Our interview with the commander of the fourth Expedition to the International Space Station, Yury Onufrienko. Yury, as you prepare to embark on a five-month-long spaceflight, tell me how you see the mission: what is it that you and your crewmates are being sent to orbit to accomplish?
Preflight Interview: Yury Onufrienko
This really true, and our current plan is to have our expedition about 140 days. We begin our expedition from UF-1 and finish it during flight UF-2. The major idea [of] our flight is, as you know, to continue work which was begin in Expedition Three and maybe, this is my, not only my dream but this is part, big part of work, to continue this work after our mission, I mean Expedition Five. They [told] us before about this and of course to remind us, really our major goal of this Expedition.
Do you see yourself on this mission as an explorer or a scientist, or something else altogether?
You see, during flight we will have several parts, several steps, maybe in one of them I will feel myself as maybe a scientist, during [scientific] experiment which I am going to do, and maybe a second part I will feel myself as…as something else, as you said before. It depends on phase of flight. But in general I will feel myself as a cosmonaut, I hope.
Tell me how you came to be a cosmonaut-what is your background that led you to become part of the Russian space program?
That was really a short way for me. In the beginning I finished at school; at least, afterward, I [finished] at military school and continued working as a pilot. And after that I was selected as a cosmonaut.
Were you selected because of an interest of yours-had you been interested in being a cosmonaut for a long time, or was it something that happened after you were in the Air Force?
Of course, I was selected after that, I was a pilot. But, speaking seriously, that was maybe dream since I was a child, maybe. I saw several dreams about space, I read several books about future flights, about future life here and other [planets]…and that was, at that part of my life, but in the future that was…I think I am lucky, when I was selected as a cosmonaut.
Are there certain people that you see as having been the most influential in your life, either as a child or as a cosmonaut?
Yes, of course I have these people. I can, not just myself, but firstly it is my parents; of course after that teachers in school; after that some people who [were] writing [books] which I read, maybe a little bit later when I was working as a pilot; some of my good friends who also helped me to be a cosmonaut.
This mission is going to be your second spaceflight-your first was as the Commander of the Mir-21 mission. Are there significant differences in the way you train for a flight to the International Space Station as compared to the Russian training for a trip to the Mir?
This is really true; this is my second flight, it should be my second flight. [The] first I had before together with Yury Usachev and Shannon Lucid, it was in 1996. I can compare prep for [these] flights. Second one is, takes a little bit longer time; in general it is about four years. But this is not our fault, this is just a history of building of ISS station. You know, it takes about three years instead of one maybe. That's why prep was so long. For comparing I can add that…maybe most of [the systems] on station [have] the same structure and the same functionality, but the difference is, during working together, in international crew-this is maybe the most big differences. In the first flight, we have two people in from Russian side and one from American; that was Phase 1 program. Now is a little bit differences because this is ISS station. We can [meet] on this station, especially in the future, the people from other country. I hope this is a most big difference.
Let's talk about the mission that you and Carl Walz and Dan Bursch are preparing to fly. As the Commander of the Expedition, what are your responsibilities?
My major…responsibilities is to have a crew safety during whole flight, and to give them possibility realized yourself during this flight as most as possible, and maybe in case [of] emergency using crew return vehicle as the pilot of Soyuz.
You mentioned before that you and Carl and Dan have been training for this mission for about four years now; is having had that long period of time together to get ready going to, in your opinion, going to make things easier for the three of you once you get to space?
In general, yes, of course, this should help us. As much as we know about each other, it will help us to working together easier, maybe. The, for instance, now I really know Carl and Dan, how they, I know also their family; they also know my family. We spend each other a lot of time talking about our future flight, what we need to do, what we can bring with us, how we can spend free time if it will be possible on orbit. And in general, big prep is very helpful for us.
Your mission, your mission in flight, will begin on the shuttle Endeavour when the STS-108 crew delivers you to the ISS. The first time crews were exchanged on the station that handover, or that exchange, happened one at a time, but when the changeover from Expedition Two to Expedition Three happened all on the same day. How will the exchange of crewmembers be handled on your mission?
