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Preflight Interview: Oleg Kotov
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Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Expedition 22 flight engineer, holds a sample from a bioscience experiment in the Poisk Mini-Research Module 2 of the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

Of all the careers in the whole world that someone could aspire to, you ended up as a professional space traveler, so I want to know what was it that motivated you and inspired you to want to be a cosmonaut?

A: I guess it was a mix of dream and luck, just good old luck that allowed me to become a cosmonaut ’cause every kid, boy or girl, at least of our generation, and hopefully there are still some of them now, who dream to become astronaut or cosmonaut, fly to space and observe our planet from the orbit, I do believe it’s natural to, for the younger guys, to try to understand the unknown and to embrace the universe and to fly higher than anybody else before them. This is a very inspiring dream and a lot of young kids strive toward something like this, but I was incredibly lucky to be able to fulfill my dream. I was stubborn enough and I was healthy enough to go through all the selection process and become the part of a group whose job is to explore space. I was lucky to fly already and hopefully I will fly again and again, because it’s unbelievably interesting. Generally speaking, the job of cosmonaut or astronaut, it is a unique job: we are always on the learning curve, we are students forever. This is great thing, I like it because it’s hard to be a real specialist in various fields of science and industries, and that’s what we are because every cosmonaut or astronaut, again, is a pretty good expert in agriculture, in space medicine, and quantum mechanics, in astrophysics, in geophysics. I mean, we have to know it all and during our training we cover pretty much all fields of human knowledge. We meet wonderful scientists, incredibly smart people, and we work together with the unique experts in each and every field, and this is a great advantage of my profession and I’m very glad and very happy to be able to fulfill my drive towards science and this space work, and I wish the same like to all those young guys who dream to reach the stars. There are no limitations. It’s all in your hands. You are capable of doing it and nothing is impossible.

Let me get you to tell us a little more about your own background. Tell me about where you were born and where you grew up.

I was born in the city of Simferopol. This is the Crimea area in the Ukraine, which was at the time part of the Soviet Union. My father is a military officer and naturally we moved around the country a lot, so it’s really hard to say where exactly I grew up. The geography is pretty big for me. I lived in Ukraine, in Moldova, in Leningrad—currently St. Petersburg—in Moscow, and I graduated from high school in Moscow so I have a right to say that I am also a citizen of Moscow.

Did you get the chance to see some of those places from orbit during your first flight?

Certainly, and we make it a point, you can call it a hobby or, every cosmonaut and astronaut is always trying to locate that location of the city where you were born or where you lived, or which is for various reasons important for you, so I took lots of pictures of the Crimea and city of Simferopol and Black Sea, because this is something very dear to me and I was interested in doing it.

You told us that by the time you graduated from high school you were in Moscow. Take me beyond that—tell me about, then, your education leading into your professional career that led you to be a cosmonaut.

After graduation I enrolled into the military medical academy and I was studying as a surgeon for aviation and space industry. After I graduated from the academy I started working in the cosmonaut training center in the Star City, and I worked as the test surgeon and I also worked as an instructor, so I pretty much, I went through all the stages of the career of the instructor and the specialist of the cosmonaut training center. In 1996 I was selected as part of our cosmonaut’s crew and I started my training. On top of that I graduated from the aviation school and I am a certified military pilot, and while being part of our cosmonaut crew I was trained with different crews and teams. In particular I was lucky enough to be the part of Expedition 15 so I already have one flight behind me and now I am trained, I’m in training for the next one.

And, of course, it was, we made reference to, you are a doctor yourself. What was it, do you know, that, that made you interested in becoming a doctor?

Good question, because aviation was always very interesting field for me and, of course, the cosmonautic science as well. My dream was always with me when I was choosing my next step in my career and my profession, and I believe that space medicine has an unlimited future, and there is a thing that you could call either a goal or, on the other hand, it’s limitation: this is the human body and all the issues related to space medicine, because technically, when you work with the hardware you can do anything and everything, but now we’re dealing with a human—you have to make sure he is functioning, he is alive and well, and how can we make sure we maintain his capabilities throughout the entire long-duration spaceflight. I believe I made the right choice; it was a good guess. I was doing what I loved to do and I keep doing it, so I fulfilled my dream.

And you’re doing that, fulfilling your dream, in a career that we know has the possibility of danger, so, Oleg, what is that you feel that we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth that risk?

