Q: Of all the careers in all of the world that a person could aspire to, you ended up a professional space traveler. What is it that motivated you, or inspired you, to become a cosmonaut?
Image to right: Expedition 17 Flight Engineer Oleg Kononenko. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Oleg Kononenko
A: It seems to me that I was born thinking that I must become a cosmonaut. I don’t remember anything specific in terms of a event, a one-time event, that would inspire me. I was born after the first Sputnik flight, after Gagarin’s flight. But as far back as I remember myself I always wanted to become a cosmonaut. After I graduated from high school I made a conscious decision to go to the aviation institute and I wanted to become a cosmonaut. Maybe for a human it’s not so very good to have just one goal in life, but so it is with me.
Let me ask you a bit about your background. You come from a town called Chardzhow in Turkmenistan. Tell me about that place and what it was like to grow up there.
My father was in the military so this was the place where he was serving. It was during the Soviet time and I have very good memories about my childhood. It’s quite a warm place, you know, so maybe that’s why I like warmth so much. I grew up there and when I was small, naturally, it was normal and commonplace for me. It’s surrounded by a desert, and it had different kind of architecture. At that time there were basically clay houses. There weren’t that many brick houses. They were mostly one story buildings, so this was kind of a common landscape for me. And then we moved to the Ukraine, to Kharkov; that city’s completely different and the mentality of its inhabitants was very different as well. And then subsequently, it happened, I was born in one place and then I studied in another place and I was working elsewhere and now I’m working in the fourth place, my children were born in that place and it’s called Korolev, so it’s a traveler’s life. Maybe that’s why I’m a space traveler.
You said that you always remembered wanting to be a cosmonaut and planned for your life to be that. Tell us how you accomplished that: what were the steps in your education and in your professional career that led you to become a cosmonaut?
In order to become a cosmonaut, it was understandable; I knew about that. You could read the biographies of the cosmonauts. I wanted to become an engineer. I wasn’t planning to become a pilot and then a cosmonaut, I was interested from the engineering standpoint. So as far as I read, most of the cosmonauts who were engineers were Ph.D.s and so I studied at my best. I graduated with straight A’s and then I entered the aviation institute and I graduated again with the best marks. And in the Soviet Union it was kind of hard to understand where this location was so I didn’t know, in U.S.S.R. they didn’t tell you, I didn’t know about Korolev and Energia as a company. So in my fourth year as a student I studied a lot of scientific subject and did a number of research projects and there is a panel that’s called Tsiolkovsky’s Readings in Moscow. I brought my research there and I got the second place. I got my diploma from Mr. Kozlov who was the chief designer of the construction facility and the design facility in Samara. So we fell to talking together and he invited me to work in Samara. After I graduated from Kharkov Aviation Institute I went there and I participated in designing automated spaceflight vehicles. That work was quite successful for me. I came in just as a humble, simple engineer and then at the time of my selection I was a lead designer; that took about six years for me. Following that I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a cosmonaut which was not very easy because, in Russia, it was done in a particular way. It was the military pilots are selected by the cosmonaut training center and the civilian cosmonauts are selected by Energia firm, and so it was quite a long path. I was selected as a preliminary candidate back in Samara, and so then when you are a candidate you have to go through the generic space training for two years. During those two years you study the general space-related disciplines. That was not very difficult because I already studied similar subject in my university, but survival training, parachute jumps and various other physical, military-like training were more challenging. After the exams, you get the test cosmonaut qualifications. After that I was transferred to the RSC-E and I joined the civilian cosmonauts candidate’s group. So that’s how I managed to join this cosmonaut training corps.
We know that flying in space can be very dangerous. Oleg, what is it you think we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth the risk that you’re willing to take?
It’s a good question. The thing is that at this stage I’ve been training for my flight for quite some time and I haven’t been thinking about this aspect. You know, I want to fly, and while risk-wise, it’s human nature, I think, to take risks; humanity, collectively, is always trying to find something new. Whenever you are trying to find out something new, it is inherently a risk, to your health or to some other aspects of your life. This cannot and should not be stopped. It is going to be a continuing process of learning new things, gaining new knowledge, new information, and it’s certainly worth it. Without that mankind will never develop.
You are flight engineer on Expedition 17 to the International Space Station. Oleg, summarize the goals of the flight and what your main responsibilities will be on this mission.
Well, it will be quite an interesting expedition. The reason for that is that the, the station is almost fully assembled, I mean, the pressurized modules. In addition, the station will already have the Japanese module docked to it and the European module, so it will be quite an interesting construction there in space. As to our expedition, our tasks are not something outstanding or unique. Well, on the other hand, each spaceflight is unique in itself; let’s put it that way. We are just going to have an ordinary expedition. The one thing from my standpoint is kind of broader than that is that we will have several cargo vehicles arriving. We are going to have three Progresses, one shuttle during our expedition, we are going to have the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, which is going to undock during our expedition, so we have a, a lot of cargo work to look forward to during our flight. We also are going to have at least one EVA and now another Russian EVA is under review. We will have one relocation of our Soyuz vehicle, that is, we are going to leave and then dock to the Russian docking compartment. This operation is planned for mid-May. We are going to be redocking to the docking compartment of the FGB and then, you know, the ordinary experiments on the Russian side, they roll over from one expedition to another, all the science work.