In our case, handover will takes all crew together in the same time. In my point of view, it will be more helpful when we separate all crew the same time because you know we have a lot of system on station, and I need [to] talk separately with every crewmembers, who was responsible for what, and in case if we stay all three together, I mean all six people together on board, we can, to be better to change as a result.
There's also time scheduled while cargo is being moved back and forth during the docked phase of this mission for the handover, which I want to get you to tell me about. I understand that this is more than just having Frank Culbertson show you where things are stored-tell me about what you do during a period of handover. How can that help you get a better start on your increment?
Let's see. You know, now we have IMS system, which is Inventory Management System, we can, theoretically, we can imagine all parts, all things which [are located] on station now. But this is the same as your, as you can imagine, for instance, at home, your neighbor and you come inside and as you see this is a little bit differences as you thought before. You see, this, for instance, book, in different place; is the same on the station because this is real, physical, this is something real physical which I mention before. That's why we need handover to see everything, every part, and of course, speaking about some system, which system has maybe some specific work we can, better if we write in this specific for myself and after what is found during real flight, during real life.
On your first flight, the handover period when you arrived lasted about six days; the handover when you were coming home lasted about two weeks. Is there one that's better than the other?
As you know, as more is better, especially for the Expedition who just arrived. For Expedition who spent several times on, in space, opposite.
I would like to see if I can get you to help those of us who have never been to space for six months at a time, give us a better sense of what it's like to be a member of a long-duration crew on a space station. Is there a normal day on board ISS? What would that be like?
I expect to see in space really, real life instead of flight, because life in space begins maybe after handover is over; I think approximately about two weeks we begin our life in space. Every day we have the same operations, the same typical operations such as maybe washing, eating, and talking with ground conversation, and afterwards we have such as part of work, working with some systems from that time to that time, make a picture, something else, and the same operation maybe every day, every day. And after several periods of time, we can do it very well, I hope.
So, if I understand, you're saying that you would think that, that you would hope it becomes more like a regular sort of a job that just happens to be a couple of hundred miles up?
We need to do this work, as I said before, we need to do this work as our life. Because real work during long period of time is just not so easy. If we will follow all this, procedures which [we're] trying to do on the ground, this is not possible in real life in space. We really need do short period of time, maybe for rest, such as after, maybe after eating; we don't read about it in our schedule, but this is typical for every people…maybe five minute, maybe four for me, maybe one minute for you, maybe two minutes, depends for the people, [yes]? We need have this…hopeful…I don't know…habit, we need this habit in space also.
There is as I said, quite a bit of time penciled in to the schedule for you to be doing science work. Can you give us a sense of what it is that you actually do to help conduct these experiments?
OK. Speaking with us as scientists, you know, on the ground we have a lot of people who made this experiment, who do it, who do all this parts for this experiments, and in their understanding of what the crewmembers need to do on board, this is minimum, what we need to do: just to turn some switchers-power, power on, for instance-after that wait some period of time; after waiting correct, exactly correct time, switch off this experiment; maybe collect data, and transfer this data to the ground. This is in general. But this is the easiest way. We don't need to combine this experiment on board that was made on the ground, especially for us, in my point of view, this is exactly true. We need just to switch on and that's all. But, in general, we need understand what is inside this experiment, what is inside this box, for instance; what is the temperature after which period of time, this it should be, finish it, and that's all.
There are plans for spacewalks during your increment. Now, you conducted six spacewalks from the Mir station, and you're training for at least two spacewalks from the Docking Compartment module at the time that we're talking about this. Are there certain challenges in transferring your Mir EVA experience to getting prepared for ISS spacewalks?