Yes, you are correct. Every research, every step forward involves certain risk; that’s inevitable. And every human who wants to go down that path must make a decision for himself: is it worth it? And dependent on your understanding of how important the resolving of certain problem is for the entire mankind, then a person makes the choice whether he’s ready to take that step and accept that risk. Does he trust our ground support in full? Is he capable of relying on every expert and operator on the ground, how comfortable is he and if he is ready to proceed? Each and every one of us must make this decision. Some of us take a step back but the vast majority of us go forward without second thought because, yes, I do trust fully all those wonderful people on the ground—and there are thousands of them, maybe even tens of thousand—that do their best, that put their best effort, they spend their time, their knowledge, their efforts, their entire life, to make sure that we up there are safe and we are capable of performing good quality job. It’s worth it, and this is a risk that’s, yes, it’s there, but we are OK with this and this is the price we pay to reach the stars.

You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 22 and 23 crews. Oleg, summarize your main responsibilities and what the goals are of this flight.

I will be a space station crew flight engineer during Expedition 22. Jeff Williams, NASA astronaut, will be our commander, and after Expedition 22 will complete its mission and land back on Earth I will become the International Space Station commander for Expedition 23. My crewmates will be T.J. Creamer, Soichi Noguchi, and also one new arrival: there will be Soyuz 22, that will, Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko and Tracy Caldwell will join us. The prime goals of our Expedition 22 and 23, the overall mission is to pretty much complete the station assembly. In other words, we expect the arrival of Node 3 module and Cupola module, and that will pretty much complete the outfitting of the habitable volume of the station. In other words, during our mission, we are supposed to complete the final configuration of the International Space Station. There certainly will be more changes, but that will be pretty much the major configuration for future crews to arrive to and to work in. Except for receiving Node 3 and Cupola, we plan to do certain activities in the Russian segment. In particular, our crew will take part in the activation of MRM 2, Mini Research Module, that will add additional docking port for arrival of Russian vehicles, Soyuz and Progress, which will allow us to maintain six crew members on board the space station on a continuous basis, and also that will add us a little bit more volume for work and life on the station, and by the very end of the mission we will prepare the station for receiving of one more Russian module, Mini Research Module [1], that will actually provide the scientific facility for the Russian segment. We will do lots of research of our planet Earth and also the effects of weightlessness on a human body. And these are the tasks that we plan to perform during our mission. Well, but, also it should be said that every expedition is unique and I’m sure there will be some specific tasks: in our case, that will be work with two shuttle crews, receiving of two cargo vehicles, Russian Progress vehicles, and also we’ll be performing two extravehicular activities that are scheduled within the Russian space exploration program.

You spent six months in space back in 2007 as a Flight Engineer on Expedition 15. Tell me, what is it that you’re most looking forward to about getting to go back to the station for a second time?

Actually, I’m very curious to see how did the station change since 2007 and I understand then the changes were pretty major, because since the time when Expedition 15 departed back to Earth the configuration was, I would say, small. All we had was Node 1 laboratory module, airlocks. There wasn’t much on the U.S. side of the station but there’s been great changes made, great additions, and it would be very interesting to see how the new large station lives and works today. And I’d like to say that there is a big difference between three- and six-men crew. It’s not just multiplied by two; it’s a totally different lifestyle, it’s a totally different configuration for communication with Earth, with our joint life on the station, and I would like to make my contribution and organize the life of this large crew as good as I possibly can to make valuable contribution because there are different objectives for six-man crew, and this is a very good chance to train for long-duration missions in space, for example, missions to the moon and farther to the outer space, so we will accumulate lots of experience working together, and this is an experience that the humankind will certainly use in future.

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Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Expedition 22 flight engineer, works with samples from a bioscience experiment in the Russian Glavboks-S (Glovebox) located in the Poisk Mini-Research Module 2 of the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

When you arrive Jeff Williams and Max Suraev will be on board, and pretty quickly after that there’s plans for a spacewalk for you and for Max. Tell me about the spacewalk plan for your time on orbit.

You know, they call cosmonauts and astronauts fanatics: all they think about is going outside and do the EVA. And this true, and many people ask us why—this is a very hard work and fairly dangerous. What, as interesting as it may be, it’s physically very demanding so why does everyone want so much to go outside to do some work outside of the station, and that’s how I can answer to this question. Well, first of all, it’s unbelievably interesting. This is very creative and very productive work. Yes, it is hard work, but this is a job or a task that would actually bring up all your abilities. This is very unique—to an extent, off-nominal—situation, and this is a work where if you do not perform the task then nobody will at this time, and plus the view that we can enjoy during space work is absolutely unbelievable. You look at the entire universe differently. And speaking about specific tasks for our EVA, this is a very important task: we need to prepare Russian segment and to activate MRM 2 module, which will have been docked. At that time my American colleagues will do the installation tasks prior to our EVA but we have to make sure that this module will become a fully operational docking port for future vehicles. We have to install docking targets, we have to route lots of cables, we have to make sure we’re capable of powering up, we have to receive telemetry. You can call it a routine job in space, but still these tasks are quite unique and very important. And also we have lots of scientific objectives. You know that we have lots of scientific payloads on board this station, and very often it seems like all we do, both Americans and Russian cosmonauts and astronauts, is just go ahead and install one box and bring in the other. But it’s not that simple, it’s again a lot of work, it’s a huge effort, and this box is very important.