Let’s talk about some of, of those events. You have about a week’s worth of time for a handover from Peggy Whitson and Yuri Malenchenko after you and Sergei arrive. How does that period of time complement the training that you’ve done on the ground to get ready to take over on board?
Well, as a rule every crew that arrives to the station kind of adapts the station throughout those six months that they’re living there, so they locate whatever items that they’re using in such a way that is most convenient to them and they, of course, report that to the ground. However, it is not really possible to model an entire volume of the stack of the Russian or U.S. side, so we have this handover operation. The crew that’s about to leave tells us about the current status of the station and they tell us how they are doing all the routine operations that we are going to continue with. This is done to make our life easier during our first days and weeks of our stay on the station. They show us the locations and configurations of the hardware that we are about to use and this time is somewhat more complicated because of the fact that we are going to have a Space Flight Participant from South Korea and we are going to help him with his experiments; he has a science program and we are going to assist him with it.
Very shortly after Expedition 16 goes home, you should be getting a shuttle full of guests. Talk about the goals of the joint mission with STS-124.
The most important major task is the delivery of the Japanese module. After it’s brought to the station and docked to the main stack, our work will be quite significant in terms of configuring and outfitting the inside of this module. Unless I’m mistaken, I think it has another several racks, seven racks that need to be installed in the Japanese module.
Let’s talk about what Kibo will bring, rather than how, how it gets there. What new capabilities are added to the International Space Station once that big laboratory is, has been attached to Node 2?
First and foremost, Kibo is a research module so it will have a rather significant number of items such as racks with various science instruments and research hardware. It’s an additional research module for the station. In addition it provides additional volume for cosmonauts and astronauts.
Image to left: Expedition 17 Flight Engineer Oleg Kononenko participates in a routine operations training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
Once that is attached and you have that extra room, there is still work to be done before all of you are going to be able to go inside the new module. Talk about what has to be done and, and when that is going to take place.
Unfortunately, at this time I don’t have a detailed plan as to how this is going to be set up. However, as a rule, when new module arrives, generally the crew would don special glasses and enter this module. I would say I know how we are going to do that with the ATV, so the crew opens the hatch, dons the glasses and installs special air purification hardware so that whatever dust or parts that may somehow be in the air and create a hazard for the crew, they then turn on the atmosphere purification equipment and that takes about four hours. Then the crew can ingress the module. So I expect that something similar would be done for Kibo. My understanding is that the ground is going to develop the procedures and send us a detailed plan that we are to follow.
After the STS-124 crew leaves and Greg Chamitoff is then with you, there will still be work that needs to be done in Kibo in order to get it ready for its full operation. What sorts of things does the Expedition 17 crew have to do to complete the commissioning of that module?
I’m not sure if it’s going to be fully commissioned during our expedition. We have gone through the appropriate training that is needed in order to deploy the rack because the JEM [Japanese Experiment Module] itself is quite heavy and so it’s going to be delivered basically empty. Some of the racks are going to be already there but only a few and we’re going to be bringing in additional ones. Per the flight program we may end up with Greg having to activate something but we will know about it later, closer to the flight.
Of course during this time, you and your crewmates will also be working with the new control center in Tsukuba along with the control center in Korolev and the ones in the United States and, and in Europe. How do you imagine it will be for you folks to be working with control teams all over the world?
I expect that we will be feeling quite comfortable working with mission control centers throughout the world. Personally, I’ve trained on Kibo in August in Japan so I was introduced to those people: they are quite nice and highly professional. I believe there shouldn’t be any difficulties.
Once the Japanese science laboratory is added to the station and the laboratories that are already there, the crew will also have the opportunity to continue the science work of the International Space Station, trying to learn how people can live and, and work more safely for long periods of time in space. Can you, give me a couple of examples of, of some of the science that you will be working on during Expedition 17?
I could give you a few examples that have to do with the Russian science program as to what we are going to be doing. One of those important and meaningful experiments that we are going to perform is called Plazmennyi Kristall, the Plasma Crystal. The scientists are attempting to get a new structure in the crystals, so that would enable them to create unique materials that have unprecedented characteristics. This is an experiment performed by Russia together with Germany, the Max Planck Institute; that’s quite an interesting one. And then we have a number of biotechnological experiments that have to do with studying the properties of materials in an attempt to grow different organisms, let’s put it that way, on board the station. This also enables us to study our bodies, human bodies, and what characteristics human organisms exhibit in space. Also there are a large number of scientific experiments aimed at helping the humans to adapt to the conditions in which it has been placed. So all of those experiments are quite interesting and they roll over from one Expedition to another. I don’t recall our Expedition having something specific and highly-specialized compared to the general rule.
