Q: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?
Preflight Interview: Dmitry Kondratyev
A: For me, being a cosmonaut is the next step in my career because I am military pilot and I flew Russian planes and the next step, for me, it’s natural, to fly to space. It’s kind of, as I said, the next, natural step for me in my career.
Let me take you back to the beginning of the story and we’ll work back up to that, too. Starting with your hometown, tell me about your hometown and what it was like for you as you grew up.
I was born in Irkutsk, it’s a Siberian city nearby Lake Baikal, but my parents moved from that city to another one, to Novosibirsk, also one big Siberian city, when I was one month old, so I don’t remember much about my home, hometown, and I think I can say that Novosibirsk is also my hometown and I like that, those Siberian cities are in the middle of Russia, so they are great and big industrial cities.
You have a sense of how the people there in that place helped make you the person that you are?
Tell me about your education and your professional background that led you up to, that led you to being a cosmonaut.
I was graduated from the flight school, we call it flight school but it’s actually a military university, in Volgograd; it’s on the Volga River, it’s a big city, previously it was called Stalingrad, where the great battle during the World War II took place. And I graduated from that flight school in 1990 and in flight school and after the graduation of flight school I flew Russian fighters. I flew MiG-21, MiG-29 and I flew Su-27, so the most-known Russian fighters within the Russian air force.
What was it that made you want to be a pilot? You told me that you graduated from the military, the aviation school, but why did you want to be a pilot in the first place?
I like flying itself. I like general aviation and when I was a child, I dreamed about planes, about being a pilot, and I just like this job.
This is kind of my second nature.
Even, so even as a young boy…
The flying that you are getting ready to do now, the flying in space, like flying in airplanes, is a career that has some dangers to it; we know this. What is it, Dmitry, what is it that you feel that we get or we learn as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth the risk you take?
During a spaceflight we learn a lot about living in space and I think this is very important for people on the ground, on the Earth, so this is an opportunity for people to fly to space, also important to expand human presence to the other places.
You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 26 and 27 crews. Dmitry, could you summarize the overall goals of your six-month flight and tell me what your main responsibilities are going to be?
For the first part of the mission, I will be a flight engineer and I’ll be Soyuz commander. For the second part, which is, will be Expedition 27, I will be a space station commander. This is my first flight and I need to learn from my friends everything on the station and get ready to be a commander for the second time, for second part of the mission, so that’s quite challenging for me, but I have support from all of my crew members so they understand and I think there won’t be any problems.
Can you summarize what is the goal of the crews during the time that you are going to be in space?
The goal is to work on the station. We have a lot of scientific experiments on board, especially on the U.S. side, and also a lot of experiments are on the Russian side, and that’s the main goal, to provide all those experiments on the station, because the results of the experiments, will be needed by the scientists on the ground so, and it will help people, I mean, human being, beings, on our planet to learn to study nature, environment, everything.
You mentioned that this is your first spaceflight.
What was it like for you when you got the news that you had received the flight assignment?
I was very proud and glad [laughs], called my parents, let them know.
You’ve been training for this flight for some time now?
Yes. I was assigned to the Expedition 5 backup crew, it was almost eight years ago and I was assigned also for the Expedition 13 prime crew, but it was a political decision made by my management to put European astronaut Thomas Reiter in my seat, and he flew successfully, and I trained for about one year in the Expedition 13 crew but, seven months before the flight I was replaced with Thomas Reiter, and I was backup for Expedition 20 and 24 also, so I’ve been training for many years.
With all of that in mind, over that amount of time, what is it that you are now looking forward to the most about getting to finally fly in space?
Finally, yes, we will fly this December and it will be one of the most exciting moments in my life because spaceflight is something extraordinary and many people dream of it, and this dream comes true to me so it, I will be very glad and proud.
I’d like to get you to tell me a little bit about the place that you’re going. Describe the International Space Station and the various laboratories and modules that are present on orbit at this time.
