communication and we’ll try laser communication, and that’s also the milestone of our EVA usual tasks is install new experiments and take just experiments that we need to take from the surface of station and move them back. That’s the main goal.
Bring back samples…
Samples and new task just recently appeared. It’s this small Sputnik that was built by the students of Moscow University, and we will just fly it….
You’re going to release the satellite?
…and it will translate some information voices of famous people that kind of experiment.
Nice. Now there’s a possibility that there will be a second Russian spacewalk during your increment, correct? What’s the plan there?
Because it’s possibility, we just discuss this, and we didn’t have any training on it, that’s why I can’t tell you about the second EVA so far.
But it is a thing that all crew members have to do they have to train for spacewalks just in case they come up.
Absolutely, and there is the basic training it’s not only on Russian side but American side, we have basic training like everybody who going to fly as a International Space Station crew member supposed to know how to do the EVA. That’s one of our tasks.
There’s also a plan for some new cargo ships that have been developed on the American side under NASA’s Commercial orbiter Transportation, Orbital Transportation Services program, that have test flights that are coming up later on this year. Tell me about those vehicles and what work you or your crewmates, you have to do to get the station ready for that.
I know that Mike and Satoshi trained for catching free-flying objects and it’s great to have a new vehicle, always great to see something new that’s flying, potentially can dock to the station, and because of the shuttle retirement we need another vehicles, not only Progress, and ATVs [Automated Transfer Vehicles] also good, HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], but I think it’s great that each country participant will have the cargo vehicle with their plusses and minuses.
So there’s a, a chance you may get to see a brand new kind of vehicle at the station.
Yeah, it would be great to see a new vehicle.
You’ve got commercial cargo ships that are just, that’s just one way that spaceflight has changed in its first 50 years since Gagarin’s flight—have gone from one man in a tiny capsule to this giant space building, as you described it. Where do you think human space exploration will be 50 years from now? How is the International Space Station getting us ready for that?
Hard to tell. We are so dependent on government money it depends on how much money the budget will provide us, and we need to believe that at least have the moon base on surface—this is my dream, actually, to spend at least one month on surface of the moon and do some work there. Maybe Mars; who knows? It’s hard to tell right now. I don’t want to just dream, or imagine; I’m a professional, and what I can tell based on my knowledge what is going on in the program.
How is what you’re doing on the International Space Station helping prepare for those possibilities?
As we mentioned before the human research experiment that provides data, how the human body will react on the long weightlessness will we be able to go out of the capsule after landing to Mars surface, and what you need to do, maybe what kind of pills we need to use or maybe what kind of physical exercise we need to perform to be ready not just to lay around the capsule and see the red sky and red sand but to be able to perform some tasks on the surface of Mars. I think the International Space Station is the best source of this information.