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Preflight Interview: Alexander Skvortsov
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Expedition 23 Flight Engineer and Expedition 24 Commander Alexander Skvortsov (foreground) and Expedition 23/24 Flight Engineer Mikhail Kornienko participate 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

Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?

I think as many times as I hear, or as we hear this question, that’s how many different answers you will get. This has always been my dream, to fly, because my first desire was to fly in the air. My father is a military pilot and so it’s basically our family tradition because I became a military pilot and my brother is a military pilot, too, so that tells you something. My father was a member of the cosmonaut corps, not for too long because he had health issues, but still I heard many good things about it and the idea of space has always been very strongly present in our family, so when I saw this opportunity I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to become a cosmonaut because it’s very difficult to make it to the cosmonaut corps in Russia, mostly due to medical reasons; medical tests are very intensive. And my class was selected in 1997 specifically for the ISS, and again, the requirements were very strict for medical parameters. Again, not every Russian pilot has a chance to become a cosmonaut purely due to medical issues, to their health, not to mention other issues. So this has always been my dream that accompanied me throughout my life. I can’t say that it would be a huge disappointment if I wasn’t able to become a cosmonaut but I’m very happy that I am.

I’d like to learn a little bit more about your background. Tell me about where you were born and your hometown, where you grew up in Russia.

I have mentioned my father and the fact that he was a member of the cosmonaut corps for a short period of time, and so that brings me to where I was born and I was born not far from Star City, but my father was in the military so my family traveled a lot and we moved from city to city many times, so I can’t really identify with one single city in Russia. I can say that the city where I lived longest, was the city of Morshansk. I’m not sure if anybody has heard of this city but I guess that I can call that my hometown. I have the fondest memories of that town. It was a very quiet, provincial, Russian town with a beautiful river running through it, with beautiful nature.

And as a child then, growing up in many places around the country tell me also then where your education and leading to your military career and your professional career. Tell me some of the important steps in how that led you to become a member of the cosmonaut corps.

Again my education was pretty standard for any military pilot: high school, military school, serving in the military in different locations, and then continued military education—military academy, traditionally pilot school, and after that I was selected to be a cosmonaut, and now I’m also studying part time to obtain a law degree. I have tried to combine my legal studies with my crew training, and it’s interesting that my college finals coincide with the fact that I will have to fly in space so I’ll have to take a short break and I guess graduate the year after that. So I’m just saying that I want to obtain legal education as well.

For someone who’s chosen the job of cosmonaut, there is a part of that job, the flying in space part of the job, that we know can be dangerous. Alexander, what do you feel that we get, or that we learn, as a result of flying people in space that makes that risk one that’s worth taking?

That’s a great thing that you said, that it makes it worth it. My instructor who taught me how to fly had a good saying: if you fly every time as though you were a hero and as though you were doing something heroic, then you’re not ready for flight. And really it has a very deep meaning because before you can fly you have to become a professional and it’s a very tight selection process, and risk, of course, always is present but I would say that it’s present in many professions. If you look at the research that was done before, or exploration that was done before, that is being done now, that will happen in the future, for example, the discovery of America, the first journey of Columbus: that is something that is dangerous, that is thrilling but thrilling also because people who have this spirit that makes them strive for discoveries and for research and to go higher, to go deeper, that is something that allows us to do new things, achieve new goals, and this is what humanity is all about.

You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 23 and 24 crews. Please summarize what your main responsibilities will be, and what is the overall goal of your six-month flight?

Our flight program has been approved already and the responsibilities will probably be the same as those of the crews that were before me and those crew members who will fly after me. The tasks are maintaining the station, receiving and transferring the cargo that is delivered on cargo vehicles, and I think one of the most important tasks that our crew members will have is promoting scientific research in space, a human spaceflight program, because I believe that humanity as a whole should strive to achieve loftier goals and try to expand the horizons.

This will be your first trip to space. Tell me what is it that you are looking forward to about this opportunity to spend six months off of the planet.

As a cosmonaut, as a person who’s dreamed of flying in space for a long time, naturally I am eagerly looking forward and awaiting this moment when I will find myself in space, and also I think that this will be one of the greatest goals that I can ever achieve in my life, and this is the goal of my entire life. I recognize the high level of responsibility that will be placed on my shoulders and I will try to maintain the station to ensure that it preserves its great state that we have right now. I will be the station commander so I will try to coordinate the activities for my crew members so that we have as few issues as possible in space and also make sure that we create as few problems as possible for those who are left behind on the ground.

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Expedition 23 Flight Engineer and Expedition 24 Commander Alexander Skvortsov 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

You arrive on board a Soyuz to join Oleg Kotov, Soichi Noguchi and T.J. Creamer; that’s about a week after a shuttle visits and a few weeks before the next shuttle visits. How do you expect that you and Mikhail [Kornienko] and Tracy [Caldwell Dyson] will be spending those first few weeks on board?

