Q: Of all the careers in the world that a person could aspire to, you end up a professional space traveler. Tell me what motivated you, or inspired you, to become a cosmonaut.
Image to right: Expedition 17 Commander Sergei Volkov. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Sergei Volkov
A: For me, maybe, in comparison with other cosmonauts who were inspired by the Sputnik launch, or Yuri Gagarin launch I think I’m cosmonaut of another generation. For me, the spaceflights were sort of a common thing. When you switch on TV and you may see docking with the station, crew succeeding one more time and performed their tasks, from my side, I grew up in this environment. I know everybody who was involved in the Russian space program or international space program at that period of time, and I think one of the moments that pushed me is the influence of these people. I wanted to be these people who were around me and I think this was one of the reasons I decided to be a cosmonaut.
Because for you they weren’t just people on television, they were people that you actually knew. Your father was a cosmonaut, and you will be the first second-generation cosmonaut, the first child of a person who’s been to space who will go to space themselves. How do you feel about that?
I never thought about it, really, that I am going to be the second generation of the space, cosmonauts. I just want to do my job as best as is possible and that’s it, honestly.
Well, do you think it says something about the, the maturation of human efforts to explore space that since Gagarin’s flight we now are to the point where the children of cosmonauts are flying themselves?
I think it’s a logical sequence of events because we [have been] continuously flying almost 50 years. I think it’s time to expect that the kids whose father or mother were cosmonauts, want to be as their parents. And it’s normal. Usually in our countries we have kids who decided to be an actor because their parents were actors, or they want to a politician because their parents were a politician. I think it’s like a normal sequence of events that we might have more and more kids from the parents who been involved in space program.
We always ask cosmonauts and astronauts about their hometowns but this is the first time that somebody’s hometown is Star City. What was it like to grow up in Star City in those days?
When I was a child and I was at our school, everybody’s parents were involved in space program. In every class we have several kids whose fathers were flown cosmonauts or who prepared for the flight. Other kids were the kids of instructors who also were involved. And I think for us it was just a normal to know, OK, his father today in space; OK, good. And actually I never felt difference with the other kids because everybody used to live with this, and first time that I realized that my father’s really very famous person was when I visit Pioneer camp during the summertime and people around me were really excited and curious about myself personally and my father. Actually, after that I realized, OK, probably to be a cosmonaut is not just a job, it’s something more than job.
So I guess you really have a, a sense of how the people and that place have contributed to make you the person that you are today?
The Star City community—because it’s not a big city, actually; it’s only 14 big houses and everybody knows each other. It’s like a small village, and I felt that somehow everybody wants to help me, especially during days when my father flew, and somehow care about me, and it was really great time, you know.
And you finished your high school education in Star City but after that, tell me a little bit about where you went after that and your studies and your air force career.
After I graduated Star City school I entered to the Tambov Military School of Pilots because I really wanted to be a pilot, and in Russia it’s one of the steps or how you make a career as a cosmonaut. You have to be a military pilot or an engineer. I wanted to be a pilot, and I entered through the Tambov Military School of Pilots, graduated in 1995, and then I, I was a cargo pilot at an air force base for several years. Then there was a time when GCTC, Gagarin space training center, decided to select new cosmonauts and I decided that probably I can try to be a cosmonaut, and I was lucky. I was one of the 700 people who wanted to be a cosmonaut who was selected for this program. And then I started training and since 2001 I’ve been training here and in Star City as a team of the crew.
What was it like the first time you received an assignment to fly in space?
I was real excited, because it, after all these years of studying, training and be assigned in a crew that potentially can fly it’s a great period of time when you understand that you very useful. Of course, you became busy but it’s, it’s a great feeling when you feel that you’re busy and useful.
And we also know that flying in space can be dangerous. What is it that you think we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth the risk you’re willing to take?
Because scientists and people who actually develop the spacecraft constantly gathered data from the vehicles and from the human body. Now we have a huge, I think, knowledge about how the sequence of events should be scheduled and, you know, that for building the spacecraft we have to go through the different sequence. You can’t do it like pancakes—just, OK, win tomorrow. It’s a, it’s a really a, a calculated sequence of events, beginning when we started to made this first bolt and nut for this vehicle and because in our job safety’s really first. Everybody tried to do their best to continuously monitor how tasks of preparation for the flights were going on, and after flight and during the flight. And everybody is a really big team of people who work together to provide this safety feeling, I would say, for us during our flight and preparation for flight.
