Q: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?
Preflight Interview: Anton Shkaplerov
A: When I was a child, like many kids, I dreamt about flying to space, and then I started getting more serious about it. I started reading books, watching different documentaries about space. I got really involved and I was really interested in how to become a cosmonaut. So I decided that the right way would be become an Air Force pilot, a professional pilot, and then it will be my road to space. So when I was 15 I decided to try myself out as a pilot so I went to an aviation club. We used small sports aircraft, but they seemed so big to me and the control board seemed so uncomprehensible, and when I was flying fighter jets, military airplanes, I was like thinking about my little plane, and so I started flying planes at 15. At 16 I was flying them on my own. I was flying over my hometown where I was born. Everything was so familiar and pleasant to the eye. So then I realized that after two years of flying, when I was in high school, the choice was right. It was my dream to become a pilot, an air force pilot so that I was not just flying planes, but I wanted to do different maneuvers, like tricks. So after I graduated from high school I decided to go to air force academy so I knew I had to be really good at my studies and to be really well-trained, to be healthy. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t do any drugs. I knew that my future career will be a serious task. So when I graduated from our air force academy I entered into the air force academy in Moscow, and I graduated with honors three years later, and I continued to flying at Kubinka Air Force Base not far from Moscow and I was flying in, among Russian Vitjazi [Knights], Strizhi [Swifts], like Blue Angels, for example, and I was not just training on flying MiG-29 but I was also doing several tricks. I loved high speed, I loved flying in a group, and I was in the Sky Hussars group, so when you are on the ground, when you look at these planes, it’s breathtaking, but it’s even better when you are flying that plane. After six years of service at that air force base I was chosen to be a cosmonaut and this year is my eighth year as a member of a Russian cosmonaut team, and so soon I will be flying into space. This is the main landmark, so to say, of my career.
Do you remember what it was, when you were a young boy, that interested you, that grabbed your attention? What was it about being a cosmonaut that attracted you at, at such a young age and set you on that course?
I think new things, something that does not exist on the ground; zero gravity. When you look at cosmonauts working in the open space in their EVA suits, when you are thinking about the new developments new exploration, everything that we can find in space, that attracted me and I knew that I would be happy if I were working with new equipment that is not used on the ground yet but is used in space already, and I wanted to be somewhere where nobody has been.
We didn’t mention your hometown. You, you talked about learning to fly when you were still a teenager. Tell me about your hometown, Sevastopol. Tell me what it was like for you to grow up there.
Yes, I was born in Sevastopol. It’s the city of Russian, Navy Seamen. We have a huge base in the south of Crimea. It’s a beautiful, beautiful white town because most of the old buildings are made of white stones. The water is wonderful. I spent my whole childhood on the beach playing with my friends, it was a great time, and I was always surrounded by the military. My dad worked on a submarine and the whole town lived for the navy and by the way of the navy, and I would always would see officers around, navy officers around me in uniform, looked just, and I knew that I had to look just as good and that these people have a future, and I wanted to be like them. My parents were just great. They brought me up as I am now and I wanted to thank them for that. I had great teachers in high school. That’s why I love mathematics, physics, physical training. I would like to thank my first instructors who taught me to fly airplanes, and it’s all this actually contributed into me becoming a cosmonaut and flying into space.
In this job now, as you’re preparing to fly to space for the first time, you’re assuming risks that are different than, although maybe similar to, some of the risks that you have had in your air force career, uh, but still they’re different than most people would experience in their lives, and so people would ask the question, why do it? Anton, what do you feel that we, humanity, what do we gain as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?
Well, you are right that a flight into space is not just a beautiful journey, and it’s so great to like experience zero gravity, but from the moment of your launch to the moment of your landing, everything is connected with danger. There is only three millimeters [of metal] separating you from space, and when you perform an EVA all you have on your body is just fabric and any space debris can actually injure you. Of course, you can in a way compare this risk with the risk we’ve been, that I’ve been taking when I was an air force pilot, but if you want to be a part of something great, you have to make certain risks and certain sacrifices, and to me this risk can be actually explained by the rewards. I admire people who built this station and I am sure in the safety of my crew and myself. If we do not study the space, we will stalemate, and we have to move on, we have to study new planets, new horizons, new resources, new energy resources, for example. Maybe there is some other types of forms of life on other planets, so why not? These risks can be basically explained by the gains.
You’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station for Expeditions 29 and 30. Anton, can you give me a summary of what the mission goals are for your time on orbit and what your main responsibilities will be during this mission?
