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Preflight Interview: Alexander Kaleri
JSC2003-E-52856 -- Alexander Kaleri

Expedition 8 Flight Engineer Alexander Kaleri. Photo credit: NASA

Q: The International Space Station Crew Interviews with Alexander Kaleri, the Flight Engineer on the eighth expedition to the International Space Station. Alexander, you're set to begin a spaceflight that is going to last for several months, and will include the third anniversary of the arrival on the International Space Station of its first permanent residents. Tell me, what are the goals of this expedition to ISS?

A: The main goal is to maintain Station in controlled, man-controlled flight, and to perform a set of scientific experiments. We'll do maybe some dozens of these experiments, both with our close participation or without our participation-the Earth will perform this experiment- when we will stay there. And, our duties will be, and our duties will be maintaining, to maintain equipment in operational state and to live there; what else?

You have flown in space three times before and have accumulated more than 400 days' experience on board the Mir space station. On your most recent flight, you and Sergei Zalyotin prepared Mir for its ultimate deorbit. In fact, you were the, pretty much the last man on board Mir. Tell me your thoughts about the place in history that will be taken by the Mir station.

That's a difficult question for my English, so I will use Russian. Well, first of all, at that time we were, we did not think we would be the last humans on board the Mir station. We were quite sure that at least one crew or even more will be following our footsteps, and the station was fully operational. Unfortunately, it did not come true. We left a letter for the new crew that would be coming to replace us. We also left some memorabilia behind us, some…subjects, and we also left some instructions for them how to live on the station for the first time when they arrive. We used our experience for deactivation of the station. Unfortunately, we did not live to our hopes. The place of the Mir station in history is actually a very broad question. First of all, the Mir station is, has given us the most rich experience. And it was not only the experience for Russia in terms of long-term flights into space, but also for the future international partners, the future partners in the ISS project. I believe that over twenty countries' representatives have already visited the station. We've learned how to work together, how to operate together; not only how to develop specific operations and events, but also how to implement them. We've also learned a lot about cooperation. We've learned how to live in space, and it was a useful experience both for the crews who are on board the station and also ground controllers, the ground specialists who plan our activities on board: those who control the flight, who send the consumables on board the Station, and so on and so forth. Everybody has learned a lot about this tense and difficult work that…this very complex project is accompanied with. We've also performed a lot of experiments on board the station. I wouldn't recall all of them, but I think that there were about fifteen thousand experiment sessions over these several years. So, I believe that the science community has also benefited from the station. However, I think that the biggest advantage was for the benefit of the whole humankind: we could witness that it is quite possible to live a normal life on the station and have an international cooperation. I think this is the most important contribution of the Mir station.

On February 1st of this year, you and Mike Foale were in fact assigned to different crews from one another and were halfway around the world from one another, at the time of the loss of Columbia and its crew. Tell me about the reactions and the responses that you experienced at that time while you were here in Houston.

Yes, indeed, I was in Houston at that time; we were getting ready for the launch. There were, there was about one month before the launch-it was Expedition 7. My very first reaction…was the feeling of unreal situation. I could not believe that it actually happened. When I saw the footage and actually could see it, during the first hour when it happened-it was early in the morning on Saturday; I watched CNN-my first impression was that it was some kind of a movie, it was a sci-fi movie or, you know, science fiction, something like that. Then I thought that it actually looked a little bit like the Mir destruction when it fell apart over the Pacific Ocean, and it was also filmed. At the very beginning I could not even realize there were people aboard the Shuttle. It was very difficult to believe and actually be accustomed with the thought that this happened. After, when we gathered in the Astronaut's Office, we understood much better then this tragedy really occurred. And then, as the time passed, this sensation, this feeling, grew bigger and stronger. So all our thoughts about the future flight were kind of postponed. We could not help in any way, we could not manage the situation as we wished. The Expedition 6 on board the Station was under the Mission Control, Control, so their safety was not an issue. Here, on the ground, the ground personnel was dealing with the families of the deceased astronauts and did everything they could to man the situation. However, in the very first days, this was a shock. Then we actually started thinking about how we will change our future, how the future of the Space Station will be changed. Then, very rapidly we started negotiations and discussions on how to continue, or whether to continue, the manned spaceflight on board the Station. If we go ahead and deactivate the Station, then what do we do? How do we implement this? The, this whole process, this whole activity, helped us to, make us feel a little bit better.