Along with working with the science experiments, space station crews are also there to maintain the operation of the station itself. Since last year the station has been working on an issue with the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint on the starboard side of the truss. Can you describe for us briefly what that joint is and why it is so important that it be working properly?
First and foremost, this element needs to be there in order for the solar array to rotate. If the solar array does not rotate, then it’s fixed in a particular position and so then it does not get enough sunlight. The less sunlight it gets, the less electricity it can generate while the station is expanding and we are getting two new modules so we need to generate enough power for the station to function. That’s why we need to repair this joint in order to retain our power generation capacities.
Currently the joint is not rotating because there’s been evidence that there’s been some grinding going on, although the exact cause of the problem is not yet known. Do you have any idea what kind of work that you and your crew might be called upon to do to, to try to bring this joint back into operation?
As far as I know, and unless I’m mistaken, Peggy and Dan Tani are supposed to be performing EVAs specifically aimed at looking at this item, and after that some specific decisions will be made. So it’s quite possible that if they are able to find out something specific and we find out what the reason for the failure is, we together with Greg would be performing an EVA to R&R [remove and replace] this item or, I don’t know, maybe we won’t have to.
It might just be a nice surprise for you to find out that you have something new to do.
It could be.
As you mentioned before there are also plans for Russian spacewalks out of the Pirs docking compartment during your flight. Tell me about what you know about the current plan for the Orlan spacewalks.
We have one EVA planned so far in Orlans. We are going to be installing some science hardware outside of the Service Module, on the outer surface of the Service Module. So after we install the hardware we would also have to route the cables and activate the equipment. The way this experiment runs is that it exposes a number of different materials to the effects of open space. In other tasks we have to perform, we have to remove a similar installation from the outside as this experiment is called Biorisk. It’s a dome inside of which there are some samples that have been exposed to space for quite some time, so we’re taking that in. And the third kind of global task is that we have a cargo boom that we are using in order to move on the outside of the station. It’s similar to SSRMS [Space Station Remote Manipulator System], the Canadian arm, but it’s mechanical. It enables us to move for a rather long distance without having to translate hand-over-hand on handrails. So on this boom we are going to install a piece of hardware that’s analogous to the U.S. APFR [articulating portable foot restraint], the foot anchor for the cosmonauts. Another thing is that Russia is about to create a multipurpose laboratory module that’s going to be docked to the docking compartment on the nadir side. Therefore, on that docking unit we do not have Kurs antennas so the specialists expect that we would take a survey of that area and see whether it’s possible to attach the antennas there and route the cables. We need to dock the module so the survey is quite important. The specialists are now looking into doing this task in the most optimal manner. So these are the overall descriptions of the Russian EVAs.
The first of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicles, the Jules Verne, should be docked to the station when you arrive and is due to be undocked during your time there. Talk about your crew’s activity with the ATV and what work is required of you in order to complete the task of its undocking.
Image to right: Expedition 17 Flight Engineers Oleg Kononenko (left) and Gregory Chamitoff are pictured during a routine operations training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
ATV, in my view, is a very large and interesting, from the technical standpoint, cargo vehicle. It is currently planned that during our expedition’s flight that it will already have docked to the station, it will have brought some potable water for the cosmonauts, so it is going to be mated with the Rodnik potable water system of the Russian segment. It is also going to bring up a certain amount of fuel. This, it is going to be used for the orbital corrections and maneuvers for the station. It is also going to be bringing up quite a significant amount of hardware for the station, some technical hardware; also food containers. One of the interesting aspects is during the launch it is going to bring up an antique book, a Jules Verne book that was printed during that writer’s lifetime. So it’s an interesting flight and an interesting vehicle. As the flight progresses we are going to be taking different items from this vehicle as we need them and then, on the other hand, we’re going to be placing various hardware there for further disposal.
There’s a, an awful lot going on and many different things that are going on, during Expedition 17. What are you most looking forward to about the six months you’re going to spend on board?
You know, I’m just planning to work there. I’ve been training for this for quite some time, and, for example, one of my personal goals is to improve my skills as a professional cosmonaut. I’m an engineer; it’s very interesting for me to work with the systems; it’s very interesting to gain this experience of working with those systems in space and then come back and then tell the specialists how to run those systems, how they are working, so that those systems could be further developed and improved. And I would like to improve my own self as a cosmonaut so that I could progress to the subsequent spaceflights and maybe participate as a crewmember for the subsequent flights to the other planets of the solar system. You know, why not?
The nations, the countries that are building and operating the International Space Station, have exploration plans that go far beyond this vehicle, of course. Oleg, what is your philosophy about the future of human exploration of space and the role that the International Space Station plays in that future?
You know, I really like piloted, manned spaceflight. It would be quite important, in my view, for humanity to further advance and get on with the flights to the other objects of the solar systems. You know, our famous scientist, [Konstantin] Tsiolkovsky, said that the Earth is the cradle for humanity, for mankind, but you can’t live all your life in the cradle. So I would consider that it’s important to develop the human exploration of space, not only our galaxy but other objects beyond, and I consider it’s particularly important that it, it be manned spaceflight.