Our mission to the ISS begins with the launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome where, Anatoly Ivanishin as flight engineer 1, Dan Burbank as flight engineer 2 and me as a commander will be launched in Russian spaceship Soyuz, and I was honored by being appointed the commander of the mission. And my mission would be to actually bring my crew to the ISS, and after the mission is complete, after six months in space, to land successfully and bring them back to Earth. We will also be working every day maintaining the station: like living at home, we will be cleaning the station, maintaining the station, and during our work hours we will mainly be involved in science experiments, and I will complete one EVA. And these are the main tasks for the mission.
This is also your first trip to space. Tell me what it was like for you when you were informed that you had been assigned to your first mission.
I can’t say that I was happy, so happy that I jumped up to the ceiling. Of course I was happy inside, but it was my next step in my career. It’s been a long road and it happened six years after I was chosen to the crew of cosmonauts. So when I realized that, I understood that my career is moving forward and that I will soon be flying into space.
What are you most looking forward to about this opportunity to spend six months off of Earth?
Most of all I am waiting for this very strange and new atmosphere and environment, living in space, microgravity, the view of the Earth through the window, and the research. I will do my best to take pictures of the Earth, or maybe the space in general, to get to know my crew better, and to complete the mission safely.
Now, the assembly of the International Space Station is all but complete at this point. Describe for us what is there at the space station these days: what different kinds of facilities are you and your crewmates going to find when you arrive?
I would divide all the equipment that is on the ISS into two parts. First part is the equipment that is necessary to maintain the existence of the ISS, and the second part is important to carry out the experiments on board. The systems that maintain the station is the, for example, navigation or attitude control, or EPS [electrical power system] system. Some of the systems help us working, for example, laboratories, the equipment that is necessary for us to conduct experiments; for example, our extravehicular activity spacesuits, our working-out machines that help maintain our health and our strength, so that we could work to our full abilities.
Along with all of the facilities for the maintenance of the crew, of course, there are now many laboratories on board the space station for the science work that you and your crewmates will be doing. Uh, much of the science work is designed to find out how human beings can live and work in this environment. Uh, can you give me an example of some of the human life sciences research, some of the experiments in this area, that you are going to be involved with during your time in space?
There will be about 200 experiments, joint experiments, between NASA and Russia. About a hundred of them will be conducted on the Russian segment of the station. About 50 will be my responsibility. It can be medical/biological experiments, experiments that study the production of different materials in space, geophysical experiments, experiments on the study of Earth and of the depths of the Earth. There are experiments that originated on the Mir station and we have been accumulating the information that will help the humankind. There are new experiments that haven’t been conducted yet. I can give you examples of experiments that began in the times of the Mir station. The most interesting will be, and I would like to tell about them, the most interesting would be Seiner experiment; it’s the name for large fishing boats in Russia. So the goal of this experiment is to study patches of the ocean and taking picture of different patches on the surface of the ocean, and these pictures that also, that have like bluish or turquoise color, you can see that there is a lot of krill living there. So this actually shows that there is a lot of food for different fish, for large or for small fish, and that’s how we can actually find where the fish is. And when we find large patches of fish, the cosmonauts can call to MCC [Mission Control Center] Moscow and then to the ministry of fishing resources and the ministry will actually provide information to the captains of fishing boats, and it will result in increased yields. So another positive side is this study of the ocean surface in general. For example, we are monitoring where large amounts of fish congregate and to map out the courses of the ships. There are experiments that also help study the condition of a human being in difficult, in outstanding conditions, for example, in space. We will conduct an experiment that has been going on for quite a while which is Pneumocard. The idea is to study the breathing and the heart rate of a cosmonaut to see how exhausted the body is and how much strength is left in his body, because after a cosmonaut completes a certain task, and the cosmonaut can say I’m feeling all right, I’m not really well, as usual, so-so, but it will be a very individual, personal estimation, which can actually contradict the real state of affairs, what the body’s ready for. But the data that we can collect, thanks to our sensors for the head, for the upper body, we can actually measure the breathing rate and we can see whether you can perform a new task or not. And it’s very important to forecast the cosmonaut’s capabilities and how much time he can still spend on orbit. And I would also like to give you a number of other, another experiment, which is called Uragan, a thunderstorm: the idea is to