The tragedy of Columbia, for many people around the world, has made it very clear how dangerous spaceflight can be. But you've flown before and you understand the danger. In fact, you even flew again after experiencing a fire on board the Mir station. And now after Columbia, you're training to fly in space once again, so I'm interested-tell me why you think the rewards that we get from spaceflight are worth the risks that you're willing to take.

Well, since we've started flying into space, I believe nothing can stop us: it is in the nature of the human being that, whatever happens, we will go to extremes to reach our goals. This is the same situation here. And we are not risking our lives just because of our ambition or pleasure or whatnot; we are professionals, and we understand the full extent of the risk we are taking. We understand it is not done just for us; it is done, the whole project exists, for the humankind, for our friends, for our relatives, for everybody on this planet. Somebody must do this work; we are the professionals, so we have to do it.

In your case, Alexander, why did you want to become a cosmonaut? As a young, was it as a young boy or after you were older that you decided to pursue that as a profession?

When I was a kid it was a dream, my dream. But then I, when I maybe graduated from school, I recognized that it could be possible because you see in our country at that time, all young men- young men and girls- knew that almost all what they wish could be possible if you are patient or, [thinks aloud in Russian] patient or hard enough in this way. So, I recognized that it could be possible for me. And I entered the institute, in Moscow, and my first specialty was aerospace engineering, and after graduation I entered in the design bureau, now it is called Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, it was the main design bureau in manned space programs in Russia. So, it was straight way to the cosmonauts and, then, I decided, why not? I can try it.

You mentioned a couple of minutes ago that all of the world's spaceflights have occurred within your lifetime. Do you remember Gagarin's flight, because you were a very young boy at the time?

Yes, indeed, I was almost five. However, I don't remember that flight very well. At that time I did not live in Moscow-I was living in a small town in Russia-and I didn't, don't have a very good recollection of it, although I remember Gherman Titov's flight very well. It was in August 1961. I guess by that time I had already seen the, Gagarin's welcome when he came back from his spaceflight, and I had remembered already all those TV and radio conversations, discussions, and I could actually relate a little bit more to Titov's flight. So, that's what I actually remember best of all. So, since I grew amidst all those space-related things, I guess I had this psychological inclination. Probably it was due to my parents, my family, or my surroundings; it was actually very favorable environment, and, it fostered my desire to become a cosmonaut. Now I can't even remember the time when I decided that I would like to be a cosmonaut: I think at that point all the boys in Russia would play Gagarin and Titov so there is nothing surprising in my decision.

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Expedition 8 Flight Engineer Alexander Kaleri works with the Russian biomedical "Pilot" experiment in the Zvezda service module on the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

Now, you are going to again play Gagarin and Titov in real life. You will launch on a Soyuz spacecraft, as the current crew, Yuri Malenchenko and Ed Lu, did, and you will be the Commander of that Soyuz spacecraft. Describe for me what happens on board a Soyuz during the time of launch and the trip of two days to reach the International Space Station.

First we will take places in our capsule, Soyuz capsule, and I will get ready for launch. After launch, when staying on orbit, we'll check all our equipment after launch, after separation, from the rocket, and we will perform leak check of our compartments of living and equipment compartments, and then we'll get ready the docking equipment, docking system for future docking and test our navigation and guidance systems, system and radio, radar equipment for rendezvous. And then we'll have a set of maneuvers for, to…not to reach but to wait in appropriate way, the rendezvous with Station. So we'll be maybe half a turn…

…an orbit?

…an orbit, half, half an orbit, for [thinks aloud in Russian] relative to the Station. And we should, we'll decrease this angle, this angle to the, maybe, in, in two days. So, we'll man, make some maneuvers for this reason, and, at the end of the second day of flight we will begin our rendezvous procedure. It will takes, it will take, about two-and-a-half hours to have a docking with Station. And after docking we will, will check, will perform leak check of, of [thinks aloud in Russian] of our hatches, and then we'll open hatches and go into the Station and meet our friends on orbit. Then, we'll have a one-week handover, and Pedro Duque, my Flight Engineer, will perform his scientific program. And then, we'll, he'll return to the Earth with Yuri and Ed, and we will stay there with Mike, for about six-and-a-half-months. And, we'll meet next crew.

In describing what happens in the Soyuz launch all the way up to the docking, is, is, in that period of time is most of the maneuvers and whatnot, are they automatic, or as the Commander do you get to fly the spaceship?

