Q: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?
Preflight Interview: Oleg Skripochka
A: I haven’t thought about it. When I was growing up, when I was in school, I thought about different types of futures, imagine different types of futures for myself. My father was in the military so when I was very little I only wanted to be an officer. Then my plans changed, and then probably in the ninth grade, I was about 15 years old, I happened to hear from a classmate that we do have an organization that prepares future cosmonauts. I was interested in what it was, I found it and went there. I talked to one of the managers and eventually I was accepted, and so I was very excited about it. I took classes on cosmonautics, on the hardware and technologies that is used in space, also just a general philosophical issue such as why we’re doing this and where we want to go from here. We used underwater equipment to dive and would jump with the parachute. We did a lot of interesting activities and we also participated in competitions. This was the Korolev Reading competition where children would prepare projects that they would use to compete. This was done in Moscow based on the Bauman [Moscow State Technical] University, and that’s a well-known college in Russia, and so I participated in this competition and we brought several projects from our little team. Two of my friends and I created our own project and it was actually the reuse, vehicle, space vehicle, and so that was interesting for me because that was my opportunity to see this college. I walked down the halls, I looked at it, I liked it and I decided that’s where I want to go to college. I realize that it was very difficult to become a cosmonaut, you have a lot of requirements that you have to meet, you may or may not get lucky, but I decided that in any case if I do get to become a cosmonaut, that’s great, if not then I will still want to work in the space industry.
Tell me a little bit then about your educational and then your professional career. You brought us up to where you attended the Bauman university; tell me about your studies and how your professional career then led you to becoming a cosmonaut.
I graduated from the Bauman University in 1993 with a degree in mechanical engineering, specializing in the spacecraft, specifically building the spacecraft, and a few years after that I worked at RSC Energia—this is the design bureau that developed and still develops satellites and spacecraft starting back in the beginning of the space era and they continue working in it presently as well. So I worked several years in the design department, specifically in the department that develops and modifies the cargo vehicles. After a few years I decided I wanted to be a cosmonaut and I applied, I went to take my medical commission and I passed, and also my technical preparation, and so I became a candidate cosmonaut.
You mentioned a moment ago that you said your father was in the military; does that mean that you grew up living in many cities around the country?
Where is it that you consider to be your hometown?
I was born in the North Caucasus, Stavropol region, the city of Nevinnomysk; that’s a small town, but my family left it shortly after my birth. We lived in many cities but most of my life I spent in Ukraine, the city of Zaporozhye. Ukraine, I can say is my second native country. I have many relatives and friends there as well. Also, we were supposed to live for three years in Kamchatka, the Kamchatka Peninsula, which is the easternmost part of Russia. I remember that and the nature is very beautiful there, but the living conditions were pretty harsh, but again most of my life I spent in Ukraine. That’s where I graduated from the high school, that’s where I became interested in cosmonautics, and that’s where I traveled to Moscow from to get into college.
Into college, and as you’ve explained working for Energia and now as a cosmonaut. The flying in space part of your job as a cosmonaut is a part that we all know can be dangerous, so, Oleg, I’m interested, what is it that you believe that we get, what is it that we learn, or achieve, as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?
I could quote Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who said, “in the beginning of the last century, that humanity will not forever stay on Earth, that we will expand beyond Earth at first and then beyond solar system.” So I think that it’s just an inherent nature of a human being to expand, to research. Earth is the cradle of our civilization but it is possible right now it’s not the best time for us but I think it’s temporary and we will move forward and move beyond our planet and continue developing our civilization. So this is the future global plans. Now for the immediate future, I think it gives us new knowledge in technology and medicine and science, also new capabilities of learning more about our planet, about the processes that take place in the place where we live, what causes events, what we should do to preserve our planet just as favorable for survival as it is now.
You are a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 25 and 26 crews. Could you please summarize for me the goals of your six-month flight and tell me what your main responsibilities will be during this time.
I’m the flight engineer for both the Soyuz vehicle and the station, my first and foremost responsibility is the vehicle. To be able to spend six months on board of the ISS, you should be able to get to the ISS first; we will be testing the new modification of Soyuz, and that means additional responsibility. Also our responsibilities on board of the ISS, just like any for other crew member, my responsibilities will include to perform a number of medical experiments, perform three EVAs, assembling additional equipment. I’m sure I will be busy.
This is going to be your first flight in space. Can you tell me what it was like for you when you were informed that you had been selected to make your first spaceflight?
Naturally I was very happy initially; especially it became interesting when I learned that I will be launching on the updated vehicle and that will be the first launch for this type of vehicle so that creates additional responsibility and, of course, additional excitement.