That’s a very interesting question for me because Oleg Kotov and U.S. crew members are experienced crew members and so the first thing I will do when I arrive on board of the station is try to learn as much as possible from them, to, to borrow some of their experience that they’ve accumulated in the months of being on board of the ISS; learn things from them that they have seen, that they have experienced, that they have done, and, because it is impossible on the ground to understand fully what it’s going to be like working on board of the station. So first of all, I think we’ll start the process of learning from the experienced crew, and then when this crew returns to the ground we will continue working on board the station, we’ll continue this great work that they will begin, and we will try to preserve everything that’s been accumulated by them and maintain the station in a good state. I think that by that time we will be a very close crew, very tight crew, and we will be used to working with each other.

Now that the station assembly is nearing completion and with six crew members on board, there are more crew hours that are being devoted to science in the laboratory. Please tell me about some of the research that you will be involved in, particularly as it relates to finding out how human beings can live in the absence of gravity and then work again when they return to Earth.

We will have many experiments, and already there has been an agreement signed for conducting medical experiments by the Russian side with the Institute [for] Biomedical Problems, and we will have around 48 experiments total, and more specifically about 20-plus—I don’t remember the exact number—but over 20 medical experiments. So it was interesting for me to see what effect these medical experiments will have on me and, when I looked at the list of experiments I needed to see what the experiments are and what I can reasonably accomplish. First of all, of course, it will be studying the impact of weightlessness on a human body, because I think right now the stage for medical experiments we’re at is where we are trying to accumulate as much statistical data as possible to use this in our future long-duration flights, so that we can continue our flights, a flight to the moon, to Mars, and extend the duration of the flights. But mostly again these are medical experiments, but I think it’s also important to mention other experiments such as in the area of physics, chemistry, nanotechnologies…Preparation for performing scientific experiments takes quite a big chunk out of our overall training time, and the most important experiments are actually part of our post-training testing where we demonstrate our readiness to perform those experiments. When we go to take our final exams, oftentimes we don’t even know what experiment we will have to describe or talk about.

Scientific research will continue throughout your time on orbit but you will also be seeing several visiting vehicles. You have a shuttle visit, STS-132 or ULF4, that is due in the late spring with a new component for the Russian segment of the station, the Mini Research Module 1. Please tell me about that module, and tell me what new capabilities it will add to the International Space Station.

The main capability of course is an addition of another docking module. Also this module will allow us to perform EVAs to accomplish certain tasks, so I think that this shuttle mission is extremely important, ULF4 mission, because this module will be delivered on this flight by the shuttle crew, and it will be the shuttle crew that will be performing the grappling of the module, to use the shuttle arm and then the module will be handed over to the Canadarm[2] to be berthed to the station. I’m somewhat familiar with the module, I had an opportunity to look inside of it and I saw that it’s pretty large, so we increase the overall volume of the station as was planned that, which I think is very important because we have six crew members on board right now, and it’s like a regular house: the more people you have inside, the more waste you have, the more consumables you need to support the life and activity of this crew, of these people inside, and so this is a very significant contribution to the life support of the crew. It is important for us.

When Kotov, Noguchi and Creamer return to Earth after that shuttle flight, Expedition 24 will officially begin and you will become the commander of the space station. How does that change what you will be doing on a day-to-day basis while you are commander as opposed to flight engineer?

I’ve tried to answer this question earlier, or rather I did talk about it earlier. This is a huge responsibility when you realize that you’ve become the commander of something that was built before you got on board and it is your responsibility and your duty to preserve it for next crews; it’s a added responsibility. As a professional I believe, as a cosmonaut who trained for spaceflight for such a long time together with his crew members, I can say that we’re all ready for this flight, but you always feel this responsibility. You try to do the best you can, and make sure that your best is not something that is bad.

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Expedition 23 Flight Engineer and Expedition 24 Commander Alexander Skvortsov poses for a portrait. Photo credit: Roscosmos/Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center.

Your crew will be doing some work in the springtime before the first demonstration flight of the Dragon spacecraft, which is being developed by the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation under a NASA program called the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. Tell me a bit about this new program and about the work that you and your crewmates will have to be doing before and during this flight.

This is a new direction for us, the flight of the Dragon spacecraft. I do know that there are three flights scheduled for this spacecraft. The first flight will be the test flight with the duration of around five hours only, where they will perform the tests of different equipment including the control system, and I know that the second flight will be longer in duration and this will be the flight towards the station, so the spacecraft will fly up to the station, not too far from the station, to see how it can interact with the vehicle, how it can be controlled, etc., so I understand that there is a lot of work involved with that and mostly the U.S. side is responsible for this activity. The Russian side’s responsibility will most likely be ensuring the safety. I’d expect that Tracy, our U.S. crew member, will be mostly responsible for this work with the spacecraft. And the third flight of Dragon will be the docking flight which will be a full flight with the goal of docking to the station. Again for us, the Dragon spacecraft docking to the station is especially interesting because I would expect that it will bring presents for crew members, so, also it will give us an opportunity to get rid of extra stuff that we will have on board.