You are commander on Expedition 17 to the International Space Station. Sergei, please summarize the goals of the flight and what your main responsibilities will be.
The main goal of Expedition 17 of course is to continue station exploitation. We expect that STS-124 will bring probably the biggest module on the station, the Japanese pressurized module, and we will take part as a team to install and work with module. We have at least EVA one from the Russian side, maybe two, and there are going to be several Progress dockings and undockings and Soyuz relocation. I think one of the most exciting parts [is that] we are going to undock ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], that I think the whole program has been waiting for a very long period of time.
Let’s talk through some of those high points; we’ll go back to the beginning. You have about a week’s time for handover, when you arrive, with Peggy Whitson and Yuri Malenchenko. How does that period on board complement the training that you’ve done on the ground to get ready to take over?
Usually the handover is very busy and time scheduled—timelined, let’s say. Why? Because in addition to handover, when a crew is try to exchange their knowledge that you can actually have only during your staying on board, we have to perform a lot of experiments. Because a Korean cosmonaut is going to be with us … , we expect from the Korean side a lot of experiments, too. We will participate to do these experiments, and I think Yuri Malenchenko and I will help with this and it keep us every time busy. Actually I expect it’s going to be a very interesting but a hard time, really a hard time.
Very shortly after Peggy and Yuri and their Korean guest go home, you will be getting a shuttle-full of guests. Tell me about the goals of the joint mission with STS-124.
As I mentioned before, the main goal is deliver the JLP [Japan Experiment Module Pressurized Module] and dock to the station. Guys will perform three EVAs and we’ll help them organize these events and provide just everything they need. Recently we got several training [sessions] with them, try to simulate how we’ll perform, what we expect from their side, what they expect we are going to do, how we can help them. Then it depends on, actually how real life will be. We can do the whole job with them and they will leave for us a beautiful Japanese module. We can start immediately after they, depart from the station, or we may have some cleanup tasks and maybe Greg Chamitoff and Oleg Kononenko will perform an EVA to do parts of their tasks.
Tell me about the module, the Japanese Laboratory Pressurized Module, Kibo. Give us a sense of what that is and what capabilities that will add to the International Space Station.
The Japanese Pressurized Module is not only a huge volume for the station. The Japanese really worked hard this project, and I think that they put inside this module and outside, everything that probably they will use for their research. There are going to be four experiment racks and they will have their own arm that can provide them ability to work with external payloads without EVA. I don’t know it is good news for the EVA guys, but I think for the scientists it’s really great to have this opportunity to deliver samples and without spending a lot of time waiting for training for us to reinstall it on the station surface, outside the station. And back at them, I think for, for the scientists it’s a very great opportunity use it. They will have high definition cameras; we can use them for Earth observing, for internal—actually external video, and very high rate radio.
Then would you talk us through a bit about what is involved in actually installing it, about the arm operations and the spacewalk tasks that are involved to make Kibo a part of the station.
Image to left: Expedition 17 Commander Sergei Volkov participates in a routine operations training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
The robotic arm will be used as the main instrument for installing it to the port side of Node 2. And then we going to reinstall the JLP [Japan Experiment Logistics Module—Pressurized Section], the small pressurized module, the Japanese logistics module, from the Node  zenith side to the JPM zenith side. So I expect it, it’s going to be a very exciting moment because I’m personally going to participate this task. Maybe Greg Chamitoff and I will do this.
Running the arm for this task?
Yes, and, of course EVA to connect the umbilicals.
Once the module is actually attached to Node 2, what work then has to be done before you can all go inside Kibo and when will that take place?
So far as we were trained the module will be activated during the STS-124 if [there are] no delays and if everything going to be smooth and nice. But if something happens and we will not be able to do this with STS-124, all of us were trained in JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] how to activate the Japanese module. We know the timeline and what rack should be installed first, the sequence, actually, of installation. It’s going to be really big work because a lot, a lot of racks are going to be removed from the one place and installed in the Japanese module.