Now the ISS is almost complete and there are many modules on, let’s say we have two parts of the station, U.S. part and the Russian part. On the Russian side we have now three modules, Service Module, MRM 1 and MRM 2, and СО, docking compartment [Pirs], so totally we have now four. But the main module is Service Module, the biggest one, on the Russian side, and also there are many other modules of our partners, American modules, European module and Japanese modules. Also one of the good things on the station is a robotic arm, which I like very much, to work with robotic arm, which is Canadian contribution to the station. And we have several, three nodes now, and Cupola, which was produced to help robotic arm operators work with the arm. It’s has big windows. The main module on the U.S. side also is a laboratory; it’s not biggest one—JEM is, Japanese [Experiment] Module is big—but lab has a lot of special scientific experiments, and it’s, also plays, it also plays the, a role as a command post for the U.S. side. I just flew this Friday from Europe, from Cologne, and I studied there the European module, Columbus, also very good, very big module with a lot of experiments, and last year I went to Japan and to learn Japanese module, its design, structure, experiments, everything about Japanese module. So now station is very big and it’s a huge station, and I’m looking forward to go to the station.
The station today is dramatically different than the one that Expedition 1 found…
…when they, they arrived ten years ago. What do you think has been the most important thing that has been done on the first ten years of the International Space Station’s life?
I think the most important thing is international cooperation because it was very hard and difficult to build the station, and we had to have the very good coordination and, between engineers, management, and, and now it’s been a success on station, has been built, and I think that this experience is unique and most important for the people and for the space community.
What would you like to see happen on the station in the next ten years?
I think I’d like to see more experiments on both sides, and I’d like to see the results of those experiments on the ground. That’s the most important thing for me, to see that what we do on the station helps people on the ground, so that’s the most important.
Let’s talk about that for a second. Now that there are six crew members on board the station and more laboratory modules, there is more opportunity for the crew members to do more science research on board the station. A lot of the science has to do with finding out how people can live and work in that environment. Let’s start by asking you to give me a couple of examples of some of the science that you’ll be involved in that is looking into how people can survive in that microgravity environment.
I’ll do many medical experiments and I’ll be a subject for those experiments on the Russian side, and those experiments are exactly as you said, to learn how people can live in the zero-g environment within the station because those modules, almost all the modules are relatively small and living with, within that small module’s challenging so it’s also important part of the experiments, how to live for many months in space, and it will help people to fly to Mars or beyond, that’s also very important part.
What sorts of things do you, you and your crewmates, do you have to do for these experiments?
We have been training for those experiments on the ground and, as you know, there are many scientific institutions that want to do some, as you say, scientific research on the station, and our goal is to help those scientists on the station to get good results that they expect, and we need to do all these experiments very carefully because it costs a lot, racks and scientific pieces of equipment, and we need to do it accurately.
Well, as you say, for the human life sciences experiments you and your crewmates will be the subjects…
…but for other research, you will be the operators of scientific experiments in a number of other disciplines.
Give me a sense of what some of those other kinds of experiments will be.
Except medical experiments there will be many material experiments, so there are many scientific equipment that will produce, make new materials in zero gravity. It also is a big part of our work on the station.
Along with the work that you and your crewmates will be doing inside the station in the laboratories, there are, in the current plan anyway, there are the possibility of spacewalks to be done in January, in February and another in May, all of these scheduled to take place outside the Russian segment of the space station. Tell me who will be going outside for these EVAs and what kind of work you’ll be doing and, in the, when you go outside.
For the first EVA there’ll be two Russian crew members, myself and my friend Oleg Skripochka; he’s going to fly next month in October to the station. And we’ll do spacewalk and install new equipment outside the station and bring some equipment back into the station to deliver scientific results to the ground on Soyuz vehicle or maybe on the shuttle. One more EVA is now scheduled in, maybe in May or in April, late April or May, but I haven’t been trained yet for this EVA and probably I’ll be trained this fall, later, later on.
We’ve seen recently that there can be EVAs crop up that you haven’t been trained for. You’ve received a lot of training in, in just skills rather than a particular job, right?
Yes. It’s called generic skills, so you need to be trained well because it happens sometimes that we need to do unscheduled EVA, maybe to repair the station or maybe to do something else.
Do you think that going outside to do a spacewalk is going to be enjoyable?
Actually it’s hard work because it’s a spacesuit, especially Russian spacesuit, Orlan, has extra pressure inside, and it’s really hard work doing EVA in this spacesuit, so I expect that it will be hard but necessary work.
