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Preflight Interview: Sergei Krikalev
The International Space Station Expedition 11 crew interview with Commander Sergei Krikalev.

Expedition 11 Commander Sergei Krikalev Image to right: Expedition 11 Commander Sergei Krikalev. Credit: NASA

Q: You have a job that a lot of people, a lot of kids, dream they could have. Is being a cosmonaut what you always wanted to do?

A: I couldn't say always because always goes very far back in my history. But a long time ago, when I was still in school, I decided to try to be a cosmonaut. I made several of my decisions based on attempting to become a cosmonaut.

What was it before you were in school that made you be interested? Is that just something that all Russians boys wanted to do, or were you special?

No, I wasn't special -- many kids wanted to be a pilot, a cosmonaut. And I remember you asked what, what was, what else I wanted to be. I remember when I was really small child and I remember arguing with mother, that I wanted to be a driver and she want me to be, I guess, medical doctor. So thinking now I kind of join both jobs: If you go and see how we do all this emergency training when we try to revive an injured person or take care of injury, so I have little bit of medical science stuff and little bit of driving, but driving different machine, it's not a bus, not a regular car, not a tractor, but it's driving anyway.

Did your father have a horse in that race?

No, he was kind of looking from a side on all this.

Tell me about what you did do, what you studied in school and, and about the steps in your career that led to you being a cosmonaut?

At first graduating high school I had to make decision -- to go to become professional pilot and get some engineering education or get engineering education and try to be a pilot at same time. So, at that time, and actually even now, in Russia we have two major path to become a cosmonaut. One is to be military pilot, professional pilot, and then come from this side, or to be proficient in space industry, aeronautical industry, and then become a cosmonaut from, from this side. So at that point I decided that I will have more freedom of choices if I go to technical university and try to get degree in aeronautical engineering and become a pilot. So that's what I did. It was actually tough to decide where to go because I knew at that time that the probability to become a cosmonaut is very low. I found that one of the technical university in St. Petersburg, where [I] grew up, had specialty in rocket engineering, aeronautical engineering, so that was my first choice. Secondly I decided start to fly with an air club to get proficient in flying. Those were two major decisions I made.

And after college you were able to, to get the, work in that field?

Actually, it was not even a college; we now call it technical university, we used to call it institute -- but we graduated. When I graduated it was something equivalent to master's degree in aeronautical engineering. And at the same time I was already flying in the air club. I got good skills in aerobatic flying. So I was accepted to St. Petersburg team and I started to participate in competitions. I became competitive pilot in aerobatics. And right after I graduate from the institute I was accepted to work in the space-aeronautical industry, at Energia, the company which built spacecraft, space stations. I was accepted to, at that time, Soviet Union national [aerobatics] team.

As an aerobatic pilot, you were a national champion, weren't you?

I was, a little later on, in some disciplines, but unfortunately I never had time to get proficient enough to make it my job.

You look back at your career as a cosmonaut and, and a pilot and an engineer, can you identify the people that you think were your inspirations, or your heroes?

I cannot think about one single person who was kind of my hero for long time. Probably it was some kind of assembled image from different area, different spaces. It was different in different phases of my career. Some pilots I flew with who were very good pilots and good engineers participated not only in aircraft development; they also taught other pilots how to fly. My teachers in the institute very knowledgeable, very proficient, and also good teachers when I studied all these space-related aeronautical subjects. It was my friends, sometime, in sports, so I can't say anyone specific.

I've done the math on this. On the 124th day of the flight you're preparing for, your total time on orbit is going to surpass the record that was set by your colleague Sergei Avdeyev after Mir 27 -- more than 747 days in space.

OK, thank you for the math.

Did you ever imagine there would come a day when the person who'd spent more time in space than anyone else would be you?

I probably never paid enough attention to this record-setting subject because job itself is very interesting for me. Being there and being able to look back to Earth, to do something challenging; that was really important. How many days was not as important. I think at some period of time I was close to be at least one of the longest flyers, because after my second Mir mission I logged more than 400 days and it was close to the maximum time at that time. Actually it was before Sergei Avdeyev's first flight. I already had logged more than 400 days in space. So I knew that I'm close to be, one of the longest flyers but I never tried to make efforts to be longest. It may just happen during this flight.

Certainly speaks to the confidence of the people for whom you work that they are willing to send you back on these missions.

