Q: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?
Preflight Interview: Oleg Novitskiy
A: I think that’s my childhood dream because any child, I remember when I was a kid I remember looking into the dark sky with stars, and it was like a magnet. After I grew up I realized that it’s not as easy to become a cosmonaut, so I picked the shortest route. I entered a military flight school.
Well, I want to ask you about how you got there but I want to start at the beginning of the story. Tell me about your hometown; tell me what it was like for you growing up in Cherven.
Yes, I was born in a small town with a population of about 18-to-20,000 people; it’s very small. And that’s where I started school, graduated from high school. I had a lot of friends growing up, a lot of schoolmates. I was always into sports, especially before entering the col, the training school. The town is small; there is a river there, good air, forests. It was a good time.
You looking forward to seeing it from space?
I’ll try to do that, yes. It’s at an incline. The attitude might not allow me to do this, but I’ll try.
Do you have a good sense of how the people in your hometown and growing up there helped to make you the person that you are today?
Absolutely, starting with my parents when I was born. I would always learn something good and not so good but, overall, all the people that I came across in my life had an impact on me becoming the person that I am, as an officer and as a cosmonaut.
I want to ask you now to help us better explain that, the path that took you from that hometown to being on the verge of launching into space. Tell me about the major steps in your education and in your professional career that have led you to become a cosmonaut.
I was born in 1971. Seven years later I started school in the city of Cherven. In middle school, or in school I spent ten years, graduated from school in 1988. That year I entered flight school in the city of Voronezh, Borisoglebsk. The military reformed at some point so I had to go to another school and graduate from the Kachin flight school in 1994. After that I also studied to work with military machinery, which took about one year, and in 1995 I was assigned to work in the city of Budénnovsk, Stavropol region, where I started working as a military pilot. There I served for several years and I was a pilot, a senior pilot, and became the troop’s deputy commander. In 2004 I got higher military education which took me two years. In 2006 I was selected into the cosmonaut corps right before I graduated; I was successful, I was selected. It took some time to make the final decision for me to become the member of the cosmonaut corps, and in 2007 I was assigned to leave my troops, my squadron, into the Star City and that’s where I’ve been living since then. In 2010 I was DOH [Director of Operations Houston] here when I learned that I was assigned to a specific crew and starting in 2010 until now I have been training for my spaceflight which will take place in two months.
You said earlier that as a boy you looked up to the sky and were drawn to the stars. As an air force officer, were you applying to become a cosmonaut or did someone just come along one day and say you’d been selected.
Good question. When I worked as a pilot, as a commander, I had completely different tasks. So thinking about spaceflight was somewhere in the back of my head, somewhere inside of me, and I didn’t display it externally very often. After I graduated from the military academy I learned that there was recruitment for the astro, for the cosmonaut corps. It took me no time to make that decision.
To take the job as a cosmonaut and to fly in space is to take a job that has risks associated with it that most people don’t ever face, and many people would want to know why you would choose to do that. So tell me, what is it that you believe that we get or that we learn as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth doing that?
Well we say in Russia that the risk is a noble endeavor, and this is something that only a strong person can do to achieve higher goals. I think right now we are at the highest point of the human developments and we get a chance to accomplish certain things and a lot of people rely on us to perform their experiments. We in no way can let them down, so the question now is that it’s good to take a certain risks, but the main objective is to accomplish your goals, and this is interesting work and the work for very strong people.
You’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station for Expeditions 33 and 34. Oleg, what are the goals of your flight and what sorts of jobs will you be doing during your time on the station?
We have a lot of work ahead of us. For our flight we will perform a lot of the science experiments related directly to environment, education, also for various industries, and we will support the station in terms of maintenance throughout our flight.
This is going to be your first trip to the space station. It’s your first space flight altogether. What are you most looking forward to about this mission?
Of course, I am looking forward to my first impressions that I will get right after the launch, and then throughout the flight I will be very interested in working with our entire team, together or separately, perform various tasks, be successful in accomplishing my tasks, and in a timely manner, and to return back to Earth without any off-nominal situations.
You are also going to be commanding the Soyuz vehicle to bring you and your crewmates to the station. For an air force pilot, I imagine that that is something that you’re very eager to perform?
Yes, it is a very interesting point for me, because for a long time I was in the air force and I went from the pilot to the commander of the team, and so to become a commander of the spacecraft will be very interesting and important for me.
Is it also pretty exciting to be part of a project that is bringing together expertise and assets from countries all over the world?
To be honest with you, I’m very proud to be a part of such an interesting team which includes the best specialists from the entire planet, from all continents. It’s very important.
Let’s set the stage for this flight. I want to ask you to give me a verbal tour of the International Space Station, and tell me about the modules and the other facilities that are on orbit right now that are there to support the lives of the crew and the work that you all will do when you are on orbit.
Currently the station consists of many modules. Its length is about 50 meters or so, and moving from the Russian segment toward the U.S. segment then I can describe the station without getting into too much detail. First we have the Service Module [Zvezda] of the Russian segment followed by the FGB [Functional Cargo Block; Zarya] module. Between them there is a MRM [mini research module] 2 module which our Soyuz will be docking to, and the Docking Compartment [Pirs] which is directed towards the Earth. After the FGB towards the Earth we have the MRM 1 point, pointed towards the Earth, and right after the FGB we have the U.S. segment which consists of many modules as well and if we go in order, we’ll have Node 1, Lab, Node 2; to the left we have the Japanese module, to the right we have the European module, and also on the U.S. segment we have Node 3, airlock [Quest], and it’s a large segment, the U.S. segment.
