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Preflight Interview: Yuri Gidzenko
Yuri Gidzenko

Flight Engineer Yuri Gidzenko. Photo credit: NASA

Yuri, before we talk about the details of your mission, I'd like to ask you a little bit about yourself. Let's, let's hear about, why is it that you wanted to become a cosmonaut? What steps have there been along the way in your career that have led you to where you are today?

OK. When I was a child, my dream was to be a pilot. Maybe not a civil pilot, but a military pilot because my father was a military man, and maybe he advised me to be a military man, too. And, when I was maybe twelve, eleven-years-old, I decided to be a military pilot. And when I graduated from high school I entered a military pilot school, and after that, I flew as a military pilot in the Soviet Union Air Force. And after that, some manager from Gagarin Training Space Center suggest me to pass technical medical exam to be a cosmonaut, and I agreed. And after that I was selected in the cosmonaut team. In general, my steps.

So it was more a matter of them coming to you and saying, would you like to be a cosmonaut, rather than a matter of your wanting to be a person who flew in space?

When they suggested me to be a cosmonaut or to try to pass exams to be a cosmonaut, I agreed. But my first dream was to be a pilot. I thought about cosmonauts, about space, about, orbit, long-duration, station, but I knew that it's very difficult to pass exams because only one person from one hundred managed to be cosmonauts because very difficult to pass a lot of exams. That's why I thought about it in my dream. But, when I manage to pass it, I was very glad, and right now I'm very glad.

As a military pilot, and as the son of a military pilot, were you familiar with Gagarin and the other military pilots who were the early cosmonauts?

I know Yuri Gagarin as the first cosmonaut from our history, from our book. I didn't know him personally. But I know Alexei Leonov, Boris Volynov, our cosmonauts from the first cosmonaut team. And in my opinion, they are really cosmonauts: They were like pioneers in space, and they showed us, showed me, the way in space, too. It's not only Russian cosmonauts, they show American astronauts, too. They showed us the way into space.

In the last couple of years since you've been training for the Expedition 1 crew's mission, you've had the opportunity to travel, not only to Houston, but around the world in preparing for the mission. Has that been a part of this whole process that you've enjoyed?

First years, I like it very much because it was opportunity for me to meet different people; very interesting, very smart, people. And right now, I like it, too. But sometimes, when I have a lot of business trip per year, my family is not very glad about it, especially my wife, because, I have to pay my attention to my sons. But she recognizes my life, that's my training, and she agrees with my life, with my trips and so on. And, my present trip I'm in Houston right now, I take my wife and my younger son with me in Houston because they are missing for me, and I am missing for them, too, and right now they are with me. And like last year, like previous years and like now, I am very glad to meet with different people and to participate in a very important things about my training, about, space, about design of new modules and so on.

In the course of traveling to these many places, to the many countries that are partners in the International Space Station, have you seen that the engineers and the managers in all of these different places how they're beginning to work together better, how the partnership is coming together?

Yes, I saw it, and I see it now. I remember when we get together: I mean Shep, Sergei and I, when we, got together and began our training, we had a lot of meetings with American managers, with American designers and engineers and with Russian specialists from Energia. And I remember that was some misunderstanding with American and Russian specialist about their view on different situation, about their view on our training, and so on. And I think, first like Shep and Sergei and I, we didn't have the same view on different situation, but after three years doing training, we learned to understand each other and it help us.

We are now some few months ahead of your much-anticipated launch as the first crew to the International Space Station, first space station to be put into orbit by a number of different countries. Do you sense an important symbolism to finally putting a permanent crew on board this new outpost?

Maybe in Russian, you see symbolism, the permanent crew on will finally…so that all the desires, the wishes, the striving of our people who've worked space, so that, at long last the ISS will take shape as the first crew will finally begin to do some work to prepare everything for the future crews. I do agree that this is, indeed, a symbol that we see our in first flight. We think about this less, though; we think about how best to implement our space program.

Let's talk about some specifics. You are the Soyuz Commander on this mission; What happens for the three of you during a two-day trip from Baikonur to the station? At whatever point you do launch, that's how you're going to get there. Describe what happens during that two-day trip in the Soyuz spacecraft.

OK, previously it took only one day from taking off 'til docking between the Soyuz vehicle and the space station. After that, our specialist, our scientist, decided to [in]crease this period of time to two days. It's maybe more comfortable for crew and more convenient for ground people to calculate our orbit and to calculate inputs - in Russian - so that we can dock. Then for two days, we are going to alter the orbit so that we gradually approach the station. And, after two days, in orbit 32, we'll begin the process of docking. We'll still have a distance approach, then we approach the station, then we have the docking itself. As a rule this is all done automatically, on an automated mode; the flight engineer, the commander and the astronauts or cosmonauts who are monitoring the process, and if something does occur with the automatic docking, well then the crew gets involved and does it manually. Specifically I have two levers that would allow me to control the vehicle to do the approach and docking manually. Then following the docking we check the seal, equalizing pressure between the transport vehicle and the ISS. We open hatches. Then we start working on the station.