basically—or hurricane—the idea is to basically forecast different events on Earth, in particular hurricanes or other storms. We can take pictures of the surface of the Earth and detect the movement of, say, large masses of ice or other natural events and then we can see whether, where we have a lot of clouds or we can actually predict where a volcano is going to erupt, and once we gather this information and we know this information, we can analyze what happened before some environmental catastrophe. We can actually see how the Earth shows that there is something coming, and we can, in response, take certain measures to save human life. During our flight we will also unique experiment which is called Chibis, it’s a name of a tiny bird that lives in Russia. In general, the experiment is as follows. We’re launching a satellite developed by the Russian Academy of Sciences, it is going to be delivered to the station by the Progress spaceship. After the Progress actually works for a certain period of time on orbit, I will dismantle the docking compartment for it and after that, after the Progress leaves the International Space Station, it will go up and increase its orbit. It will be about 500 kilometers from the ground, from the Earth, and then we will receive certain signals, this, the Earth will send a certain signal to the satellites to actually leave the Progress ship. And the satellite is going to orbit the Earth for about a year. So the idea of this experiment is to obtain data about all events that are happening during a thunderstorm. There is a huge influx of energy from radio to gamma rays, which is very interesting for the science in general. Thunderbolts or different other eruptions in the atmosphere, lightning, everything that is happening within the range of 210 kilometers, they are basically, that’s where our commercial flights are flying. It is very dangerous for them to be there during thunderstorms. That’s why our scientists are hoping to receive necessary information to be able to tell how to avoid all these dangers posed to our commercial flights. Another interesting experiment would be Polymorfizm. This experiment gives us an idea of what the difference between the cosmonauts, the individual genes of a cosmonaut, and the general requirements for successful mission on orbit exist. We will take blood tests to determine our genetic type, and then we will have our backgrounds studied before we are training for the mission. During the mission we will be studied as far as how our body reacts to zero gravity or radiation, uh, limited space and limited amount of people to interact with on board the station. After we collect all this information, the scientists will define the genotype of the cosmonaut that will be the most strong, which would have the most stamina to withstand long-duration flight around the Earth, to the moon, to Mars, to determine whether this or that cosmonaut or astronaut will be able to withstand all the hardships and difficulties of the flight. And I can say that, for example, a baby was born, we take a blood sampling and we decide, he’s going to be a great cosmonaut. Of course, it’s not like this, but it’s pretty close. So these are the main experiments that we will be conducting during our mission to the International Space Station.
You mentioned a few minutes ago, too, that there is on the plan, at this point, there is a plan for a spacewalk, a Russian segment spacewalk later on in your increment. Uh, give me some of the details of that: who’s going outside and what work is planned for this EVA?
This EVA will be carried out in February of the next year. It will be I with Oleg Kononenko, Russian cosmonaut, and I would like to stress that Oleg has already made two spacewalks and it will be easier for me to work with somebody who has this great experience and I will be able to turn to him in a difficult moment. As for the details, our EVA will be to install, uh, protective shields to cover the International Space Station from different space debris, and I will be collecting various, various bacteria that actually land on the International Space Station exterior cover to determine what can happen to the station after it’s been in operation for more than ten years. So we will try to pinpoint the weakest points on the station. I will take some kind of a swab from there and will send it to the ground, to the scientists, so that they could study them and determine whether there is a great corrosion going on or to determine for how long the station can continue to be flying because the main modules are FGB [functional cargo block; Zarya] or Node 1, that were launched more than 10 years ago, and some modules are really new, they arrived only this year. Of course, we will also take out the experiments that were installed outside the station before and then install the new ones for promoting the science.
Are you excited about the prospect of getting to walk outside of the space station?
Yes, of course; I can’t wait. I think it’s going to be something really new. I have heard a lot on the effects of the first EVA on a crew member. You step into an abyss; there is nothing underneath it; you cannot see the Earth and you’re walking on the dark side of the station, I should say, and then you have to operate your EVA suits and, of course, these first steps are really memorable. It’s a very difficult task but it’s very challenging and interesting and there will be a lot to tell about my first EVA.
Along with spacewalk and the science operations, some of which you described a moment ago, crew members on board the International Space Station have, spend a lot of their time on other tasks as well. Give me a sense of what other sorts of work you do, uh, to keep the station and to keep yourself in good working operation for the six months that you’ll be up there.