Let’s talk about some of that science. A lot of that research on the station is in your medical specialty, in space medicine, about how people react in weightlessness, how they live and work there, and how they adapt when they get back. Tell me about some of these experiments in this area that you’ll be working on during Expeditions 22 and 23.

I will continue the work that I started within the life science portion of the program. They have been continuing and when I wasn’t even there, and right now Michael Barratt, who is also a doctor, he continues what we started, and we need to study in depth the human body reactions to the conditions of weightlessness and microgravity, because, and it’s not only the study of the first reaction, meaning within the first few days upon arrival, but also how the body adjusts to the long-term mission for when you’re up there in weightlessness for five, six months, so we are looking over that longer period, and also we’re doing some work to prevent the negative effects of these factors on the human body. Right now our objective is slightly different. It’s not just that we have to help a human to survive during the long-duration mission so that he could come back to Earth and be able to walk, talk and wave to the cameras, because pretty much that was our initial goals, long time ago, but right now the objectives are different. Right now we have to be sure we maintain human capabilities to work, think and function during long-duration flight, let’s say, to Mars, because when we arrive to Mars we’re supposed to work there, not just arrive. And there will be several months, three, four, five, six months, without luxury of long adaptation, without a crowd of medical personnel and medical facilities, somebody who will be expecting him just to make sure he’s in a good rehabilitation center. It’s not the objective. The objective is to arrive and start working. So that’s the prime goal of our scientific studies. In particular, I’ll be running several, several experiments on the blood circulation or fluid redistribution within the human body, and also testing of human mental capabilities to make sure that the brain is still functional after long-duration flight. Memory, the rate of respond of human memory, is also very important, and there will be a number of activities aimed at studying of psychological compatibility between the crew members because, again, this is a pretty unique situation. And I will go slightly off topic, if you don’t mind. Understand that a six-man crew that we have on the station right now, it’s not just, it’s not the crew of six that always train together and then land together, because we actually have two crews of three. Normally it’s three of us who are in training for a long time together, like for the Soyuz vehicle, but we start working closely and exist closely in an enclosed volume only after the other crew arrives. So only on board this station we meet for a long time, and we have never worked on the ground before, I, may never work together for a long time. Of course, we do know each other very well, but still, as a working crew, we are somewhat apart in the beginning of our expedition so that would be very interesting psychological aspect of my study.

What about other disciplines? What other kinds of science research experiments are on the agenda for your flight?

I don’t believe I have anything quite new to say because the other fields of our studies, they’re pretty much the same: biotechnology and technology, biology, material physics, ionosphere study, astrophysics, studies of Earth, studies of space; so, I believe I didn’t forget anything. This is pretty much our routine list of work. This has to do with fundamental science mostly, and also there is another aspect and I would say it’s a favorite one for every crew. This is our educational program, to make sure that we do our best to inspire our young people on Earth, to inspire them to study space, precise science, humanitarian disciplines, and we want to show them how much is, there is still there to learn, how interesting it is, and this is an untouched ground and there is a huge prospective amount of work and study, and everyone can find their place because we’re barely across the threshold of this large and frankly still poorly-explored space, because right now what we call it is a close space—it’s only 400 kilometers. Yes, we’ve flown to moon, we have some satellites that been launched beyond the solar system, but again these are the very first steps, this is the very first attempt by humans to look beyond their own solar system, so we have lots to do in future.

There is a new part of the station’s science capability that will get started when your crew completes a checkout of the payload airlock in the Japanese Kibo laboratory and sets up the Kibo’s Small Fine Arm. Tell me about how that hardware is going to expand the science operations on the station.

By all means what I would like to say is that, I mentioned already that, when I was talking about the extravehicular activities, our spacewalks, that part of our experiment has to do with the exposure of our hardware and scientific experiments outside the station on the external side. So in order to step outside we must be prepared, we need to don our spacesuits, we need to step outside so we need to do the job and then we need to come back and bring the boxes back. You know that we do not perform EVA all that often; they are done within the very substantial time intervals, and you know this is a hard work, so the experiments that will be installed on the external pallets on the Japanese module will allow us to run lots of scientific experiments without having humans to go outside and perform certain activities, so this is a serious breakthrough. This is a very serious task and I’m actually very happy for the Japanese space agency who was capable of resolving this serious task and to create such an important hardware as the external platform, which can carry experimental hardware so that they can do it without having humans on the outside of the station. So far they are the only ones, right now neither Russian nor American segments do have such hardware, so, but we’ll be happy to participate.