I like the smile on your face when you said, "We get to open the hatches." What will be the first thing that you'll do when you go on board the station?

I think we will install our TV camera for our first TV report from space to ground. I think, yes.

You'll be arriving at a station where people have been before, but they've never been there to stay before. What are the activities that you and your crewmates, will have to do, say, in the very first day that you are there, in order to begin to establish the ISS as a space station that can be home to humans?

As I had mentioned at the outset, we will set up the TV camera so that we can send down the first images to the ground, that's what I think. And then, we, I believe, would start setting up how we're going to live on…and to determine which cabins we're going to sleep in. And maybe we would want to fix breakfast, figure out where we're going to do that, what kind of food we're going to be eating, and then figure out how we're going to operate with the bathroom, to at least get it going. These are the first things we'll have to set up to begin living there, as if we would be living on the ground. And then we would start to check out, install the vital systems like the electronic system, which gives us the Elektron system, which gives us air, the Vozdukh system which treats the atmosphere for toxics, and we would do this would take a few days, maybe even a few weeks. And then we're going to also install the treadmills so we can start working out because the doctors don't let us stay in space for a long time without working out; they're worried that our muscles might atrophy and so on. So, we're going to be quite heavily involved in things.

Yuri Gidzenko

Yuri Gidzenko looks over a document on a clipboard in the Zarya Functional Cargo Block. Photo credit: NASA

The location where you are going to be doing this work is far from an ordinary place. But in preparing to spend a period of months in space, rather than just a period of days, makes us think that you will probably develop a kind of regular schedule of what you will do as compared to space shuttle crews who are on shorter missions. Do you have a sense now of what your daily schedule will be like as you and your crewmates settle in on board the new space station?

I could imagine that kind of schedule. It won't differ all that much from the one that was used on Mir when I flew for a half year as the crew commander. I think, in general, it'll be pretty much the same thing. Naturally, it will differ in terms of details in that we're going to be more involved in checking out systems, assembling them, testing them, testing various systems, and will be less involved, probably, in scientific experiments. That's going to be one difference from the Mir. In general, I think, we'll get up at 8 a.m., according to the schedule, we'll have breakfast, we will get ready to do our work. Then say, from 9 to 12, we'll work somewhere in the Zarya module, maybe in the Node or in the Service Module. And then right before lunch, we'll have time for a workout -- we should have a workout -- a good training for an hour, and then lunch, then work again. Then a second hour of working out before dinner, then we have dinner, and then again work and getting ready for the next day; a brief rest, then sleep. That's how the nominal operations will work. In fact, though, of course, most of our time will go to work…probably take up much of our free, personal time, too, because we can't be certain that everything is going to be, work nominally, everything will be fine, that there won't be any failures or anything like that. So we are planning to have to work quite a bit and we're only too ready for that.

Do you anticipate that you will have a workweek that will compare to the ground controllers, or will you be working every day? Do you get any time off?

Of course we're going to have days off to be monitored by our U.S. and Russian medical support people. They're going to be very clear in terms of following how we're working and how much free time we have. What I'm saying is, in actual fact, we may not be able to maintain that because different situations could emerge, and in terms of the ground personnel, it'll be a bit easier for them because each system -- each piece of equipment, hardware -- is the responsibility of several people who can replace each other so they might have more time available for rest and everything else. And too, I think they are really going to be really busy, too, like me, like we are. They're going to be doing everything they can so that we can meet our program as it should be met.

The first Expedition crew to go to the station in some ways can be thought of as, what Americans would call a shakedown cruise - we're up there to make sure that things are going to be working. How well do you expect things to work on this station? Are you going to have to spend a lot of time fixing things?

No, I think that on balance, everything will operate nominally; everything will pretty much work well. Still, it's difficult to imagine for us and the specialists who develop the systems what specifics might come up in terms of operations. These are, if, there are many new systems here that have been, indeed, tested on the ground that haven't been tested in microgravity, so we do expect that there will be some difficulties. I'm certain that there's not going to be any serious major failures, but there might be some minor problems, failures, that will take place that will require taking care of. Maybe not…systems won't break down but they might just not be operating according to standards, they may have to be addressed on the ground, too. So there probably will be some problems that do come up in terms of communications between the station and the ground. Most likely, problems will come up with software, hardware, computer hardware, so we will have these problems - you can't get around it. For the first several increments, until we've worked everything out, shaken down everything, we will have that. When you have a new car that's produced, the designers test it, do the shakedown first. Pretty much the same thing here is waiting for us.