Probably, and I think for me this mission is going to be interesting because it's challenging. We are in the period of time when we require experienced people to be there and because we are flying just small crew, crew of two. I am happy to be useful in this situation, to be selected for this flight.

We assume that astronauts and cosmonauts understand the dangers of spaceflight, particularly since the loss of Columbia two years ago. Here you are lined up ready to go again. Tell me why you're willing to take the risk that comes with the job you do?

First, we train for different kind of emergency cases. Actually, the majority of our training done for off-nominal situations, if you compare time we spend for nominal operation and off-nominal. I would say off-nominal situation is major part of our training -- although I hope in flight we will have minimal time and minimal things connected to emergency. So we reduce our risk of flying, the risk of doing this mission, to minimum. I think it's acceptable risk. We have a saying in Russia: "If you have altitude more than zero and speed more than zero, you have a risk." We have pretty high speed and pretty high altitude, but that's what we train for, that's what's our profession and that what I like to do.

How does your family deal with the risk of knowing that there are those dangers in your job?

Hopefully they may not know all the risks connected to the flight. That helps a little. Secondly they probably are confident with me knowing that I know what I'm doing. I think they worry, of course, and I think they try not to make it harder for me showing this worry, that's how I put it.

You've flown to the International Space Station twice before. Has your experience given you an advantage as you get ready for this flight?

Of course. Having real flight experience helps not only on my training but also in training my partners, because I can share my experience with them to show area they need to emphasize during training, to show and explain to them the difference between training and real flight. I think experience of every flight, especially someone who has experience of long duration flight, is very valuable for the training. That's why we have a tradition in Russia of flying at least one experienced crewmember per crew. We very rarely deviate from this tradition. It has became almost like unwritten rule.

Is there anything that you had thought you'd most look, looking forward to seeing when you get back there?

As you mention, is going to be third time I would be on the same Station and it was interesting to see difference between first assembly, when I flew with STS-88 when we assembled first two pieces of the Station, and then when we came with Bill Shepherd and Yuri Gidzenko to be the first long duration mission on the Station -- to see how the Station grows, how operations changed, how Station increase its capability. Now for the third time, for sure, I know I'm, I'm going to see some change. I'm going to see what changed not only in the Station design, or Station construction, but also how Station aged, because that's also interesting experience. I had this experience on Mir when I was on expedition four, long duration expedition four to Mir and then I came for expedition nine. It was an interesting comparison to see that some things hadn't aged as much as I expected, and some things were actually changed more than I thought. And of course what is going to be very interesting, what's interesting from one of my flights to the other, is to see again Earth from space, to see what changed, to try to recognize some areas I used to recognize easily and maybe to see what changed since I flew last time.

Your first Expedition flight to ISS was to help finish putting that thing together from the inside. What are the main goals of Expedition 11?

It's kind of a philosophical question because, the main goal of each Expedition, not only our Expedition, is to continue flying, to continue to gain experience, to continue some experiments we started before because a lot of experiments need to have a lot of data. You have to have long sets of data to distinguish between real data from just deviation from average; to find where average is. You cannot calculate average from one or two set points. So, I think this is probably one of the most important parts of every mission. We are flying, as you know, in a difficult time when we don't have enough supply to support three people. We are flying missions of two people, where experience and ability of every crewmember is important. So for us to continue to do what was done before, to maintain all capability of the Station, to continue experiments that we started before -- not even which we started but what, which was started before -- to continue, that's probably the main goal.

You make a good point, that with a crew of just two the abilities of all the crewmembers become very important. You flew first to this Station as the flight engineer, this time you go as the commander; what are your main responsibilities this time around?

I think that's a very subtle issue, because when you fly a crew of two or three, the difference between the commander and every other crewmember is very subtle. Everyone is working the same way. It's not like when you have big military installation, when the Commander just moves troops and just observes what's going on, when most of the job done by different levels of professionals and you just keep big picture in mind. In this case you work as much, and maybe even harder, than your partners because you know more, you have more experience. I think for every commander safety of the mission, mission success, is a primary goal. Mission success is again very complicated issue. To say after a flight that a mission was successful, you have to know that all experiments were completed, all the work that was scheduled was done, but most importantly, to know that the crew returned safely to the ground. When you become commander, you have a responsibility not only for mission success but for your crew, basically for the life of your crew.