The station is now receiving cargo inside vehicles that are supplied by the Russians as well as by the Europeans and the Japanese and the U.S., perhaps now a commercial vehicle. What is the significance of adding that commercial spacecraft, at the same time as the American shuttle is being retired?

Again to expand on my previous answer, I personally believe that NASA’s not losing its presence in space. This will be the vehicle that will replace the shuttle for a certain period of time in terms of delivering vital equipment to the ISS so that we can continue our presence in space and our scientific research in space, and so the U.S. side will always be represented in the space program. As far as I understand, Dragon has a cargo-delivering capability, over two tons of cargo, so it’s a very good vehicle for delivering cargo which will be able to replace the shuttle.

You will be receiving three new crewmates on a Soyuz vehicle later on in your mission, Fyodor Yurchikhin and Doug Wheelock and Shannon Walker, and a few weeks after they arrive the schedule currently calls for a couple of spacewalks. Can you describe for us what’s in the plan and who will be doing these spacewalks once you are back up to a crew of six?

One spacewalk will be done by Fyodor Yurchikhin and Mikhail Kornienko, and I will be assisting them. I will remain inside the station and work with certain equipment to support their EVA, and they will be working on integrating hardware on the station outside, so we have one Russian spacewalk scheduled and my understanding is that, for the U.S., there will be EVAs based on ULF4 and also Doug Wheelock and Tracy will have their own EVAs. This will be separate from ULF4. And that’s pretty much it, that’s all, and the fact that we’ll have new crew members arriving, it’s exciting and everything, if everything goes well—as we say, knock on wood—Shannon Walker will be one of the crew members that will be on board of the station and I was part of her backup crew and so I’ve had an opportunity to work with her before and so I’ll only be excited to see another crew member on board that I’m very familiar with.

The plan calls for another space shuttle to visit during your time, STS-134 or the ULF6 mission, which delivers an external logistics carrier and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Can you tell me what you know about what these new components are and what they will add to the space station?

As far as I understand the goals and objectives of the mission, this will be the cooperation of the U.S., Japanese and European sides which is a scientific program with deep scientific research with the opportunity to use the area of astrophysics which is important for everyone. It would be unwise to divide our positions here. The Russian side participates in assisting and organizing the work on board of the ISS, so basically we will assist with the shuttle docking and undocking and most of other work will be done by the shuttle crew and U.S. crew members from the ISS crew. They have their own tasks. Right now we’ve separated our positions a little bit because we train a lot and we had to distribute science responsibilities among ourselves.

The plan calls for you and Mikhail and Tracy to return to Earth in your Soyuz just before the arrival of what we believe will be the last flight of the space shuttle. What are your thoughts about the space shuttle’s place in the history of human space exploration?

There’s an expression in the U.S. which is similar to the one we have in Russia—workhorse. Just a small workhorse that can accomplish any tasks and so the shuttle was the workhorse that was capable of accomplishing any task, any goal in space: station assembly, delivering new modules, MRM 1 delivery, for example. This is a real help, and, you know, sooner or later everything comes to an end and so I think that for those who flew in space, the shuttle is something that has a special significance because this is something that delivers presents, that delivers new equipment, that delivers new people on board, gives you new opportunities to talk to other people, and so I think that shuttles have done a lot. I became a cosmonaut right when the ISS program started. I never worked under the Mir program but I did see what the shuttle did for the ISS and how much it’s done to ensure its growth and assembly so I only have the warmest feelings towards the shuttle, and it’s really sad to see that the shuttle era is over, or coming to an end, and I know what a sad feeling it will be for everyone here at NASA to see the last shuttle flight. The people here at NASA are very nice and kind and warm and so I think that they will all be very sad. It will be a sad event.

Well, let’s look ahead to the future then. Tell me how you see, how do you believe that human exploration of space will advance in the years to come, and how is the International Space Station going to play a role in that future advancement?

The first contribution of the ISS, the most important contribution of the ISS, is that we demonstrate how well we can all work together. No one country can handle such a great task financially, especially, and so this is the first experience of such close cooperation of many countries in space. We have many countries that are united by the international space program. Each side now has its own tasks but also recognizes that you cannot stop at what you have achieved, and if we want to continue our presence in space we should look beyond the near Earth orbit. We should think about the moon, we should think about Mars; this is why we’re trying to gain as much experience as possible. This is why we perform our medical research in space, to see the effect of space on a human being, and this is the knowledge that will allow us as humanity, to take the next leap, and it will be productive only if we continue working closely together.