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Preflight Interview: Andrey Borisenko
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Russian cosmonaut Andrey Borisenko, Expedition 27 flight engineer and Expedition 28 commander, 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: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?

A: This question is both simple and difficult.  This is what I dreamt of when I was kid.  As a child I liked to read; television was not as popular and as widely spread as it is now, and I wanted to read interesting things.  I read lots of science fiction books not fantasy but science fiction.  I read lots of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, [Alexander] Belyayev, the Strugatsky brothers and other non science fiction writers that wrote about space.  These books really captivated me to the point that I became interested in cosmonautics the cosmonautics we had at that point of time.  At a certain time I understood that this was something I wanted to deal with.  Even when in school I already knew who I was going to become. When I was 15 years old I went to a cosmonautics club for juniors in my home city of St. Petersburg.  That’s where I met kids just like me who wanted to become pilots or cosmonauts, and that’s where I learned a lot about aviation, cosmonautics, astronomy the more I learned the more I became confident that this was something I wanted to dedicate my life to. When I was entering the institute I knew what profession I wanted to have, where I wanted to work, and I knew that I wanted to become a cosmonaut.

I’d like to get you to tell me a little bit about how you got there by asking you to tell me about St. Petersburg.  Tell me about your hometown and what it was like for you growing up there.

My native city, St. Petersburg, is a beautiful, splendid city.  It’s old it was founded in 1703 by Russian Czar Peter.  It was founded as the capital of the Russian Empire.  That’s why the layout of the city were capital-like.  Famous architectures lived there and created their works there.  When you take a stroll in St. Petersburg you feel the history on every step, and when you live in such a city, I think one starts feeling responsible not only for the city but also for his or her country and one starts wishing to dedicate one’s life to huge things which can change not only your life but also that of other people.  Our city was a native city for good scientists, good teachers, it was always renowned for the education provided, and that’s why I got a very good education in the field I wanted to be in.

Well, let’s pick up the story there.  Tell me about your education and how that led you into your professional career, how that led you to be selected as a cosmonaut?

I graduated from the Military and Mechanical Institute in Leningrad.  When I was entering the institute the very same year Krikalev was graduating from it; Sergei Krikalev, the very famous Russian cosmonaut. Even before that, the same institute released Georgi Grechko into the world, and other cosmonauts which never made it to space, unfortunately. The way it happened was that all those who became cosmonauts, they all graduated from our institute in Leningrad, St. Petersburg cosmonauts who come from St. Petersburg in joke we say that our institute was a space institute.  My specialty was dynamics and control of spacecraft and I dealt with rockets, big rockets, small rockets, rockets for different purposes at the institute I understood that I wanted to be busy with space.  I took part in student scientific work in order to get the knowledge I needed.  After the institute I spent several years working at a scientific institute, two years after that I became hired by the Russian space rocket corporation Energia.  When I started working there, I already knew that I wanted to become a cosmonaut; I knew it very well.  I asked if I could work at Mission Control Center in Moscow.  Mission Control Center saw me become a specialist in motion and control systems.  I participated in controlling the Mir space station and I was lucky to control the movements of many other space vehicles.  I also took part in Sea Launch.  Several, uh, few launches that control was, saw me participate in them.  It was the end of the Mir space station existence I was offered a shift flight director position.  I gladly accepted this offer because I knew what kind of job it was, I knew it was very interesting, and as a shift flight director I participated in controlling the Mir space station.  Life ended out that way I had to take part during the very last days of the Mir space station’s existence: it was my shift, and I was the one to provide the space station’s descent from orbit.  We have two shift flight directors on the Mir station shift.  One of those was dealing with the station itself and the other shift flight director was dealing with the Progress cargo vehicle that was docked to the station.  The very burn which is executed in order to de-orbit, and was executed with the help of the Progress vehicle, was direct controlled by the other shift flight director.  I was responsible for the workings of the station, for its attitude and for all the activities which were done on board the station.

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Russian cosmonaut Andrey Borisenko, Expedition 27 flight engineer and Expedition 28 commander, responds to a question from a reporter during an Expedition 27/28 preflight press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

So you were there the day that it was deorbited?

Yes, I was there at Mission Control Center and I had that huge task to close the very last communication session and to announce that the station was deorbited at the targeted spot of the Pacific Ocean.  I remember there were lots of specialists at Mission Control Center they were participating in the whole activity.  They had tears in their eyes.  It was a difficult moment but a rather solemn one because the station was quite old by then and we didn’t really see any other way out other than deorbited, and I hope we performed our task as we should have.  After that I became a shift flight director for the Russian segment of the International Space Station by then I was already taking part in the medical examination so that I could become a cosmonaut, our medical specialists gave me a go in 2003 I’m now in the Russian cosmonaut corps.

