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Preflight Interview: Maxim Suraev
JSC2009-E-208084: Maxim Suraev

Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, Expedition 21/22 flight engineer, attired in a Russian Sokol launch and entry suit, takes a break from training in Star City, Russia to pose for a portrait. Photo credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

Q: Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you have ended up as a professional space traveler. Max, what motivated you or inspired you to become a cosmonaut?

A: What inspired me? It’s no secret that a person always tries to be better than he is, than he actually is or than he is now. A person always tries to develop, to move forward. Therefore, initially, when I was a little boy, I did not have this clear-cut objective that I wanted to become a cosmonaut. I could not even think that that would happen some day. I am a military brat and the idea was to join the military—my father served in the air force—and then the next objective was to become an aviator. When I became an aviator and when I graduated [from] the air force academy, there was a new group of candidates that they were looking for, for the cosmonaut corps and I thought, why not go on and develop, and that’s how I became a cosmonaut, and I’m happy, and I am proud of the way that I’ve developed and what I’ve become.

Your biography notes that you were born in southern Russia but lived near Star City by the time that you were in high school. Can you tell me a bit about your, your childhood and the places that you lived—you said you were a military brat—the different places around the country that you lived growing up?

I think that it’s no secret again, and things are same in the [United] States: if you’re in a military family, if your father is in the military, the family moves around and the location depends on your father’s next posting. I wasn’t born in the south; I was born in the Urals. We stayed there a while, we then moved to Siberia, then we moved, since my father entered the military academy, my dad and the family moved to the environs of Moscow. He then presented and defended his Ph.D. thesis and he stayed around Moscow and he changed, several postings while we were around Moscow, so we moved from one town in the vicinity of Moscow to another, and I changed schools a lot, and this is normal for a military family.

Do you have a sense that those many different places, and all of the people you encountered in those places, had an impact on you becoming the person that you are?

Certainly, of course, because a person is a social animal and the environment affects a person to varying degrees sooner or later, and I was helped along, I think, by the fact that frequently we moved from place to place. I think it helped me insofar as it taught me to adapt to the situation that I find myself in. I learned to establish a connection to people, and if you talk to the same people, if you stay in the same place, you get used to this; you don’t know how to approach, being somewhere else, you don’t know how to behave. So to a degree, yes, it was helpful to be able to adapt and to be able to establish relationships with other people and the more you interact with other people, the more changes you encounter in your life, the more of an effect they have on you both positively and negatively, but the thing is to learn to take out the best lessons. I think that that’s one other ability that I acquired.

Tell me about your education and your professional career before you become a cosmonaut.

My education was an ordinary one. I graduated high school and I entered a flight school, spent five years there, graduated magna cum laude; I entered a military academy, I graduated the academy, and it so happened that I was accepted as a cosmonaut, and I’ve been awaiting a flight opportunity for over 12 years. At the same time I went to school for a civilian profession: I am a graduate of the Civil Service Academy of Russia. That’s all my education.

What sort of civilian job did you study for?


Well, you’ve chosen a career, flying in space, that’s one that we know can be dangerous, so, Max, I’m interested to know what is it that you feel we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth the risk you take?

I think the answer to that question is partly the same as some of my previous answers. First off, we’ve got new technologies, new research, new knowledge of people living and people being able to improve their lives, and knowledge about what happens to a person when he or she stays in space for a long time. This is the primary result of long-duration spaceflight, and that’s the reason why the International Space Station has to exist. We need to move forward. We need to move our knowledge forward and our discoveries forward, and the outcome for humankind is in the new technologies, new knowledge and new approaches to research. I think that is invaluable, and that’s the reason why all of this is being undertaken.

You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 21 and 22 crews. Max, could you summarize your main responsibilities and the goals of your flight?

The primary responsibilities of my flight on board the space station are to be a flight engineer. For the Soyuz I’m going to be a commander, and consequently the primary objectives are to assure a successful and safe transition of Soyuz into orbit, to dock—I’m just talking about the tasks related to the Soyuz commander role—I need to dock successfully, I need to relocate successfully while on orbit, and I need to return the crew successfully and land safely. As far as my flight engineer role is concerned on station, my primary objective and task is to maintain the station operational as far as the Russian segment is concerned. I need to assure that it work[s] reliably and continuously from the standpoint of the Russian systems, and if something should occur like an emergency, I need to deport myself with honor in an emergency situation.

This will be your first trip to space as a cosmonaut. Tell me what you are look forward to the most about getting to spend six months off of the planet.

It’s a difficult question because, internally, the feeling of weightlessness and the feeling of being in space is the most interesting thing for me personally. As far as my role as a cosmonaut is concerned, the primary thing for me, and what I’m looking forward to, is being 100%, being an “A” crew member, and I don’t want to let down the people that trained me for a long time for this spaceflight.

When you arrive at the station you are going to relieve part of the station’s six-person crew. How important has it been for this program to have achieved the milestone of having a larger permanent crew on board?