You know, that's pretty much the same success criteria that Bill Shepherd gave me.

That's the same thing. It doesn't matter which nation you belong to because if you work with a team and you are assigned as a commander, beyond all duty you have on the Station in a relatively small crew, you have more responsibility and you feel pressure of this responsibility on you.

Let's talk a bit about the science work on board the Station. The focus of much of the science work, particularly in the U.S. segment right now, is to find out more about how people can live and work safely in a weightless environment. Tell me about some of the human life sciences experiments in both sides of the Station that you're going to be involved with on this flight, and particularly these are the ones for which you're also going to be the test subject.

Unfortunately, I can say that, probably one of the main area of study on Russian side is also life science. I cannot say that these are my favorite experiments, especially as a result of this life science. In life science experiments they draw blood from you, take samples of your muscles or skin. But we are flying in a very unique environment and of course the body changes. I think the significance of all this study is that we are not going to stay on Earth forever. We are going to travel. We may change condition of our travel and we need to know how much we can keep this condition the same as on ground, how much it cost and is it really necessary. So, every flight continues to collect data on the behavior of the human body and the response of the human body to a weightless environment. That's a very delicate issue because people are different, condition from flight to flight is different, and I understand that's why we have to continue this experiment, to get statistics.

And it involves more than just taking samples from you before flight and during flight. Tell me about some other experiment activities you take part in during the flight.

As I said, the simplest thing is to see how, for example, the chemistry of your blood changed; how you tried to compensate this change and you are taking samples not just to take a sample, you are taking sample to see change and to see the response of your body to different medicine or different activities. A second thing which is very useful in spaceflight, mostly because of the weightlessness, is that you may separate some responses of the human body or human nervous system on Earth due to many factors, including gravity, and you can subtract one of the disturbances to the system and see how other parts of neural system are connected. For example, one of the studies we are doing is to see how humans coordinate eye and head movement. We know that it seems very simple, but we have some diseases when people get discoordinated on the ground. We think we know why it happens, but we, we are not 100 percent sure. That's why scientists are arranging experiment and they try to, to get some data, when one of the factors is eliminated from the equation. So, in one of these experiment we are going to do, actually not only for our long duration mission but as you probably know we are flying up as a crew of three, and Roberto Vittori, who is our third crewmember on Soyuz, is flying with Italian experiments, and some of them include this eye and head coordination. Again we are learning how muscle change. We don't need to take samples of the muscle -- I know that scientists would like to but it doesn't happen every time -- just to see how your strength changed, how your endurance changed, so all this stuff is very important. Even chemistry of your body is very important. That's why we are trying different medicine and result of using this medicine help scientist to understand how, how they affect human body and what side effect you may have.

The International Space Station is a laboratory for experiments in other kinds of science as well. Tell me about some of those, the other kinds of experiment activities that you and John Phillips will be involved in during your time in space.

Different types of experiments can be also connected, some kind of connected to life science, to biological science, but not necessarily to human body, because we know that, even small microorganisms are changing in space environment. So, to see what the changes are, to do some experiments on microorganisms to see, even to take samples and let them grow and supply data to the ground and then discuss it with the ground, that's one of the experiments we are going to have. To see how different plants are growing, because for future missions, if we are talking about missions to Mars and beyond we probably need do some kind of closed loop environment, the same way as we have on Earth as a big spaceship. We may need to be able to grow plants and we need to know how to do this. To understand completely how it's done we may need to simulate gravity, we may need to try different lighting conditions, and we may need to try different samples, different plants, actually, to see what kind of plants are more appropriate for long duration flights. Even these small things like growing plants might be very important for the future. Of course we have big areas such as physics. We started this experiment on, during Expedition 1 and we are going to continue it on this mission, when you study what we call Plasma Crystal. You probably heard about this experiment. That experiment has applications in different area. One of the interesting data we got after Expedition 1 allows scientists to understand better how our universe built, how planets were formed from clouds of heated gas. The experiments are very interesting because again, it's challenging. You see some effects you cannot observe on the ground because, again, gravity changes everything. In space you can see new phenomena, you can see unusual things, and that's very interesting. If you know the consequence of the experiments and data, that's make, make it even more exciting.