Well, let’s talk a bit about the Soyuz vehicle. This is an updated version of the, the Soyuz TMA. What is it that is new about this Soyuz, and how do those changes improve its performance?
The main modification is that they have installed the new on-board computer, therefore we have new software. And the new motion control system for the vehicle, so there are more navigational capabilities, more control capabilities. The vehicle will continue supplying data throughout the entire flight: we will know where the vehicle’s located, etc. There are many things that I can tell you but the main idea here is that the motion control system of the vehicle has been changed.
Do these changes make it easier for the crew members to fly, or make it more robust in its performance?
I would say both. We have a new interface which makes it easier to perform the informational exchange with the computer. We will be receiving more complete information from the computer regarding the on-board systems, and that will make the process of controlling the vehicle and approaching the station more simple for the crew, I hope.
Let’s talk now about the space station itself. Can you give us a sense of what the space station that you’re going to arrive at is like—what sorts of modules and laboratories and other compartments are available now for this crew of six?
It may be difficult right now to count how many modules the station has because as you are well aware the International Space Station is an international project that involved the participation of 16 countries. The station consists of two segments, the U.S. segment and the Russian segment; the U.S. segment consists of JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) modules and ESA (European Space Agency) modules as well. There are two airlocks on the station, one is located on the U.S. segment and it is capable of supporting U.S. equipment, and then on the Russian segment we have an additional airlock that is capable of supporting Russian spacesuits. We also have several specialized laboratory modules, the Columbus module, the JAXA module which is Kibo lab on the U.S. segment, that’s also a laboratory module, two small research, or Mini Research Modules on the Russian segment, the Service Module which supports the Russian segment’s systems and experiments. So there are many capabilities on board of the ISS to perform scientific experiments. Specifically we are scheduled to perform three extravehicular activities from the Russian airlock using Russian spacesuits.
I want to get you to tell me about those in a second. Your description of the station as it exists today is a dramatically different space station than that that the Expedition 1 crew encountered when they arrived ten years ago. And you’ll be on board for the tenth anniversary of the arrival of the first crew to the International Space Station. Oleg, in your thinking, what is it that is the best thing that has happened, the best achievement of the station partnership, during this first ten years of the International Space Station program?
In addition to the technical support and the scientific support activities that I will be, that we have performed, we have gained a lot of experience in international cooperation because this is the first large-scale international project and that allowed us to gain a lot of experience in working together and I’m sure we can use that experience in the future as well. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, we are performing interesting experiments on board of the ISS including biomedical research, astrophysics, Earth observation experiments, etc.; I can keep going.
Let’s talk about that because now, with a crew of six, there is greater opportunity for utilization of the space station than there has been up until now. Many of the experiments are designed to find out how human beings can live and work in space, and for those you and your crewmates are the subjects of the experiment. Tell me about some of the different kinds of investigations that’ll be involved during your flight for which you will be the experiment subject.
We are scheduled to perform a number of experiments related to investigating how a human organism, human body, can survive and exist in spaceflight, specifically weightlessness, increased radiation level. And there is a number of experiments that researches the cardiovascular system and the vegetative system. We have technological experiments that investigate how a small group of people can work for an extended period of time together in an enclosed space. We’re also researching and studying how weightlessness affects the coordination skills and how we can restore our capabilities once we return to Earth.
’Cause certainly that’s a very important thing, you want to be able to function in Earth or when we reach another planet.
Of course, this is the work that not only researches how we work on board the ISS for a long time but also how we can survive the spaceflight to other planets as well.
There are a lot of other kinds of laboratory research that for which you and your crewmates will be the operators during your time on orbit. These are in other scientific disciplines. Tell me about some of those—what other kinds of science research will you be involved in during the six months that you’ll be spending on board the station?
There are several types of experiments. For example, for materials research, growing crystals and new materials with new properties; also growing protein molecules; experiments related to geophysics, researching and observing the Earth theme, radiation levels, and earthquakes—we are learning how we can predict earthquakes, the time and location. Also atmosphere observation, specifically we will be developing the special methodology to research the gases being formed in the atmosphere of the station. We are going to study the environment, the ecology, the man-created and natural disasters and their consequences, and again, it’s a long list, I can keep going.
That science work will—as you say, there’s a lot of it—will keep you busy; you also mentioned a couple of minutes ago that the current plan for your mission calls for spacewalks, three of them out of the Russian section of the station in the later part of this year, and you are going to be involved as a spacewalker in those. Tell me about who will be involved in the spacewalks and what work it is that you’ll be doing outside.