You mentioned this a couple of minutes ago: the first part of your flight you will be flight engineer but you will become the commander of Expedition 27 when Scott Kelly, Sasha Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka return to Earth. How does your life in space change when you become, when you move from flight engineer to commander?
I think that commander’s job is, for the most important thing is the crew safety. I need to take care of my crewmates and to bring them safe home, and another part is to save the station and to provide station safety and, along with my colleagues, so it’s, also it’s a teamwork and, but everyone is, understands that it’s very important part and bring whatever he or she has to the team success.
One of the things that supposed to happen during that time, at least according to the current launch schedule, is that you and your crewmates will see a visit from the space shuttle. Tell me about what is the plan of operations, what are the joint operations, with the Endeavour crew during STS-134?
They’ll do two EVAs or three EVAs and our task is to support them during the, those EVAs, and they’ll spend on the station eight days and we need to facilitate the activity and just help them to accomplish their mission.
They’re delivering supplies and…
…the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Can you tell me a bit about what that, that science instrument does?
It’s a part of the United States scientific research, and usually we are trained for Russian experiments and the U.S. crew, crew members train for the U.S. experiments, and from my point I need to help my American friends to do that experiment.
STS-134 is the last scheduled flight of the space shuttle Endeavour and so you would be on board the space station to see its final departure. Dmitry, 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?
I’m a pilot and I like general aviation and flying, and shuttle is a great spacecraft and I think that he, it—or she; she…it’s a ship—she played a huge role during the ISS assembly and it was also a great success of American technology, and I think it will help to build, using this technology and using this experience from shuttle to build the, a new next generation vehicle that will be even greater than shuttle has been.
You know, even without the shuttle flying, there are three other proven cargo ships that are supplying the International Space Station and each of them are scheduled to make a delivery during your time on orbit. Tell me about the capabilities of these unmanned Russian, European and Japanese cargo ships and what role the crew members have in dealing with them as they arrive and depart.
Russian cargo vehicle Progress has a special remote control mode and if something happens differently or unscheduled or if, if this vehicle has problems, so crew can take control over the vehicle and dock, can dock this vehicle to the station in the manual mode. That’s a part of the Russian crew members, to provide this docking of Progress. ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] is designed differently and it’s also docks to the Russian docking port, to the Service Module, in the automatic mode, and the crew just monitors all the parameters of the ATV during the docking and can stop the docking if, if there are some problems. But HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], it’s also monitored by the crew and we have Paolo, and Cady Coleman and Paolo Nespoli and they are both the SSRMS [space station remote manipulator system] robotic arm operators. They’ll catch the HTV, Japanese cargo vehicle, and dock it to the U.S. side, the U.S. common berthing mechanism, using the robotic arm, which is very difficult task but now they’ve been training to do that.
There’s even another cargo ship that’s being developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program that has got some flights that may be coming up during your time on board. Describe what goes on with these flights of the Dragon spacecraft.
We’ll observe some test flights of this vehicle and it will be approaching the station, fly around, and will fly back to the Earth just to prove the capability of the commercially-built spacecraft. It will also be its own kind of a new era in spaceflights when we have the commercial vehicles flying to the station to supply the station, and to probably there’ll be a manned version of this vehicle which will be flying to the station to bring crew to the station, bring the crew back home safe.
So you are looking forward to being there for the opening of a new era in space, but you will also be there for acknowledging some past highlights in space ’cause near the end of your flight there are some significant anniversaries. April 12th is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight, as well as the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the space shuttle. What are your thoughts about those milestones in human spaceflight?
First flight of Yuri Gagarin just opened the space era, and shuttle flight was also a significant event at that time, and they both contribute a lot to the space, manned human flights, and Yuri Gagarin…his first flight was very important for people, and now people across the world just remember his flight and they understand the importance of the spaceflights to other planets to the station, to the moon, to Mars, and the spaceflights will play more important role in future because there is no choice for human, human beings, for people to fly to space.
I wanted to ask you that, that, noting that things have changed a lot in 50 years since Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard flew, where do you think human spaceflight will be 50 years in the future, and how is the International Space Station going to contribute to that?
I think in 50 years people will be on almost every planet in our solar system and the space station can play, and I think it will be, will, will play a role like, as if a platform to launch research vehicles to other planets. I think that this also, this part of the station and this role for the station will be used, I hope soon.