Expedition 11 Commander Sergei KrikalevImage to right: Expedition 11 Commander Sergei Krikalev dons a training space suit. Credit: NASA

You folks are also training to make a couple of spacewalks during your time up there. Now I recognize that the plans may change by the time this happens but, as of now what are you planning to do for spacewalks for Expedition 11?

We have two spacewalks planned. An interesting part of our mission is that we are training to do EVA in both spacesuits, U.S. and Russian. Now for nominal operation, not only for emergency but for nominal operation, we scheduled to have one EVA in Russian suit to do a job on the Russian side of the Station and another EVA in U.S. suit to do maintenance and experiments, actually install some experimental equipment on the U.S. side of the Station. On the Russian side, strangely, we have a kind of biological experiment. We have a device installed outside of the Station which is very similar to human body properties. This equipment is filled with different kinds of sensors studying how heavy particles and space radiation affect the human body.

The Matryoshka?

Matryoshka is one of them. This experiment started earlier, and our task is complete it. This unit will be collecting data for a while and our task will be disassemble it, deactivate it, return it to the Station, disassemble it inside the Station and return samples back. So that's pretty big part of one of Russian EVA. Another interesting one is a joint experiment with the Japanese space agency. A previous crew installed samples of different materials which are very important for future spacecraft design. They were exposed for different time and on a different part of the Station and we would need to return some of them back to Station, pack it and return back home. So all of this is not very unique but as in all complicated experiments if you miss one step you actually destroy the entire experiment. For us it's kind of challenging to do several completion of experiments, very important part because every mistakes on this phase would destroy all experimental data. On the U.S. side, one of the interesting parts of the EVA is installing a flow potential sensor. The Station is flying not in a pure vacuum, but in the very thin atmosphere where just few molecules are flying around. But we are flying at very high speed and we also generate magnetic field around us, an electrostatic field. To know what this electrostatic field is we install this flow potential sensor outside of the Station and this sensor will help us to collect data and know how we need to build our system, how we need to compensate this phenomena, to be sure that all EVAs are going to be safe. If you have a kind of electrostatic arc to crewmember, it wouldn't be the best day for him. The same is true for different equipment. If this condition exists we have the ability to compensate for it, or we need to build some equipment which more resistant to this kind of environment.

There is another aspect of your mission that would be unique in the ISS history. Later in your mission you are scheduled to receive a third crewmember -- to have another member of the Expedition crew join you while the Expedition's already in progress. Can you tell me what you see as the significance of returning the International Space Station's crew to a size of three people from two?

Actually as I said, a two-member crew is kind of an unfortunate situation which you have right now. Originally the Station was designed for six or seven crewmembers. During the assembly phase we decided that three crewmember would be enough to do assembly first and then combine assembly with scientific experiments. Unfortunately we had to step back and now we are flying crew of two. As I said we have very strict requirement for this crewmembers because we have to be able to do all the jobs on the station, just the two of us. When we add a third crewmember we are going back to nominal configuration, we are gaining back our ability to do more scientific experiments, to make station more useful and more important for developing new spaceflight. And continuing this thought, we used to have experienced people on board -- at least one experienced crewmember with experience of long duration flight. With two crewmember it's very difficult to get new people experienced. So, gaining third crewmember on board will help us to transfer our experience we gained in previous flight to future generations. The more people we have on orbit, the easier it is to share your experience with subsequent crew.

The last four expedition crews spent six months on orbit with no visitors, but if the Shuttles return to flight as planned you're going to be there when Eileen Collins and her crew arrive on board Discovery. What are your thoughts on being there for that historic event?

