Q: Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you have ended up as a professional space traveler. What was it that motivated you, or inspired you, to become a cosmonaut?
Preflight Interview: Yury Lonchakov
A: When I was still in high school I had a lot of interests, a lot of academic interests. I was part of the specialized aviation school. We used flight simulators to learn how to fly airplanes, we jumped with the parachutes, we studied aerodynamics, various flight sciences, things that I found very useful later in my career as a pilot, and that, that was when I first had the, the dream of spaceflight. I was very interested in astronomy and being part of the aviation school. During summers the students of that school traveled around the country and we were taken once to the Star City. I made myself a promise that I will one day become a professional astronaut, so this was my dream from the early years and now I am very happy that this dream is coming true for the third time.
Let me get you to back up to your childhood and ask you to tell me about where you grew up, in Kazakhstan, correct?
Yes, I did grow up in Kazakhstan, but it was still part of one country, the Soviet Union, which consisted of 15 republics. My parents were geologists and they traveled from one part of the country to another looking for minerals. They were going on expeditions and I accompanied them on their travels and it was by chance that I was born in Kazakhstan during one of the geological expeditions that my parents were part of.
And so you grew up living in many different places, not just in, in one town?
Well, mainly my parents worked in Kazakhstan even though my father is from Siberia and I spent a lot of time in Siberia and in the Far East. But mainly my parents worked in Kazakhstan. I was born in Balkhash, a Kazakh city, but when I was just a few years old we left that city and moved to Aktyubinsk and it is this city that I consider my native city because I spent my childhood and my youth, there. I have friends, my childhood friends are there and I consider this to be my native land.
Do you have a sense of those people and that place have contributed [to] you becoming the person that you are today?
Definitely. First of all, I have to say that I’m in the deep debt to my parents for raising me up the way they did. They took me everywhere with them on their travels. It was not always comfortable. We had to stay in tents in the rain and in the snow, and my parents, my father, taught me how to live correctly, with respect to nature, to respect to people, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my parents for making me what I am.
Did you have the opportunity to see that area from space on your previous spaceflights?
Of course. After my first flights I have a lot of images. I was taking pictures of Kazakhstan, of my city, and after the flights I met with people in those areas, with my friends, with officials from the Kazakh government. It is a great feeling to be received as one of their own, some, as somebody who was born in this country. So it’s a special feeling and I’m expecting to see many Kazakh friends at the launch. It’s important for anybody to have friends.
You mentioned that you were at a high school that specialized in aviation. Could you take me from that point forward and, and tell me about your, your high school and college education and your professional career up until your becoming a cosmonaut?
After I graduated from the high school, I enrolled in the Orenburg aviation school; it’s the same college that was attended by Yuri Gagarin. After I graduated from that college I became a navy pilot. I flew as a second pilot on the Baltic Fleet, as a second pilot on the Black Sea Fleet, in the Far East. Then I retrained on the Sukhoi-27 aircraft and I flew that aircraft and Su-24 in Kaliningrad. Then I was stationed at the Air Defense Test, Testing Center, I was doing test flights for various Su aircraft. Then I served in the far north and after that I was accepted to the Zhukovski Aviation Academy. From there I applied to the cosmonaut corps, got selected, and ever since then I was training as a cosmonaut. So I flew and worked all over the place. But I have no regrets – I have gained wonderful, beautiful and valuable experiences throughout that time.
You’ve not only been busy working, training as a cosmonaut, you’ve been busy in management of the training center?
Yes. I am the head of the Cosmonaut Corps at the cosmonaut training center. Every cosmonaut, be it a simple crewmember or a manager, they’re all active cosmonauts, and being in this managerial position I still continued with my training. I had to maintain my professional level. Everybody is doing that, everybody who is part of the Cosmonaut Corps, they train every day, even when they’re not assigned to the crew and this is exactly what I’ve been doing.
We know that flying in space can be something that is very dangerous. Yury, why, what is [it] that you believe that we gain as a result of flying people in space that makes that risk one that you are willing to take?
Well, we already talked about the importance of the fact of the international cooperation. Space is a place where international cooperation is a must. When you’re looking at Earth from space it appears so fragile, so vulnerable. Everybody who has ever flown in space realizes that and we always tell those who meet with us that Earth needs to be taken care of, that we need to respect and nourish it, and it hurts to see the damage we do to our planet. It’s actually quite amazing how the outlook and the life philosophy changes after spaceflight. It is, of course, important that space science experiments are taking place. A lot of programs are being developed for Martian flights and other flights. Our station is a step to all those things, so, for us, it is extremely important fact that we are contributing to the benefit of the entire mankind.