And during your months onboard the station you are going to get to respond to whatever difficulties may crop up. That will keep you busy, but still you're going to be away from home for a long time. You have done that before on the Mir space station. From your experience, what are the most important things that are needed to keep a person happy and healthy while being on a long-duration space mission?

The main thing is for the work to bring you satisfaction. So when you're working you need to understand that this is of some use…I mean, it's worthwhile. Not only the part where they're doing scientific experiments or repairing a system; the main thing is for you to realize that this is all of use, will be of use for future crews, and that down the pike this will all be actually implemented. Obviously for long-term flight, you need to find time, definitely, for R and R, for rest, to get away from all of this. It could be just looking out the window, reading a bit, talking, chatting with each other on totally different subjects - you need to be able to work and you need to be able to rest, definitely. And you need to continually realize that people are waiting for you down on the ground; you are waiting to see them again, too…because separation always ends eventually with the next time you get together with people on the ground.

During the time that you're going be onboard, you will have a lot of different things to do, and on the day that we are talking now, the exact flight plan has not been set out. But at this point, are there any plans for space walks by the station crewmembers, and do you get to make a space walk?

It's difficult to say at this juncture. Initially they'd planned two space walks: One, myself and Sergei; then Sergei and Shep are going to do a space walk; and then they're going to have two for myself and Sergei they had planned for a while; then they left one space walk. And right now I, I really couldn't tell you how many EVAs are going to be because the plans have been changing. Our managers are continually adjusting things. We're getting ready, we're training for space walks, we do have training sessions in Space City, in the Hydrolab there, Neutral Buoyancy Lab here at NASA. So we are getting ready, we're training. I would simply like to say that, of course walking in space is a very difficult form of activity. For us, though, it's kind of within the norm, it's the usual kind of operations that we do. In terms of complexity it's something akin to docking with the shuttle or with a cargo vehicle…so we're training for that.

During your time onboard, you are scheduled to have several visits from space shuttle crews who will be bringing new pieces to the station. Can you tell us -- and again, understanding that the precise timeline and order is not set -- what some of the significant tasks are that are going to be conducted in terms of continued assembly of the station during the time that you will be onboard?

First of all, we're going to be eagerly anticipating this because you're flying for a couple of months in space. You'll have been there, you'll be seeing real people who have come out to visit you in space so you can work together so that's kind of one of the main points. Indeed, they will bring new hardware to be installed, and will bring us food, water, clothing, 'cause we all have single use clothing, you use it for a couple days, two or three days, going for workouts and stuff and then you discard it. So each shuttle will bring something that will require it to be installed, and then you have to test it, check it out, check out the new system. I don't want to get into technical details right now because it's difficult to say anything specific on them at this stage. Emotional terms, purely, we will be looking forward to our compatriots from Earth who will bring us things from our people who are dear to us, maybe might bring us some packages. That's going to be very nice, to get together with them.

During the times that the space shuttles are docked to the station, shuttle crewmembers will, in some cases, will be performing space walks to continue with the assembly tasks and the assembly of the portions of the station that they are bringing. Can you describe what you and your station crewmates, Sergei and Shep, will be doing while the shuttle crewmembers are doing space walks outside the station?

Like the shuttle crew, our crew will be carrying out specific functions during a space walk. During a space walk, the station and the shuttle will have a specific attitude, and it's difficult right now to say who'll be maintaining that attitude, the station or the shuttle. Depending on that, you would have the crew, station crew tasks and the shuttle crew tasks, for maintaining attitude. If it's to be a space walk for installing some cables, once they're connected then inside we'll have to monitor to check that it's all been performed, are we getting the signal, are we getting electricity, etc. How to maintain contact with the ground, who'll also will be monitoring operations, and then as much as we can we'll try to take a video, do a video film, that's how we can have the mater, some material to look at in terms of how the operations were performed.

Yuri Gidzenko

Yuri Gidzenko is pictured onboard the International Space Station during the first week of occupancy by the three-man crew. Photo credit: NASA

The hatches between the shuttle and the station, as I understand, will be closed for much of the time that shuttles are docked to the station. Can you tell us why that will be, and how you think you'll feel about having visitors who are so close but yet out of reach?