For us I think it's going to be an historic event after it happens, so I think about this event not only as historical event, but more as an experiment, because we found that small damage to Shuttle wing may create a big problem. We know that we have to understand the problem first, and one of the first experiments (you may call it an experiment), we need to do is to see how much we can see, how much damage we can assess before the Shuttle even docks. For us it's basically an experimental flight; it is test flight. It's going to be an historical later, but for us it's a test flight and we are participants in this flight. When Shuttle is approaching we are supposed to do a very detailed and very quick map of the Shuttle using different types of cameras. It's not an easy task; it's very time-critical because the Shuttle cannot stay for a long time near, near Station. It requires some fuel; it plumes the station, so everything should be choreographed very precisely. The shuttle crew is doing one thing and we are doing other things to help program, not only the Shuttle crew but the program, to understand what's going on and what needs to be done. Later on in the mission the Shuttle crew is going to go outside and do kind of visual inspection of potential damage. They also are going to do experiments with tile repair. If some of them failed or if some tiles were destroyed we need to develop techniques to take care of this thing because the problem is not only lack of information what tiles and how many tiles were damaged but also if you see this you have to be able to react. Those are the experiments that are going to be done during this mission. And of course, for a long time Station didn't change in configuration, so the first flight wouldn't change too much but the second flight, which is scheduled for our mission, is going to continue Station assembly. I think the significance of us being there is actually very similar to the significance of us being there during Expedition 1. The Station continues to be assembled and we have to keep up our work with kind of a changing environment. It's kind of challenging, it's interesting, and for us it's going to be also very interesting to see that people are coming to the Station. We are increasing the capability of the Station, and being able to manage all this big crowd on the Station is also kind of a challenging task.

Getting food and water and other supplies up to the Station has been limited to the Soyuz and Progress vehicles since the last Shuttle flight, but the return of the Shuttle to operation, along with its big cargo capacity, is going to mean that there will be a lot more material that can be moved up and down. Can you give me a sense of how reopening that kind of supply line is going to change life for the crew on the Station, and change the Station itself?

We have a pretty well-developed process and pretty good calculations of how much water the human body consumes, how much food you need to continue operation on board the Station, and of course this kind of supply is first priority. That's why, when Shuttle was not able to fly, all this kind of load was taken by Progress. But as a result we were not able to deliver as much equipment for scientific experiments. So increasing the variety of means to deliver cargo on orbit increases not only amount of food (we don't need food more than we can eat -- we can increase our margins in case of emergency again, but we don't need much more food than was delivered before), but we would be able to deliver more equipment for experiments. Returning Shuttle back to flight would mean more scientific capabilities because we would be able to have three crewmember after that. We would be able to conduct more experiments.

Talk a bit about what happens during those two Shuttle missions. When STS-114 is there you mentioned that there are spacewalks and some of what they are going to be doing outside. What will you be doing inside as part of the team while those spacewalks are going on?

At first we were trained as backups for Shuttle crewmembers so if something happened with them we would be able to support this EVA. That's one thing. If everything goes nominal, which I hope happens, then we have a lot of things we have to transfer from Shuttle to Station, from Station to Shuttle. Several significant pieces of equipment are waiting to be returned to the ground. Some of this equipment is kind of bulky and can't be returned on Soyuz. We delivered some of, of this equipment up on Progress but we cannot return it. I hope that Station is going to be much nicer after the first Shuttle comes because we think we would be able to return on Shuttle much more than Shuttle actually delivers to the Station. That's first thing. The second thing is, for me as for commander of the Station, to be sure that everything goes smooth, that there are no unnominal situations, no malfunction. If something happens we have to be ready to react. Sometimes it's kind of hidden -- there is not much activity to anticipate something happening; but it takes a lot of effort to react if something goes wrong, especially if you have so many people on a, on the vehicle.

Building a Space Station a few hundred miles up above the Earth isn't the ultimate goals of the partner nations in this program. From the prospective of someone who's getting ready to leave the planet and go to that Station for a tour of duty, tell me how you see this Space Station helping achieve a vision for the future of space exploration?

We already talk about this before. First, agree with you that Station is not the ultimate goal. It's an intermediate goal. That may be the significance of this Station. This is an intermediate step you have to make before you go any further. Life science experiments can be conducted on the Station to understand how far we can go with the configuration we have right now and what else we need to do to provide more efficiency of human beings on this long-duration mission, and long-distance mission. We continue to conduct technological experiments to see how materials change and how they behave inside, and outside, the Station, to know how to build new vehicles. We are even learning how microorganism change inside the Station, and some of these organisms might be a biological hazard for materials inside. Certain microorganism can destroy insulation on wires and create big trouble. We have to be prepared especially if we are to go on long distance missions. On these long distance missions (not only long-duration missions, as we are flying on the Station right now) you have to be much more autonomous. Even small things that people don't think about very often can change the quality of our development. Being participant of Mir flights and now ISS flight I see that experience of people, on the ground, operational experience, is very important. Unless we gain this experience, unless we do this step, we will never be able to move any farther from the Earth. It needs to be done on the Station before we can make any further steps.

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