You are Flight Engineer on Expedition 18 to the International Space Station. Yury, could you summarize the goals of your flight and what your main responsibilities are on this crew?
As a crewmember, as a flight engineer, I will be serving on increment 18 and I will also be commander of the Soyuz TMA-13. Our mission has a lot of objectives. We prepare for a lot of EVA activities. There are a lot of training sessions that take place in the NBL [Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory]. In Russia we have trained on EVA also, and when we return to Russia after this trip to the U.S. we will continue our training because our first EVA is scheduled for Dec. 21 in Orlan spacesuits. The objectives are very interesting. We will be installing new additional science hardware. Also, if we talk about general objectives, we will receive two Progress vehicles and two shuttles during our increment so the increment will be busy in terms of servicing activities, in terms of science, and in terms of EVAs.
Now, you have flown in space before but not on an extended mission. What is it that you are looking forward to about this time, getting to spend several months off of the planet?
Of course, short-duration spaceflight is very different from a long-term spaceflight in that in the long-term spaceflight, long-duration spaceflight, the activities are spaced out and across the six months’ period. When you’re on a short-duration flight everything is cramped into a little period of time so people end up sleeping just few hours a day because there is so much to do. From the long-duration spaceflight, I expect interesting challenges, great crew, we have a great commander and I think we will be able to complete all of our objectives.
After more than a year of training for this mission, the crew assignment was changed just a few months before launch and you were added to this crew. How did that impact the last months of preparation for the flight?
It didn’t really impact our training because there are rules, there’s always a prime crew and a backup crew, and the backup crew mirrors every crewmember on the primary crew. So when the situation happened, I was ready to step in in Salizhan Sharipov’s place, and this is exactly what I am doing. I entered his training flow seamlessly because I knew very well everybody on the prime crew. I’ve been friends with Michael [Fincke] since before my first flight. I know Koichi [Wakata] and Sandy [Magnus], so in terms of interaction there were no problems and we started with training our primary objectives right away.
You mentioned that there are a couple of space shuttles that are due to arrive at the station during your increment. What are the goals of the joint mission that you will have with STS-126?
In terms of joint objectives, we’re looking at returnable cargo and delivered cargo as part of the objectives. We will be getting new science hardware. We talked about this with Michael, with the shuttle crew, we have talked about things we will need to do. We talked about our objectives, how we’re going to accomplish them on board, how we’re going to organize our activities. Objectives are very significant, a lot of hardware coming up, a lot of hardware coming down. We will have to work a lot but it will be very interesting. First of all, we will start out with just a regular station crew, then we will receive many guests on board the shuttle and it’s always special receiving guests in space.
Much of the hardware that this mission is delivering to the station is hardware that will enable the expansion of the station’s crew to six people. Describe for us what those important new contributions are, those new pieces of hardware that are required for that crew expansion.
First of all, this is life support system components. You probably are aware of the current life support system issues on board. Only one toilet is operating on board the station; another toilet will be delivered with the space shuttle and we will install this toilet in the lab. It will be a second toilet. Of course, six people require more than one toilet, and of course, there will be modifications and improvements for the other life support equipment for air supply, water and others.
And after that shuttle mission leaves and has delivered Sandy Magnus you will be assisting Mike and Sandy as they work to install and, and check out those new systems. Can you give me a sense of what kind of work faces the expedition crewmembers to get all of that stuff working properly?
Well, the crew are on board specifically to be able to accomplish all tasks, Russian, American, European. When there are three of us and Sandy has arrived, we will be doing what we are training for now, scientific experiments, installation of the new hardware. So three crewmembers will make things easier. We have covered all bases on the ground with our instructors, with our specialists. We know exactly what we need to do so I expect no issues with these activities.
The crewmembers will also be doing work with science experiments on board the International Space Station, a lot of which have to do with finding out how people can live for long times in a weightless environment. Can you describe for me one or two of the experiments in that area that you will be involved with during this expedition?
Well, first of all, there are a lot of experiments in the life sciences area. Those experiments address different biological processes that take place in zero gravity, how zero gravity impacts the habitable environment, plants, animals, those life forms that are expected to be used for future interplanetary flights to moon and Mars. Everybody understands that station needs additional renewable resources in terms of life support. This is why there are a lot of experiments on plant growth, with animals, a lot of medical experiments which will provide answers, or give us methods for evaluating the condition of humans during spaceflight in terms of, of processes occurring in the body during the long-duration spaceflight.