I don't think they're going to be closed all the time; probably most of the time they'll be closed but that's being worked right now, that issue. And I don't have a hundred percent certainty how often they're going to be closed and how much of the time they're going to be open. That's a decision that was made based on safety concerns both in the U.S. and Russia and there is some reason to that, some sense to that, there might be some off-nominal situations that emerge, you might lose pressure or something, so that would be one reason for that. I do think, though, that, like when the shuttle flew up to the Mir station, we spent an entire day working together where we had the hatches completely open, then for the night the crews returned to their shuttle and the station, then we closed the hatches for safety reasons. The next morning they re-equalized pressure between the Mir station, the shuttle, and we opened hatches and work continued. I think that's pretty much how it's going to be while the station and the shuttle are docked. I don't think we're going to have to be getting into when the shuttle is docked up with the station, after they've flown up from the Earth; I think we'll see each other most of the time, we'll be together.

The current plans also call for there to be some number of Progress cargo ships that will dock to the ISS during your time on board. Would you discuss for us a bit about how you and your crewmates manage Progress ships in terms of the arriving cargo and the departing garbage, or how much time is taken up with loading or unloading these ships. And do these ships and all their new supplies contribute to making the station become more cluttered?

The Progress vehicles will be essential for us because they'll be delivering new hardware. Obviously, problems will occur in terms of cargo stowage on the station because there's not all that much free space inside and we already realize that this is an issue. The stowage people on the ground are all ready and need to work on how and where we're going to store hardware that's going to be delivered to the station, because they often tell us that, well, you figure it out yourselves, where you want to put things, all of that. Right now there's not all that much space on the station where we can stow all this. But I think that, when the cargo vehicle arrives, for about a week we'll be off-loading, maybe even faster depending on the situation. As we need not only to off-load it, we need to stow the cargo, then describe it in the software and the applications, in the inventory management system, so that the other crews can find it. It's a major, was a major problem on the Mir station where the crew couldn't find an item and the Mir station was large so you spent days looking for things. So you need not only to stow the cargo from a transport vehicle you need describe it, which takes some time. And then when the cargo vehicle is emptied we will be stowing onboard the cargo vehicle our garbage, the foodstuffs we haven't used up, so, other things that we need to put in to, have taken away as garbage, all that will be put over on the cargo vehicle. And then once it departs the station it'll burn up in the atmosphere and nothing will be left of it.

When the what was called the first stage of the International Space Station program was wrapping up, NASA's Phase 1 program director suggested that Norm Thagard probably had a harder time in his increment on board the Mir than the Americans who followed him simply because he was the first one there and everything was brand new. What do you foresee as the unique challenges that face you and your crewmates as the first crew onboard the ISS?

Let me first of all say about Norman Thagard, that he had the same difficulties, or rather the other astronauts had the same difficulties he had, in that he was the first of the U.S. astronauts, he simply was quite up-front about these issues so that the future astronauts would be aware of the difficulties involved. He had difficulties related to the long duration of the flight, it was a Russian station, different culture, different community, so these were indeed difficulties. It'll be easier for us because we've become one crew now over these three years. We know the ground people, specialists, in Russia and the U.S. who will be supporting us, so it'll be easier for us in this respect. But the difficulties themselves had to do with the long-duration flight, in a closed in space, remote from those you love and your friends, that's the major difficulty, which leaves an imprint, kind of, on our work, and how we rest, how we live on board. During our training, though, each of us has kept in mind the kind of model on how were going to operate on the station during the flight, so we're, from the very outset, getting ready for that. We acknowledge, kind of, what awaits us there, and what we need to do to overcome these difficulties.

You and Shep and Sergei are preparing to head to a brand new station as the human race enters its fifth decade of space flight, and to start a brand new millennium. What are your thoughts about the impact of having human beings in space? Tell me why you think that it's important that we continue to be there.

First, the station is, of course, a totally new station; still we can compare it to a certain degree with the previous station, the Mir. Some of the station, some of the life support systems, are very similar to what was on Mir, what we have on the ISS. It's another matter in terms of that we're basically going to be using computers to do the control of the systems, which is a totally new step in terms of development of space technology. Now, that the people are now moving into space, exploring space, have been doing so for now, are into our fifth decade of this; it's a philosophical issue. We can spend as much time as you want on this kind of discussion. Still, our great scientist who stood on the eve of space science, such people as Tsiolkovsky, in their works, in their books, did assume that Earth is sort of the cradle for mankind and that sooner or later man would move into space, to live, to work there. This is progress - mankind has to develop and will continue to develop in exploring space. This provides new horizons, new knowledge. You could even fantasize and say that for the future, man may have problems of overpopulation, problems with water and food and maybe we're going to have to develop some, explore some new planets, or regions in space. That's the far-off future, though.