I think, in general, the station initially was created for, or to be able to support humanity to look further and to investigate in space the things that are not possible to investigate on the ground. People may have forgotten about it, and the primary objective of the station is not to support a six-person crew on board, but rather to have these six people engaged in research effectively, and help move humanity forward past its current position. It’s very important that there is going to be a six-person crew on board and it is very important that each of them be able to engage in full-fledged research. For the Japanese, for the Europeans, for the U.S. crew members, it is important to be able to engage in science without getting distracted with some mundane tasks and system recovery, or system activation; they have to spend 100% of their time researching and moving humanity along.

When you and Jeff Williams arrive at the station, it’ll be the first time that three Soyuz vehicles will be there all at the same time. Tell me about what’s on the plan for that time between when you arrive and the time that Gennady Padalka and Mike Barratt depart.

This is going to be a regular handover procedure. Right now Gennady is station commander; then he will hand over to Frank De Winne, and Frank De Winne is going to become commander. As far as I am concerned, Gennady, in the two weeks that we’re going to be together, will try and tell me as much as he can because I do not have, experience of being aboard the International Space Station, so the two weeks that we have planned he will attempt to tell me as much as possible and to show me as much as possible such that I’m ready for my mission when he goes back to the Earth. However, Roman Romanenko is staying behind, and he’s been there for more than a week and more than a month, so things are going to be a lot easier for me in the handover because he will be able to help me and tell us if Gennady forgets to tell me something and if we overlook something. So the handover is going to be more efficient and more Max Suraev-friendly, because without previous flight experience it’s very difficult to tell me everything, and besides there are some research experiments planned for the two weeks which will have to be returned to the Earth, to the ground, as early as possible for a good result. So normally these two weeks of handover were pretty heavy as far as schedule was concerned and it’s the first time in space, the first two weeks in space or a week and a half in space, I will be adapting and I will need that time to get back to my normal working self, and previously there have been problems and I expect things to be comfortable this time, more comfortable. That’s it, I think.

As you mentioned when Padalka and Barratt go home, Frank De Winne will become commander of the station; talk about the significance of the station having a European Space Agency astronaut as its commander for the first time.

I think that this is a very major step for Europe and this is a completely new state for the European Space Agency because if we are talking full-fledged partnership, full-fledged partnerships should include a European presence on board the station as a commander. this makes Europe a full-fledged partner, and I think that that’s very important, especially for Europe.

JSC2009-E-214433: Maxim Suraev and Jeff Williams

At the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Russian cosmonaut Max Suraev, Soyuz commander (right); and NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, Expedition 21 flight engineer, take a break from their preparations for launch to inspect the new Mini-Research Module 2 at the Integration and Checkout Facility. Photo credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

There is a new station component that is expected to be added to the Russian segment of the station late in the year. Tell me about the Russian Mini Research Module 2 and the new capabilities that it will add to the station.

Well, our MRM 2, or MIM 2 as we call it in Russian, which is going to launch and be attached to our Russian segment, is going to provide an additional module for us. It’s very important right now. This is additional space to store equipment and other things that are on board the station, but the primary objective is for us to use the module for extravehicular activity. Like right now we have the Docking Compartment that we use for that purpose, but we’re going to use that module for EVAs in the future. Also some research hardware is going to be installed inside the module to be used for research and experiments. Specifically I know for a fact that a glovebox is going to arrive with this module and that’s going to reside on the module, and that’s going to house some of the equipment that’s going to be permanently located on the module which will get us nearer to the objective of the International Space Station, which is research.

After the MRM 2 arrives is when you’re expecting to see the first shuttle visit to the station. Tell me about what is on the agenda for the joint operations with STS-129.

The primary objective, I think, is going to be to support the orbiter crew and allow them to work efficiently and well on board the international station, to assist them in setting up for the EVAs that they have planned, and to install the equipment that they will have brought; manage their activities on station, such that in the two weeks when they stay attached to the ISS that they’re comfortable and effective, and if my assistance is required, I’m always ready.

That shuttle visit, according to the current schedule, should take place very closely in time to the departure of Frank De Winne, Roman Romanenko and Bob Thirsk in their Soyuz. Can you explain to us how this first indirect crew rotation happens, and how it impacts the station’s staffing?

Like I said before, the main idea here is to make things easier and more organized and, more sedate, as it were, to allow people to get their act together before they go home, not being pressed for time at all times, like they are whenever there’s only two weeks for the handover. This time they will have enough leeway to hand over at their leisure and to leave the crew behind in complete control of the situation on board.

After they leave there’s a period of a couple of weeks then where you and Jeff Williams will be on the station alone to start Expedition 22, before the arrival of Oleg Kotov, Soichi Noguchi and T.J. Creamer, which is scheduled for early December. Plans are for a spacewalk by you and Oleg that will take place shortly after that. Tell me about the planned spacewalks for your flight.

The primary idea and the primary plan for this EVA is, because there is going to be a new research module on board and to be able to activate the module completely, fully, to be able to dock both Soyuz and Progress to it, an EVA is required. We need to install additional antennas, we need to install some additional hardware for a full activation of this module, and that’s going to be the primary objective of Oleg and my EVA, to be able to set up the module and relocate Jeff’s and my Soyuz to the back of the international station. That’s another first.