No. Mainly all maneuvers, automatic, in automatic mode, but, we have, some…not, not special modes but we have some opportunities, for manual control and, for all this maneuvers, and, this is a redundant, possibility. And, my duties will be to control, to, to monitor, the, all the systems and to be ready, do all this manual controlling if poss, if necessary, if necessary. And main responsibility will be, during rendezvous and, close approach when I am in charge of, not in charge but, if, some contingencies, I'll be in charge, of manual control and can, docking with the Station, to the Station.

You described how after the docking, there will be a week where you will, there will be five of you on board before Yuri and Ed and Pedro return to Earth, leaving you and Mike to proceed with the work that is set out for Expedition 8. Tell me how you see the overall scientific aspect of the ISS mission, how is that going to, to advance, how is that going to be promoted during your time on board?

OK. We'll have, mainly we will have the, so I call them routine experiments, then work begin, be [thinks aloud in Russian] work begin, maybe two or three years ago, maybe earlier, by previous crews. But, we will have some new experiments, both in Russian and American scientific programs. And, but Mike is, science, crew Science Officer, and he will be responsible for American ex, program, and I will be responsible for Russian program. So, it would be better, to ask him more in details about, American experiments. As to Russian experiments, we will have a set of experiments of, in traditional areas, of science like, geophysics, like Earth observations, like some technical experiments, biomed experiments, biological, in fundamental physics and…not in chemistry but in biotechnology, so a very, very traditional, branches of science for spaceflights and for weightlessness.

In terms of the day-to-day life on board the Station, you, once you arrive, assume the role of what is called Flight Engineer; what are the responsibilities for you during that period of time on board, apart from your responsibilities with Russian science.

I'll maintain, operational, all equipment on board the Russian segment, and maybe in American segment, too, because both we are responsible for the whole Station. So, generally speaking, I think Mike will be responsible, mostly in the American systems, and [I'll] be mostly responsible in Russian systems. But, we can interact, we can, help each other; we have appropriate [knowledge] in both side systems. So, as a Flight Engineer I see it will be the main task to keep them operating and, to maintain, to maintain, to repair them, if necessary in some, in some, if some failures occur or something will be, something is wrong. And, in some contingencies, I'll be responsible for…an analysis of the situation, and informing the ground about the, not the reasons but about the features of the situation and I'll be responsible to do all, to perform all the [thinks aloud in Russian] to perform all the advices, advices and orders of the Earth in these situations. And it will have no comm with Earth-we are responsible for our decisions in this situation, how we can understand this. So, the first responsibility is to be safe, to have a crew, to have a safe crew, and the second responsibility is to safe the Station.

What are the plans, at least at this point, about spacewalks during your mission? I realize that it may change before you get there, but what are the plans right now?

Now they planned for us, at least one EVA, and the main tasks of this EVA are scientific experiments, some scientific experiments, and, one task is for, future, future docking of European ATV, automatic transfer vehicle, in September next year. So we'll…not install, but remove some equipment necessary for its docking to the Russian segment, to Service Module; to analyze on the Earth the, not state but the quality of the optical surfaces of this equipment exposed in the space environment for approximately three years, three-and-a-half years; and, then next crew will replace all this stuff to the new one to receive ATV appropriately. And, other tasks…only scientific experiments, like some samples of, materials, of…a lot of samples, and a new experiment in, radiation monitoring of, of [thinks aloud in Russian] interaction with the human body. We'll install a, a so-called phantom, phantom of, tissue equivalent material with dosimeters, for, maybe for one year outside the Station to monitor and to monitor the radiation and doses in human body tissues…not human body, but, tissue equivalent, material.

As we talk today, it has not yet been decided whether or not Expedition 8 will return to Earth, in the Soyuz in which you launch or whether or not you will return in a Space Shuttle. What are your thoughts about the way NASA and the Station program is going through the issue of returning the Space Shuttle to flight? And do you have any preference about which ride you take home?