Well, first of all the easiest will be cleaning the station and maintaining order on the station. It’s like housewifing there. So we have to clean, vacuum, clean, change filters during the weekend, and, of course it has to go together with keeping yourself clean and working out on our ARED [Advanced Resistive Exercise Device], different, or on our T2 [treadmill #2; Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill] equipment. Of course, we will not have any saunas or any showers there but, all we will have there is going to be wet wipes. Of course, it’s not really convenient and washing your head is going to be like rubbing shampoo into your hair. Of course, it’s not extremely convenient, we know about that; we smile in the face of these inconveniences and we know we will be able to overcome them. The station should always be like, so to say, alive. There are more than a hundred computers on board the station that help operate in the station, that are there to have communications with the ground to actually manage the station, to prevent off-nominal situation or emergency situation, and to resolve all those situations as fast as possible and in the most efficient manner. As for the experiments, it will all depend on how much free time we have and what our working schedule is, will be. One good relaxing activity, I would say, will be taking pictures of the Earth and of the surroundings, even taking pictures of your crew members, what they are doing. There is going to be always interesting, and taking videos that we will be watching when we come back to Earth. Making phone calls is also very interesting experience for the people on the ground because, yes, you are truly calling them from space and they will ask you a couple of times, “How can I hear you so well? There is only little lag,” and only when people hang up the phone, they realize that, “Oh, my God, he just called me from space.”
One of the things that will be new that you will get to do on your mission has to do with, uh, supply ships. Right now the station gets supplies on ships that are launched from Russia and Europe and Japan, but there are new cargo ships that are being developed in the United States under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, and there are test flights that are scheduled for later on in this year. Tell me a little bit, fill us in, on what these new vehicles are like and how they fit in the mix to help keep the station supplied.
Well, I haven’t seen them in real life yet, and I, as far as know, we are talking here about Dragon and SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corporation]. They look approximately the same, they look like capsules that return to the ground, they look like Apollo program vehicles. They are delivery vehicles and they will be able to dock to the International Space Station immediately. They, in their first spaceflight they will deliver water, oxygen, everything that is needed for the station to continue to work. And they will be launched by rockets from the ground, they will fly very close to the station, about ten meters away from the station, and then, by means of SSRMS [space station remote manipulator system] grappler, Canadarm, they will be grappled and docked to one of the docking compartments. So our task will be to help our American crew, American colleagues, with cameras to facilitate their work. Maybe we’ll be observing how the station is working at that moment so that there were no failures of different systems, so that the systems don’t change their regimes. So we will be working jointly and everybody will have a task to complete.
Commercial cargo ships flying to a space station run by many different nations is one way that human spaceflight has changed a great deal since Yuri Gagarin flew by himself in a small capsule 50 years ago. You and your crewmates, in fact, are going to be the first crew to launch since the space shuttle flew its final mission. What are your thoughts about the contributions of the space shuttle to human spaceflight?
Well, my opinion is very much like opinion of all Russian crew members, is that it’s a great program, it was a great step in space exploration. Of course, we would not be able to complete the space station without the shuttle, and shuttle stops flying just because, most likely because the station is complete. Those huge blocks and modules that were delivered on orbit were delivered by the shuttle, and we cannot underestimate the importance of this vehicle. Of course, we are terribly sorry and I would say that I am terribly sorry that I haven’t seen it on orbit. I was not honored to actually try and fly this great spaceship.
So we made a big change in the past 50 years, or rather the first 50 years of human spaceflight. Uh, Anton, tell me where do you think human space exploration will go 20 or 50 years into the future, and how is, how is the International Space Station getting us prepared to do what we will do in the future?
I think in about 50 years we will be able to fly spaceships like we’re flying normal airplanes. Nobody would be able to, would think 50 years ago that you would be able to get on a plane and fly across an ocean from one continent to the other, and it’s absolutely normal to do that. Nobody asks you, “How many times have you flown on a plane?” “Well, I flew as many as I wanted.” So I think we will be able to travel to different planets in the future and, of course, it’s going to be a much faster than now. It will be absolutely normal. We will be working and excavating for different minerals on different planets, and I would, of course, I wouldn’t want to think about the day when we would have to leave the Earth, but I think that we’ll not make such a great mistake. As for the second part of your question…
How has the International Space Station and the work that you and your crewmates are doing there now getting us ready for that future?
The majority of the experiments that are carried out in the medical/biological field are geared to study the behavior of a human body in space, in microgravity, in closed quarters, in some situation when your body is exposed to radiation, and we are basically a part of this experiment, and the scientists are observing not only the changes in our bodies but also they try to predict how you personally will be able to overcome various difficulties linked to spaceflight, and to develop new equipment, new suits, new medicine, new food that will allow us to move through space easier.