Since late last year the station program has been working on an issue with the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint on the starboard side of the station’s truss. Can you describe for us what that joint is and why its proper operation is so important?
This is a very important system. As you know, any kind of activity on board the station requires electrical power, and in order for the station to have electrical power the solar arrays have to generate electricity and the entire electrical power supply system must operate seamlessly. This is why this hardware is so important, and this is why shuttle crews and the station crew will be ready to address any issues that may exist in the solar array rotary joint system because this system is so crucial for the station and for people on board the station.
On the most recent space shuttle mission the spacewalkers did some work out there on the SARJ. What is it that we learned as a result of those efforts, and what might you and your crewmates be called upon to do to try to get the SARJ back in, operating in good shape?
We did review the hardware on the ground rigs after the EVA; we looked at what the crews did in space. When we did that the SARJ specialists were at hand to show what has been done and what may need to be done in the future. So we looked at everything and we are ready to complete any required tasks on that system.
As you mentioned a few minutes ago, there are plans for a Russian spacewalk on your flight. Tell me about the plan for you and Mike Fincke to go outside on the Russian section of the space station.
We will be installing new science hardware. The name of the hardware is Explorer Impulse; it is intended for geophysics studies, for measuring velocity of charged particles, for defining parameters of the ambient environment around the station in terms of particles and in terms of the composition of the atmosphere around the station. Those are important things that we need to know so we will be installing this hardware. We will also replace Biorisk hardware. This science experiment is biological in nature and it occurs outside of the station. We will also install a science platform on the service module for future experiments. So our objectives are very interesting. They are substantial but feasible. We have trained on them in the Hydrolab in Russia and we expect no issues.
Your crew is due to see a second space shuttle visit early next year. What are the goals during the joint operations with that mission, STS-119?
For that mission the objectives are also to deliver new additional hardware for the life support system of the station because we are incrementing our life support capabilities and this will not be the last mission with the two primary station crewmembers. Hopefully crews follow, that follow us will consist of six people so we’re incrementing station capabilities and installing new science hardware.
Along with new science hardware, that shuttle mission is due to bring you another set of U.S. solar arrays as, as well, correct?
Yes, of course.
Is the addition of that S6 Truss element and those solar array wings contingent on whether or not the SARJ is operating?
Well, the actual structure, you know, is a complex piece of hardware. Of course it is contingent upon its interfaces such as SARJ, so there will be certain tasks related to SARJ and to additional hardware that will be launched on this increment. So, of course, all those things are interdependent.
Everyone has heard about the fact that the last couple of space station crews have had a rougher than usual landing in their Soyuz spacecraft. At this point, what has been learned about the cause of those ballistic landings, and have they made changes to your Soyuz spacecraft as a result of that?
Well, I would like to add to that, that we are always being kept aware of the status of our vehicle, which is scheduled to launch in October this year. All testing has been completed fully and thoroughly. All systems have been checked out, landing systems, motion control system -- everything has been checked out completely. What will happen in the future, I cannot really say but I know that the specialists are preparing the findings on that issue. You know that the current increment has completed two EVAs during, during which they looked at the Soyuz and that data was used extensively in the investigation. I hope that the vehicle will operation normally and the landing will occur as designed because, you know, we have been flying in space for a long time but it’s a new frontier and every new flight is a test flight in a way. There is always risk but we’re trying to minimize it by doing exactly what we’re doing in this case: using our on-the-ground teams of specialists who make sure the vehicle is in the good order before launch.
So you are confident that you will have a Soyuz that will carry you to a safe landing at the end of your flight?
Yes, and as the vehicle commander I am always in touch with the people who build the vehicle, so I am confident that all will go well.
The nations that are building and operating the International Space Station have plans for exploration that go beyond this particular vehicle. Yury, what is your philosophy about the future of human exploration of space and the contribution that the International Space Station is making to that effort?
I think the very name, International Space Station, already is self-explaining in that from the very first elements of this station we saw international crews operating the outpost, Americans, Russians, Europeans, Japanese. So what we’re seeing is the international project shaping up in space in the interests of the entire mankind, of the human progress, and this is, and this is great not only for us as a spaceflight professionals, both in space and on the ground, but also for the future of humanity because I am sure, just like many other people are, that only, it’s only with the joint efforts of different countries, U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan, European countries, we will be able to achieve the results in the area of space exploration will, which will enable us to advance the progress to a new level.