And now you are preparing for your first spaceflight, and of course the flying in space part of this chosen career of yours is one that has its dangers, so I wonder, Andrey, what is it that you feel that we get, or what do we learn from flying people in space that makes it worth taking the risk that you’re preparing to take?

This question is something that gives rise to many discussions among specialists and there are certain people, certain specialists, who believe that automatic machines can perform all the functions in space but I am of the other group who believe that we shouldn’t counter-oppose automatic machines and human beings.  Each space automatic device is very expensive it’s a very expensive system, a very complex one.  If it fails, this will cost the state and the country that sends this device up there.  If a human being was on board this device, then most likely this emergency situation will be contracted on.  No mechanism, no automatic device, doesn’t have those opportunities that a human being has.  One considered a human being is probably one of the most universal systems of the spacecraft that allows this spacecraft to function and to perform its tasks.  Automatic devices ease a human being’s life; such machines perform lots of routine operations, but in order to fine tune these automatic devices and moreover to fix them is something a human being can do.  I can give everybody an example: a Hubble [Space Telescope] flight.  Right after launch it turned out that the Hubble could not perform its tasks and could not do all those operations that were expected, so the crew had to go to the Hubble. They had to do a spacewalk and they had to fix it so that it could function as well.  So unless a human being had been there, then humankind would be left without all that knowledge base that we did receive due to the Hubble’s operations throughout these years.  This is a small example because the history of cosmonautics, the history of space research, showed that spacecraft are supposed to work diligently did not work as expected: they would fail, they would break and there was no way to correct those mistakes decently.  If a human being had access to these spacecraft, most of them would have been fixed and could have continued their operations and their duties then we probably would have known much more about our, surrounding world than we do now.

You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 27 and 28 crews.  Andrey, give me a summary of the goals of your six-month flight and tell me what your main responsibilities will be on board?

The goals of our six-month stay over there are closely linked to the goals of the operations of the International Space Station, and our program is only part of the overall scientific program that has been conducted is being conducted and, I hope, will be conducted for a very long time on the ISS.

What was it like for you when you were informed that you had been assigned to your first spaceflight?

I felt overjoyed that finally I had this opportunity to fly into space.  I felt great responsibility as well, and this responsibility fell out of the blue for me even though I have been preparing for it for all my life. I also felt that I had very little to get well prepared for this spaceflight, even though this had been announced one year and a half prior to the flight one year and a half became very short at once.

What are you most looking forward to about getting to spend six months off of the planet?

I expect that I will be able to carry out over the program that has been planned for me, and I expect that I will be working in such manner that I will be able to carry out additional tasks which haven’t yet been planned but will always be found on board the station.  I also expect that I will be able to enjoy the spectacular views of space and Earth from the station, given that now a day’s configuration of the station has a very beautiful module which is called Cupola.

Let me get you to tell me about this place that you’re going to live.  Describe the International Space Station and the various laboratories and other modules that are there that you’re going to be living in for half a year.

The main location where I will be living is the Russian segment.  These are two big modules and three modules which are not as big.  I will be spending nights and passing most of my time in the Service Module [Zvezda] called SM of the Russian segment, but I’m sure that there will also be jobs on the U.S. segment and this can be linked to the fact that our program is an international program so I’ll have some jobs to do on the U.S. segment as well.  I know that our U.S. colleagues will be spending some time on the Russian segment.  As far as our spare time, we’ll try to spend time so that we can maintain and upgrade our relationship and try to communicate more with each other.

And as you mentioned, more time in the Cupola to see the Earth as you fly over it?

Those views that I will be able to see from the Cupola module will awake an urge to call some of my crew members and share my emotions with them—hey Ron [Garan]; I send beautiful picture.

Well, now you’re going to be on board a space station that has six crew members and it has a number of laboratory modules now so there’s the opportunity for more science work to be done.  A lot of the experiments are designed to find out how human bodies survive and how they can work in space, and I wanted to ask you to tell me about some of the experiment work that you will be involved with that is part of this research into how human beings can live in this environment.

The number of scientific experiments is indeed great.  Over 40 experiments are being planned to be carried out only on the Russian segment, and all of these experiments are connected not only with examining and researching into human behavior and zero g, but also looking into how materials that the space station is made of will behave, how new systems, future systems of future space stations and future interplanetary vehicles, will function.  This work will be very intense and I hope that most of our time will be spent on scientific experiments, scientific work, but, of course, the works of the space station itself will also take significant amount of time.