You mentioned that you will be one of the robot arm operators for the relocation of the pressurized logistics module that was delivered on STS-123. Describe that task: What is required … Do you just pluck it up and move it, or is it a little bit more complicated?
Maybe from the first time it looks very easy just to grab it up, pull up, remove and install, but in reality on the back scene of this event, we have a lot of training here to continuously work on this procedures. A big ground team works together for preparation of this event, to make it from the other guys, nice and easy, like you just come in, take it easily and remove. But in reality it’s a long, long period of preparation and training. And here we have a lot of training on robotic arm simulation.
And you mentioned that the, the Kibo comes with its own robotic arm that and there’s some work during the shuttle mission for you guys to deploy that arm, correct?
Yes, we expect to deploy this arm and we're going to perform test motion. It’s only one, two degrees motion, but it’s very important because the ground has to be sure that it is right motions. Everybody in Japan is very excited and they are looking forward to seeing this very first small motion of the arm and how it will be perform.
Once the STS-124 crew goes home with Garrett Reisman and Greg Chamitoff has joined you, Kibo will still need some work to prepare it for its full operation. What work is involved in the commissioning of this new module?
Mostly it’s activation of the payload racks. Actually this is the main task, that we have to reinstall the racks that were delivered by the previous Expedition, STS-123, -124. Actually it will be our job.
During that time, of course, you’ll be working with the, with the control center in Tsukuba along with the control center in Moscow, and in Houston, and in Munich. How do you think it’s going to be like to work with control teams all over the world?
I think we will learn how to, to deal with all the situation during our increment, because for nowadays we have only three MCC [Mission Control Center] work together, and we know how to schedule our time for the DPC [Daily Planning Conference], for how, how to make this communication. I think having, I would say seven MCC—because Toulouse MCC also for ATV—have all these MCC together in, in one loop, it’s really very tough task for all of us, try not to interfere and have a clear answers and questions from what, what kind of question we want to ask and what we want to, what answer we want to receive, and from what site, because everywhere, I mean, and people on the ground very well-trained, they have very good knowledge about all the system, and all of them very motivated and want to help us, and we, actually we’ll learn how to work with, with all these people and I think we’ll reach success.
Were you adding Japanese and German and French to the Russian and English that you already speak?
I learn a little bit maybe in each language, but not as much will allow me to talk with these people in their native language.
The International Space Station is, along with being a construction site, also a laboratory, and by this time there will be a number of laboratories as part of the as part of the station. The main focus of the science is trying to learn more about how people can live and work safely for long periods of time. Give me an example of a couple of the science experiments that you’ll be working on during your time on orbit.
We’re going to perform some science experiment that will connect our environment, this actually harmful for the human body weightlessness environment, and we’ll perform several tasks for the Russian institutes, doing experiments. From ESA [European Space Agency] side we also have the experiment that will allow to the scientists actually, understand how our brains actually work. We going to don these special caps, for the encephalogram and do some tests, and they want to see how the brain actually adapts for weightlessness, the difference between on Earth—[and] weightlessness, and when people return to the Earth -- how far this change actually happens, and when, let’s say we going to be “normal” [again]. And of course, we have several experiments from the Russian side where we have to perform physical tests. At the same time we will do blood sampling, of course our blood sampling. Our scientists want to know how blood reacts in weightlessness on all these [stresses] and when you’re doing your workout or running on the TVIS [Treadmill Vibration Isolation and Stabilization system] or CEVIS [Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation System], during RED [Resistive Exercise Device] exercise, they want to know how bloods change in weightlessness. They know how it’s going to be here on the Earth, but it's also one of the interesting questions for them.
Along with doing that science work, space station crews are also charged with taking care of the station itself. Since late last year the station program has been working on an issue with the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint out on the starboard side of the truss. Can you describe for us what that joint is and why it’s so important that it operates properly?
Actually it’s very important to have this joint in normal condition because it provides the ability for the solar array to rotate. All of us know the station is flying around the Earth and we use solar energy for producing the electricity for our station that allow us to do experiment, live on board the station, produce the oxygen, everything, actually. We fully depend on electricity that provides by the solar arrays. And this SARJ allows us to point the solar arrays in the best angle to the sun. That makes the maximum output from the solar energy. This is why it’s really a very important piece of equipment.