The assembly of the station is all but complete these days and so the emphasis for the station crew members who are working on board has now turned to doing science research. How do you explain to people the potential for scientific knowledge and new learning that the space station provides, and the value that that knowledge may provide for us?
Of course, the potential from the station is great starting with the visual observations of the Earth and various natural disasters and phenomena and as well as the events in space. I think that the International Space Station crew and the hardware on board of the station allow us to become closer to the events that occur outside of our understanding.
One of the areas where we are trying to understand more is to find out how being in that space environment impacts the people who are there, and as one of the crew members, you will be the subject for some of the experiments in finding out how people can live and work in that environment for a long period of time. Can you give me two or three examples of human life sciences research that you’re going to be involved with during this mission?
I can only tell you about several directions for research of our crew; I’m not sure what other experiments will also be happening. We will study the bone, tissue, pre-flight and post-flight, we’ll perform blood tests; it’s a large area for research. Certain things have been done already during initial flights in space.
So your experiments are building on the previous research?
Absolutely. I think it’s normal.
There’re modules throughout the space station, as you described them a moment ago, that are also filled with specialized scientific gear that supports research in other scientific disciplines beyond human life sciences. Tell me about some of the other kinds of science research that you and your crewmates are going to be working with when you get to orbit.
That’s a good question. By doing research we provide the data to the scientists not of just one single discipline but this data will be used by specialists from various disciplines, and it’s difficult for me to predict how this information will be used because overall we do general experiment, but the data that is obtained through this experiment will be used by many specialists.
The scientists who have developed the dozens of experiments that you and your crewmates are going to be working on are people who are coming from all around the world to this project. What’s it like for you as you get to work with them on their science experiments?
I think the interaction between scientists from different countries must exist and will continue to exist because it is difficult to predict your own actions, much less the progress of science. It is always possible that there will be a certain link that ties various experiments together.
Now station crew members, when they’re not doing science work, are responsible for keeping the space station functioning, keeping it flying in good shape. Outside of that science work, what other kinds of work do station crew members do during a normal day on orbit?
A crew spends a lot of time to perform maintenance on the station, maintaining the functionality of various systems, housekeeping, disinfecting the surfaces. It’s very important, both for the health of the crew and the safety of the equipment and to insure lengthy functionality of the systems.
Do you enjoy going to enjoy doing that kind of work?
That’s my job. I have to do it.
In almost the exact middle of your planned 155 days in space will come the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. What are your thoughts about spending those occasions being in space?
I think it will be very unusual and very interesting because not everybody gets a chance to celebrate holidays in space, and I will be able to talk to various friends across the world and celebrate both New Year’s and Christmas.
Now, any plan for a mission on the International Space Station always maintains some flexibility in order to accommodate change in events, changing circumstances, and that includes the possibility that crew members may need to go work outside. At this point, what is the plan for any spacewalks during your time on board?
Yes, we do have one spacewalk scheduled from the Russian segment. It has been rescheduled, though, to the next expedition and unfortunately we won’t be able to perform it.
So, you have trained for the spacewalk and would be ready to make one if the need arose?
Absolutely. We are fully prepared for the spacewalk.
The space station these days receives supplies from Earth that are brought by a small fleet of unmanned cargo ships, and in fact, there are almost a half a dozen of those ships that should be coming and going during the time that you are on board. Tell me about the different ships that are supplied by the station’s different partners and about the commercial vehicles that are now beginning to fly to the space station, too.
From the Russian side we will see three Progress vehicles arriving throughout our expedition and, if nothing changes, we will be lucky to see commercial spacecraft docking as well, launched by your side. It will be very interesting for me to see it. It will be interesting to see what the difference is, how they dock, because the systems are different. We will be looking forward to seeing them on board and will be happy to see them on board if everything works out.
The landscape, if you will, of spaceflight is changing in, in the last few years particularly, with, as you say, private companies are now flying spaceships and, and sovereign nations are working together in space instead of competing against one another. Do you see that this way of exploring space is something that is going to continue as we move off into the future?
I think so. International cooperation will continue. It has to continue because the project itself is, by definition, an international one and it requires a lot of investment. For one single country it will be very difficult to support this financially, so it requires us to pull our forces together and that means success.
As you imagine your spaceflight, when you look ahead to the future, what do you think is going to be the highlight or the most interesting aspect of your time on orbit?
I think the best part will be able to see the Earth, and I think for me and my colleague it will be the first time. For Kevin Ford it will be the second, not the first flight so maybe it will be something else for him, but for us everything that’s happen, that happens the first time.
What is it that we are learning from sending crews on these missions to the International Space Station that is going to help humankind prepare for exploration beyond Earth in the future?
I think throughout our entire flight we accumulate experience and knowledge, just like athletes who train to break a record, so we are preparing and I hope that in the future we will perform a long-duration spaceflight, hopefully to Mars. Why not?