Yes, I wanted to ask you about that. Once the EVA is complete, I guess once you’ve set up the MRM for a Soyuz docking, you are going to get to fly the first docking to that new module. Describe what is involved for that job.

This is a regular relocation. We are trained at Star City to relocate manually and we spend a lot of time training, doing that. We will need to undock from the Service Module, back out to about 30 to 50 meters, do a flyaround, approach the new MRM 2 module and dock to that. This is the primary objective and essentially we are ready for that—and more than “essentially,” we are ready for it.

Would it be, I imagine that it would be enjoyable for a pilot to get to fly like that?

Yes. All relocations—at least while in training—are one of my favorite activities, if not the most favorite, because like you said, a pilot can feel like a pilot again, because this is real hands-on work. You are in a vehicle, you are separate from the station, and the processes taking place are short-lived, so you can compare that to controlling an airplane.

You mentioned earlier about the importance of science on the International Space Station, and a lot of the science that’s done has to do with how people react to being in space for long periods of time. Tell me about some of the experiments that you will be working on in this area during your time on board the International Space Station.

In general, there is a plan for my mission, and for every mission, to have about 40 to 50 experiments. They fall under several headings and levels. Some of them are medical experiments, some others are remote Earth observation and probing, some biotechnology experiments, some material science; these are the primary headings that we are working on. And without going into too much detail, and not talking about medical experiments, there are some biotechnology experiments to grow plants; there are some experiments to explore material properties—the plasma crystal, the well-known plasma crystal, which started on Mir and still continues, this is the behavior of particles in a plasma. There are some experiments related to Earth observation which include regular observation per se, and ranging all the way to instrumented research of glacier movement, for example, instrumented research of large schools of fish out in, on the open seas, changes related to human activity such as pollution, deforestation or timbering, the propagation of sand, and the expansion of deserts, and so on and so forth.

A new part of the station’s science capability should begin during your time on orbit when your crew completes a checkout of the payload airlock in the Japanese lab, and Kibo’s small fine arm. Please tell me about that new hardware and how that will expand the science operation on the station.

One thing I can say is that as far as I’m concerned the Japanese are very smart and they created their remote arm and their external equipment that they are putting on the Japanese segment and that they’re going to use on their Exposed Facility. Those are all very good because they are completely, these pieces of equipment are completely independent, completely automated, which means no EVAs are required for that, no external equipment is required, like the Canadian remote arm or like the orbiter remote arm, which means that they have a completely self-sufficient automated system. That’s very good. They can always set up a payload inside that airlock, use their own remote arm automatically, and this remote arm will install a payload on the outside of the International Space Station, and they can run experiments independently of any other factors completely on their own and that’s a very good setup, and I think that this is one of the setups that in the future may be adopted by the Russian partner as well.

JSC2009-E-145545: Maxim Suraev

Cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, Expedition 21/22 flight engineer, participates in a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

There is a second shuttle assembly mission that’s due at the station early next year which brings up the Node 3 and other new hardware, and Node 3, once it arrives, means that there’s a lot of new space to fill. Can you talk about the plan for rearranging racks around in the other, in the U.S. section of the station that will take place after Node 3 arrives?

As far as Node 3 is concerned, Node 3 will eventually house the ARED [Advanced Resistive Exercise Device], which is a resistive exercise device. The toilet is also going to be located there permanently. There are two other major systems that are going to be migrated: the urine recovery system, or urine recycling system, and the U.S. oxygen supply system. It’s a lot of work, and this is something that the station needs. You may also know that there is another module, the Cupola, that’s going to arrive together with Node 3. This is a module that’s going to eventually house the control system and the work station to control the Canadian remote arm, and that’s going to be a permanent location for that specific work station, robotic arm work station. In addition, for me personally and for all the other crew members, we’ll get a wonderful view of the Earth and a very good opportunity for Earth observation and for Earth photography from space. This Cupola is supposed to be all windows to look through and that’s going to be wonderful. That’s going to be great.

Our planet’s human space exploration effort reached a new level with the expansion of this space station’s permanent crew complement recently. Max, tell me how you see human exploration of space proceeding in the years to come, and how the International Space Station will contribute to that future effort.

My vision of the future is no different, I think, than any other ordinary person’s. I think that in the future the next objective for the U.S., and I know that it’s been set, is to go back to the moon. In general for humankind, the objective is to explore the closest planets, such as Mars, possibly Venus, the moon, which is our sister planet here, and then we go on to what’s described in science fiction: permanent bases that we’re going to build that are going to be way stations, springboards to further exploration of other planets, but that’s further in the future. I think the primary objective of this whole endeavor is to solve a problem: the energy on Earth is limited and we’re not too far off from a time when our resources are going to run out, so if humanity would like to continue to exist and to develop like it’s developing now, it will have to find other sources of energy outside, and other resources, outside of this planet. This is the main idea here.