And right now, for some reason, there’s some grinding going on that has caused the decision to not rotate that joint. What, if anything, do you suppose might your crew be called upon to do during your time on orbit to try to, to fix that problem?
The plan we have now is that maybe we’ll have task to see what is going on with SARJ. It means that Oleg and Greg will perform the unscheduled EVA, actually, and check the condition of the SARJ during our increment. This only one task that we actually expect now, because so far we are still able to receive as much energy as we need. The ground team is trying to organize a future EVA for this repair or maybe lubrication of the SARJ, but so far this task is not reflected in our schedule.
But there are plans for, I guess, at least one spacewalk out of the Pirs docking compartment during the summertime. What do you think you might do on that spacewalk?
We have particular tasks and what we already trained for increasing the length of the Strela, and we’re going to install the foot adapter onto the Strela which allow us to work more easily. We can install our feet in this adapter and fly around the station, not waste our time just to crawling on the surface. Then Oleg and I are going to install a new antenna for the experiment and take one of the samples of the Biorisk experiment, from the surface of the station that was installed by previous expedition and lately returned to the ground, to Earth, to check what the, how the material was I expect harmed by space. And we expect new task because our schedule managers told us that probably we have additional task, and it mean that we have additional training here. We’ll check the surface of the place we are going to be installing a PGF [payload grapple fixture]—it’s an adapter for the robotic arm. It will allow us in the future use the robotic arm on the Russian side, in case we are going to reinstall maybe our docking compartment or use it for other stuff, and so, also can be our potential task. And one more additional EVA task could be to check the place for the Kurs antennas, because so far on the zenith part of the Zvezda module, [Service Module] module, we don’t have a Kurs antenna for autodocking. Now the Russian agency is starting to think about launching new modules. We have to decide how we're going to do this, in automalt, or manual, but at least we have to have a target in this part. It’s also going to be our task.
The first of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicles, the Jules Verne, is to be at the station when you arrive and, and will depart while you are there. Tell me a bit about what your crew will do to prepare for the undocking and then to execute that task.
We expect that the Jules Verne is going to be with us probably two-thirds of the length of our increment and because there are several tanks for oxygen and it will deliver oxygen to the station. We’re going to use this oxygen, of course, and Jules Verne will deliver water to the station. We will use the water and then recharge these tanks with urine or other wastewater products. Because it’s really huge cargo ship, a lot of, I think, useful stuff will be delivered during this flight. We’ll use a lot. We can use it as a stage module where we can leave a lot of stuff, and for the undocking we went through several training sessions in ESA. We were certified for all stages of the Jules Verne flight, for docking stage part, and undocking. We look forward to working with the European Space Agency with this module, and maybe we will touch this first book that was published during Jules Verne[’s] life. They’re going to launch this book.
They’re going to fly this book?
They’re going to fly this book and we’ll keep it, for a while, on the station.
The departure of the ATV then has to be done in coordination with launch of a Russian cargo ship, correct?
That’s a lot of stuff going on in the six months that you’re going to be there.
Yes, it’s true.
What are you most looking forward to? Can you say? Is there one thing that you’re most looking forward to doing?
I’m looking forward to do relocation of Soyuz because for me, as a pilot, it’s very interesting to do manual relocation. We’re going to relocate it from the docking compartment to the FGB nadir port. And of course the EVA – those are probably two most exciting things I expect to do.
Image to right: Expedition 17 Commander Sergei Volkov participates in a vehicle approach skills training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
And you’ll be flying as your own personal spacecraft.
The nations that are building and operating the International Space Station have exploration plans that go far beyond this vehicle, of course. Sergei, what is your philosophy about the future of, the human exploration of space, and the contribution that the International Space Station makes to that future?
From my perspective this International Space Station is a basement for the future exploration of space because during this exploitation of station agencies or people learn how to communicate, how to build one vehicle, because before every agency tried to do its best and perform its tasks independently. Now we can use all this knowledge of previous years of space exploration and we were actually able to do this. We built the station, we continuously use the station, we're actually doing experiments and we working together. We know how to work with different cultures, now and it’s really basement for the future exploration of moon and Mars, maybe the solar system, and the universe, I don’t know, maybe … . I think it’s very important that all countries got together and decided to build this station.