I believe this is a very difficult situation for NASA because the Columbia tragedy, to my point of view and in a general point of view, gave not that much information to understand the causes of this catastrophe. Probably we'll have to, suggest that only some most-plausible causes were in place, and, we'll have to take measures to counteract those possible causes in the future, safety-wise. Both for engineers and managers it's a very difficult and complex situation. However, we are quite sure that everything will be done in order to guarantee the flight safety. Of course, a hundred percent safety cannot be reached, we understand that, we are professionals; not even the aircraft can guarantee hundred percent safety, not even when you walk in the street or drive your car, you can guarantee hundred percent safety. Anything can happen. You know, a, a meteor can fall on the ground and, you know, damage a car or hurt a person, so you cannot guarantee one hundred percent safety all the time, but we can ensure that the maximum of measures be implemented so that we increase the safety. I'm not sure how much time it will take NASA to implement those measures; I don't have all the information with regards to the Shuttle investigation, and I'm not sure what the conclusions of the investigation committee are. And I guess this is not up to me at this point to think about those issues-we are now training for the flight, and we are trusting those who ensure our mission. As to my preferences, as a professional on the one hand, it would be really interesting for me to try another vehicle: the Shuttle, in this case, instead of the Soyuz, and compare both. I heard a lot but I never tried flying on Shuttle. Then, on the other hand, I'm not as a professional interested to become a passenger on board the Shuttle. So this is a two-prong situation. In this case, I probably would choose Soyuz, because there I am in control and I'm not a passenger. I do my job, I do my professional job, which I have been preparing for all my career. However, if I had a chance to fly a Shuttle, as a Mission Specialist, for example, and take a real part in controlling the vehicle, to sit on the flight deck, not on the middeck, I would grab this opportunity. But I guess we'll leave it for the next time.

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Expedition 8 Flight Engineer Alexander Kaleri arrives aboard the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

The landing of the Soyuz this past April, the first Soyuz TMA, ended up being rougher than was planned and they were off target as well. What has been determined was responsible for that ballistic landing of the last Soyuz, and has, and can you do, in the event you do land in the Soyuz, to, not have to deal with the same situation again?

This was not a failure, as you understand; it was not a failure per se, it was one of the possible modes of descent. Since both launch and landing are the most dangerous stages of flight, and since a lot of energy is spent during a very short period of time, you can imagine then when you are going to orbit you burn, on the Soyuz rocket, at least 250 tons of prop, and it takes less than ten minutes to do so. So, this is a dangerous situation. But once the vehicle absorbs this energy, it stays on orbit. But when the vehicle is going down, it's going to deorbit, you have to spend this energy and dissipate it. We don't have enough time, enough margin, to dissipate this energy in the same amount of time, so we use atmosphere as a buffer. This is a very dangerous operation. So, when there are many g-forces obtained on the vehicle, and also another dangerous factor is the temperature range: it, it gets really hot. This is why we are guaranteeing the each, most-secured measures for guaranteeing the safety of the flight at this stage. We have several modes for descent, and those are backup modes, one for another. We need to guarantee the safest possible way to get the crew back to the ground. In that particular case, that descent was the third possible-it was not the last possible because there were four modes all in all. In this case, we can say it was a planned contingency…and the ground was expecting this situation. The only difficulty was for us to determine where exactly the vehicle would land. This kind of descent provides for a larger range of possible landing sites, and so the ground services need to spend more time to organize search and rescue on a bigger territory. It was not a hardware failure; it was just a very rare combination of factors in the control loop that actually triggered the reaction of, the particular device involved. It did not fail, it just, it was not meant for that combination of parameters. The vehicle that we are now going to land on, to launch and then land on, was modified so that we can avoid the situation that occurred. Again, the situation that happened was a very unique one, and when the specialists were analyzing the situation they were impressed and surprised that it was actually the case and it happened. You cannot, you could not think of it happening in real life. So after we analyzed the situation, the specialists could, do it on the electronic unit, they could not do it on the flight unit. It's a very rare situation indeed, but it happened.

The International Space Station is an ambitious project that has designs on achievements in the areas of engineering and science, and even global relations as well as space exploration. Alexander, what do you think is the most valuable contribution that will come from the International Space Station program?

In my opinion, the most important contribution to the future work…will be our skills and knowledge gained in how to work together. And I hope that we will reach this experience, gain it, when we are at the end of the project, when we have worked together for a long time. As I told you, a human being will always be trying himself in a different environment; people are explorers by nature, they, they always strive for exploring new countries, new territories, venturing into new projects. Today we have a situation where we can make a future step into the space and start exploring the outbounds. This is our integral desire, to want to explore other environments; our next step will be starting exploring new planets. On the other hand, all human beings are different from each other, we have different nationalities-we have Europeans, Americans, Russians, Japanese, you name it. And you can only think of how different we are, all of us coexist on the same planet. We cannot choose our neighbors. We have to be friends with our neighbors, and it's much better than to have a feeling of animosity. However, if you want to move forward, we need to cooperate. If we are by ourselves, it is virtually impossible to move forward. The International Space Station is a very good step forward, and it's a very good experience for us that can show us how to work together in the future. If we put this task in front of ourselves and learn how to, operate very difficult scientific projects, we'll be able to reach much more in the future. We can go together on Mars, we can go to other planets. At least I would like to believe that.