You are going to see a first shuttle assembly mission visit. Shuttle Endeavour is due in February with some new modules that you referred to earlier. Tell me about these new components that are coming up on that mission, the third node and the Cupola.

Yes. Those will be the final habitable modules of the U.S. segment that will be delivered to the International Space Station. The prime goal for Node 3 module is to be a habitable compartment. We’ll have crew quarters inside this module, we’ll have our gym, we’ll be doing our physical exercise, we’ll have our hardware, we’ll be able to keep our physical fitness using those elements, and also we’ll be able to somehow separate laboratory, a portion, and living quarters, because right now everything is there pretty much in one place, experimental racks and our living quarters. After Node 3 the U.S. segment will be look the way we designed it, so there will be the crew quarter section and there will be laboratory for the science. As far as the Cupola module is, first of all it’s a unique possibility for the crew to observe both stars and Earth because this is a wonderful little module with many, many windows that would allow us to look around in different directions and just enjoy the view, and it will also be used to, uh, command Canadian manipulator, the arm, so one of the robotics workstations from the lab module will be moved to Cupola, so one of the operators will be controlling the arm from this Cupola module.

You operated Canadarm2 when you were in space before, seeing it only on the television monitors in front of you. How will operating from Cupola be different for the operator?

I do believe it will be much, much easier and much safer and even more fun, because, you know, when you control the robotic arm using only four, five monitors which give you the camera views, this is not a fully natural, so to speak, view; you know, it’s like you’d be driving a car without being able to look at the road, only watch the monitors that would give you the view of the road. So that pretty much describes it so I believe from Cupola it will be much easier and much safer. So on top of the monitors that the crew will also have in a Cupola module, the crew will see the entire live picture directly through the windows, so this is a great idea and I look forward to try and, well, if not to control the arm but at least to watch the others doing it.

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Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Expedition 22 flight engineer, aboard the International Space Station, shows off "fresh" produce from Earth following the arrival of the space shuttle Endeavour on the STS-130 mission. Photo credit: NASA

You referred to the fact that once Node 3, Tranquility, arrives, that some racks are going to be moved; there, it arrives with a lot of empty space in it. Talk about the choreography of moving all these racks around after Node 3 is installed.

This is not an easy question at all because I can’t really tell you off the top of my head what goes where. I do believe that we fully rely on the wonderful job of our ground team who provide us with a new diagram of rack layout and they do it every two, three weeks. They define the sequence of all these transfers to make sure that we maintain our life support systems, and in the meantime, try to save some time and effort of the crew and still make sure that we installed everything in the right way. So, yes, I like that English word that you used for this coordination. You call it “choreography,” and, yes, this is a very complicated dance with lots of moves and lots of different scenes in between so, yes, again, it’s a hard but a wonderful and interesting work, and most of it will be done by the U.S. astronauts, NASA astronauts, and Japanese astronauts, but on, from our side, from the Russian cosmonauts, of course, we will provide all the assistance, support and help we can.

The schedule says that in March, Jeff and Max are scheduled to go home, and that will mark the beginning of Expedition 23, when you become commander of the station. How does your life on board change when you become commander instead of flight engineer?

Likely the level of responsibility will change because, in my understanding the main task of the crew commander is maintaining, creating, and insuring good working relationship and keeping great spirits among the crew members. You know, my crew doesn’t need to be controlled or commanded; they are wonderful trained professionals, they know what to do so, usually there will be no need for pressure, there will be no need of giving them recommendation, but what’s most important is to make sure that I keep the entire crew in good spirits and, of course, I hope this will not happen but in any off-nominal situations it will be up to me to make final decisions. But, by all means, it’s a great responsibility to be the commander of this space station crew. It takes lots of training, it takes good understanding of all processes happening on board the station regardless of U.S. or Russian segment, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s American astronaut or the Russian cosmonaut who is the crew commander at the time; any crew commander is responsible for all tasks, for all outcomes, for everything that happens on board the station, but still I’m very excited to become one. Yes, I am a bit nervous but I’m looking forward to become crew commander and I will try to do my best.

You’ve got another shuttle visit coming up shortly after that: Discovery arrives on the 19A assembly mission. What’s coming up on that shuttle mission? What’s involved in that joint operation?