This is not so hard because every EVA look, such as previous, maybe, in general. In general we need to use spacesuit, and of course and afterwards we do this real work in real space. This is in general. But there also, part of work, what I wanted to say, this is also some boxes; we carry this box old one and remove to new one. Maybe replace something else. All working space are typical, also. During our flight we will have two EVAs, using Orlan suit; first one will be with Carl Walz and second one with Daniel Bursch. We are going to install Strela: this is Russian equipment which will help crewmembers in the future to transfer, to move, maybe, big parts in space. By the way, now I have information about that - we [were] preparing to install this Strela on S0 module [Docking Compartment Module], but now current plan is to install on FGB. It will be a little bit different place, but for work it will be maybe shortest way to reach this point of contact, Strela. And second one [we're] to install some parts of engine and antennas for ham radio. Afterwards, several systems on board will be habitable after installing this equipment. Also one EVA is during flight 8A; in general, flight 8A [will] have four EVA, and two of them…our crew will be involved in two of these EVAs. What's the task? I don't know exactly now, but this is activation S0 truss.
[There] are a lot of connectors which we need to connect to each other, and depends about first two EVAs, what were complete and what stay for us.
You mentioned the fact that during this mission, and this series of spacewalks, you would be installing the S0 truss. Can you tell us how the addition of that piece of equipment will improve the, or…add to the functionality of the station?
S0 truss, which is maybe major truss which will be installed on the Lab outside and after that from both side of S0 astronaut in the future will install solar arrays, all of them, all four; I hope it will in about, during next flight. And along this S0 truss we will install, no, we have to install MT, Mobile Transporter, which will have possibility to change their position along this S0 truss; if I remember, it has about fifteen point of…stationary point which powered, which has data, power and telemetry. And on this MT, we're also going to install a robotic arm, Canadian robotic arm, to better…reach us to better access of work, of future work.
I understand that there is still some talk of maybe adding another spacewalk or two after 8A for your crewmembers out of the station airlock; what jobs would be done on those spacewalks if they occur?
As I mentioned before, first we are going to do EVAs in Russian Orlan spacesuit, and afterward last two EVA using EMU suit. Of course the task in this case are different, a little bit different: task for the Russian side for FGB and SM, and task for S0 truss and MT.
So they would be jobs around the new components…
Yes, of course it will be jobs around new components which will be installed during expedition 8A.
Near the end of your flight you're likely to be on hand to greet a "taxi" crew with a new Soyuz spacecraft. Tell me what activities occur on board during the time that the taxi crew is there. Do they come and do their own science as well as deliver you a new return vehicle?
Speaking about return vehicle, I can mention that the major idea is just to change the vehicle during flight, but it will be also useful to use this period of time to provide some of experiments; as I know, Russian side have, has already used this time to provide us with this experiment. If should happens during this, that expedition, during third change of crew return vehicle.
By the time the shuttle arrives with your replacements, you will, if I'm adding it up right, you will have been working with the third different space shuttle crew and the second other different space station crew. What is it like to work and to train with all those different people in those different groups, and keep straight in your own mind what you do when?
Believe me, I don't know exactly correct answer on this question now; maybe let's talk about it after, after flight.
In your opinion, by the time you come home, by the time that you and Carl and Dan are ready to leave ISS, what will have had to have happened for you to consider your increment to have been successful?
In general it is all crew is safety; every time, every hours, every minutes, you can verify it, you can check, speaking with all three people on board. And, always to continue their work, all plans, which was planned for this flight. We, on all of them we have checks, checksmarks: that was done, that was done. It may be which is most important. We also feel lucky after we make checks the work was done…but the same on the ground, I hope. And in the end expedition, the last checkmark, will be done after our landing, I hope-it will be the most, we will be most happy at that time.
As we talk today, it has been about one year since the first permanent residents of the International Space Station arrived on orbit. And in that time the station has grown and shuttles are, and Soyuzes and Progresses, are flying routinely, delivering supplies and new crews, to a station that is almost self-sufficient at this point. Finally, I'd like you to give me your perspective, your thoughts, on where you see the International Space Station program taking us in the short-term future as well as in the long-term future.
You know, this is really global question about what is the reason to fly in space, maybe; sounds the same. I think, as soon as, maybe, people would have the same question, what is the reason to fly in space, we would say, we would have possibility to fly in space in this case using different spacecraft. And ISS in this time, this is just a part of this future plan, I think.