According to the current plan we will perform three spacewalks. Two EVAs are scheduled for Fyodor Yurchikhin myself and the third one will be performed by Dmitri Kondratyev and me so it looks like I will be participating in all three spacewalks, so again that means additional responsibility but that makes it that much more exciting. On the surface of the Russian segment, specifically outside the Service Module, we will need to remove some of the equipment that is working now and install new units, new hardware, specifically the experimental unit to the laser data exchange with the ground; geophysics hardware—Vsplesk experiment, specifically, that allows us to study the spikes in radiation that are observed immediately before the earthquakes. We will also need to launch a mini-satellite which was developed by our students. So these are the major activities that we have.
It’s important, I think, for us to realize that all of the science on the International Space Station is not done inside the station, that much of it is done on the outside.
That is correct. Often though, these are two interconnected. Some of the hardware is located inside of the station and the crew works with it, some of the units are outside and those are controlled in a remote manner by the crew. Also we expose certain materials to radiation to see how the spaceflight, or being in open space, changes their properties. Biorisk experiment is something that will allow us to identify the survivability of microorganisms in vacuum and with the high levels of radiation that we have in space.
Have you gotten any special guidance or instruction from your cosmonaut colleagues about performing a spacewalk and what it is like to float outside as your own little spaceship?
Of course, we had joint simulations and during training with Fyodor Yurchikhin and he is a crew member who is very experienced in performing spacewalks in spacesuits, so there are some tips and tricks that you can use to make your work more effective, no doubt about that.
The plan for your time on orbit also now calls for a couple of visits from space shuttles: current launch schedule has Discovery arriving at the station on STS-133 late in this year. Tell me, just in general, what is it that’s on the agenda for your time, or the joint mission, with the Discovery crew on 133.
You should probably ask this question to Scott Kelly because he is our commander. He works mostly on the U.S. segment. My understanding is that he’s an experienced crew member and it will be easy for us to work with him. Also it will be interesting that we will have two brothers working on orbit at the same time.
Yes, that is supposed to happen in the last space shuttle mission of this, that flies early next year. STS-134, the last scheduled flight means that you will be on board to see that historical activity occur. Oleg, what are your thoughts about the space shuttle’s place in the history of human spaceflight and its role in building the International Space Station.
The space shuttle program no doubt has been very important in building the ISS because practically all U.S. modules have been delivered in orbit by the shuttle and also the new Russian module as well, MRM1. It’s a very interesting program that demonstrated the capabilities, possibly both advantage and disadvantages of multi-use transportation system. This program has existed for almost 30 years and it has contributed greatly to the development of the space research.
Once the space shuttle stops flying, a major source of supplies to the station will end, but there are three other proven cargo ships that are supplying the station and each one of them is scheduled to make a visit during Expedition 26. Can you tell us a little bit about the capabilities of these unpiloted Russian, European and Japanese cargo ships, and what role the crew members have in their arrivals and, and in using them once they arrive?
HTV (H-II Transfer Vehicle) is the vehicle that has been developed by the Japanese space agency and its primary goal is to support the Japanese module. This is a new type of vehicle, the free-flyer vehicle, which means that it doesn’t dock to the station directly but rather it approaches the station and performs the station keeping close to it and then the operator on board of the ISS uses the robotic arm to mate it to the docking mechanism, docking port. My understanding is that this will be the responsibility of one of the U.S. crew members. ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) has been developed by the European Space Agency and this is the vehicle that will be docking to the Russian segment, and the process of approach and docking will be something that the Russian crew member will be responsible for in cooperation with the European Space Agency. I know that the ATV arrival that will take place when we are on board Alexander Kaleri and Paolo Nespoli will be responsible for it. This vehicle will supply the station with both air, oxygen, dry cargo, and water to fill our water tanks. We can also use this to perform attitude control for the station if necessary. Progress is the Russian vehicle. You can call it a workhorse for the Russian space program. Its great advantage is that it’s the vehicle that can dock to any docking port of the station with any station attitude, and in addition to the automatic mode it can also be controlled manually by the operator inside of the station. It can also supply the station with dry cargo, air, water, oxygen, and refill the station prop tanks with propellant. So that’s a short description of all three vehicles.
So with all of those, as well as the possible commercial vehicles that are being developed, there will be a lot of different ways to continue to bring supplies to the station and change the look of the operations there in the future. Oleg, I’m interested to get your thoughts about the future of the space station beyond just your time there: where would you think that human space exploration is headed in the next, 20 or 50 years or so, and what role do you think the International Space Station will play in getting us ready for that future?
Twenty or fifty years is a long time for us. I would say that in the next ten years the station will continue developing. We have certain plans to deliver newer research modules to the station. Possibly we will be testing new types of vehicles, and currently there are plans to use the ISS as a platform to prepare for flights to other planets in the near future.