This mission will be primarily aimed at the outfitting the external part of the station. This will be a preparation for the time when the shuttles will be grounded, so the station has to be ready for that time. The time will come when the ground will not be able to deliver major, large components to ensure that everything works OK on the space station, so like any good housekeeper we would like to make sure we stock up on all kinds of supplies, spares, consumables, want to make sure that we have everything we need on board the station. So one of the goals of this mission will be to make sure that we resupply the station with all the spares and everything else that we might need. And also it will deliver quite a substantial number of various hardware and scientific racks that we will have to transfer on board the station. So this mission is pretty much a resupply mission, will take care of the space station, and that’s what I can say in brief because it’s extremely hard to describe all goals of shuttle mission, in few words, is very hard because their work on board the station is very hard. They have lots of tasks to do and I understood it when I was on board the station during the previous space station expedition. You know, when the shuttle arrives it’s like when the cavalry arrives: everything changes. When we’re without shuttle there, it’s fairly calm, it’s more or less routine, but shuttle has every minute accounted for. They do tremendous job. Their choreography’s unbelievable, they’re very busy and it’s very intense on board the station during the joint mission. After they depart again we go back to our little bit more calm and routine way of life on board the station.

And shortly after that you’re due to get three new crewmates when a Soyuz arrives with Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson. Tell me how you see operations changing then as the station crew goes back to a crew of six people.

Actually as far as I understand, it relates mostly to the Russian segments because there will be a first time when there will be three Russian cosmonauts on board of the space station during the same mission, and I do believe that will change the approach to the planning, to the scope of our objectives. We need to make sure that everybody is comfortably accommodated on the station and I do know that Russian ground specialists, in particular in Moscow, they have already begun working on that planning to make sure that it’s done correctly and to make sure that everybody has enough space for his privacy and to make sure that everybody has enough work to do. So I believe that would be the major task for the crew of six.

There is another Russian component for the station, the Mini Research Module 1, that is going to arrive on a shuttle flight that is due to arrive after you leave. But tell me about this new module: tell me about this new Russian component and, and what you have to do to get it, the station ready for its arrival to be installed to Zarya.

In order to make sure that this module could be successfully delivered and installed by the shuttle crew during the ULF4 flight, which is scheduled right now for the end of May, pretty much immediately after our departure and landing, we will perform several activities in preparation. For example, we have one extravehicular activity by the Russian crew members and we will be preparing our FGB module for receiving of the Mini Research Module. This module is unique because that will be the first Russian module to be delivered on board the space shuttle, because you do know that before that all Russian modules have been docked in auto mode without direct involvement of the station crew in order to make sure that the module is docked. So this will be our first experience when the Russian scientific module will be installed on the FGB module, on the nadir side, using the robotic arm of the space station, and it will be activated with the participation of shuttle astronauts and crew members of the long-term duration increment on board the ISS; that will be Expedition 24. Another job of this module is to insure additional docking port for receiving future vehicles, and also additional scientific and research capabilities for scientific experiments on board the station, in particular for the Russian science program, and by all means it will also be used for stowage and installation of various pieces of hardware and some other items. The station gets littered from time to time with all kinds of stuff and there’s a problem in stowing and keeping all this on board the station because the volume is small and everyone wants to have a little bit of that volume for himself or herself, and every agency wants to keep as much as possible of various hardware, scientific experiments, and things that are required to sustain crew life and work on board the station. Well, in any case, our crew will do our best and make sure the shuttle crew will experience no problems with working with this module.

During your time on board there are going to be lots of new modules added as the station nears completion and, as we mentioned before, it’s already operating now with a crew of six people. Oleg, tell me how you see human space exploration proceeding in the years to come, and how this space station is going to help prepare for that future.

I touched upon it when I was answering the previous question. Directly or indirectly, I was trying to say that the station in fact, is not the first, but certainly not the last step of our stairway to outer space, and all the experience and all the knowledge that station will give us while we run our spacewalks and experiments will allow us to make further steps. There is no way we should stop at where we are now, and by all means we have to strive forward into the future. And I’ve been working in space industry for quite some time now, and our interaction and our cooperation always was, is, and I’m sure always will be a perfect example of international cooperation in the area of achieving whatever goals the mankind want to achieve, political included, but scientific, industrial. You can see at any level on this program, and you see that we trained together, that we fly together, we rely on each other fully, we have no regard to any kind of national or political differences or ethnic differences. We cooperate with the space agencies of pretty much the entire globe. We live and work as one team, and I do believe this is one of the greatest achievements and most positive results of the project that we call the International Space Station.