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Russian cosmonaut Andrey Borisenko, Expedition 27 flight engineer and Expedition 28 commander, participates in an advanced cardiac life support 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

In terms of the human experiments what kinds of things do you and your crewmates have to actually do to gather data for this research?

I believe that one of the most important experiments related to how human body behaves is our flight how we are going to feel during this spaceflight how we’ll be performing our physical exercises how we’ll be maintaining our health, and this will show to our scientists how safe spaceflights are for everybody who lives on Earth, and this will possibly open a gateway to space to a bigger number of people who now may be thinking that their health is not good enough to visit the space station.  Moreover, that we can see that since the start of the spaceflights, since 1961, the requirements for such medical parameters of space candidates, spaceflight candidates, have been greatly reduced, and this is the way it should be because space is not something for selected individuals, but so that every human being who wants to go there should have this opportunity.

You mentioned a moment ago that there are other kinds of science research that you and your crew members will be doing apart from research on the physical body.  Tell me about some of the other kinds of science that you will be involved with during your time on orbit.

Experiments which will be conducted in the interest of entire humankind are not only related to the behavior of our bodies in space, but they are also connected with observing Earth surface, monitoring the ecological situation on the surface, monitoring nature disasters that unfortunately do take place on Earth, especially given the fact that in the past few years a number of such natural disasters that cause sufferings of hundreds and thousands and millions of people, they do increase in numbers.  We’ll spend a significant amount of time trying to evaluate the view of these natural disasters from space, and we’ll be trying to understand what type of information will help our scientists and government structures to respond to these natural disasters.

When you are not working on science experiments, crew members are taking care of the space station itself and preparing it for its continued life on orbit.  Give us a sense of the other sorts of work that an International Space Station crew member must do in terms of station maintenance on a regular weekly or monthly basis.

We do it every day starting early morning right after we awake.  The first thing we do is look at what has been occurring at night.  You see, a space station is a very complex mechanism and its much more complex than say cars that we use every day.  Even though you wake up in the morning and you drive to work, when you get into your car what do you do?  You check how the car has passed the night, whether you have a flat tire or maybe there is some gas on the ground or oil is out, and that’s what we do on board the station.  We check the parameters of our environment, whether we have enough oxygen on board the station or maybe CO2 [carbon dioxide] has exceeded permissible levels; maybe it’s too humid; we check whether equipment that produces oxygen is working properly, whether we are warm, or maybe a communication configuration has gone wrong, maybe the ground doesn’t hear us, and we also check whether guiding computers work fine as well, that monitor the workings of all the systems aboard the station.

So there’s maintenance work to be done all the time.

Yes, it all depends on the number of those operations, activities that we do in order to maintain the workings of the station, as do you.  The minimum amount, you can say that once they take a look at your car, in the morning if you take a look whether they have a flat tire or you have enough gas in the tank, and once every three or four months you go to the technical station and you perform an examination of the entire vehicle.  This is something we do on board the station every day.  There are some operations that we do once a week, or some things that we do once a month, and there are certain things that we do when something has broken.

One of the first things that you will have to do once you arrive at the station is to greet the arrival of space shuttle Endeavour and its crew who are delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer as well as other supplies and other hardware to the station.  Tell me about what is in the plan for this visit by a space shuttle crew.

Well, the work with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is something that our U.S. colleagues will be busy with.  We don’t really deal directly with the spectrometer, but I think that our assistance will be of help when transferring the spectrometer on board the station and installing it on its due place.

What other sorts of things will you and your crew be doing during the time that STS-134 is there?

No matter how many people are on board the station, say three people, six people, or ten people during the shuttle mission, every crew member has his or her own timeline and his or her own activity.  Difficult to say right now what we’ll be busy with because it is the ground that schedules and plans for us and the ground won’t let us lose even a single minute of our work time.  It will be pretty much occupied all the time.  Our time is priceless and we cannot spend taxpayer’s money just for nothing.  Cosmonauts need to work.

After Endeavour leaves three of your crewmates will also be leaving: Dmitry Kondratyev, Paolo Nespoli, Cady Coleman will go home, and when that happens you will become the commander of the station’s Expedition 28.  How does that change life for you on board to move from being flight engineer to commanding the station?

I hope there won’t be any major changes; in fact, any changes at all, and I am saying this because on board the station, as I have mentioned, it is the ground that plans all the operations, all the activities. And the main functions of a commander, a commander steps in when you have an emergency, a serious situation on board the station.  While being trained here on the ground for these emergencies, we’re having different scenarios, say the depressurization or a fire case or atmosphere pollution or detoxification, and during these simulations, these training activities, everybody understands what they’re supposed to do, and it is not the commander who says what everybody should be doing, but he’s more like monitoring the situation, he’s giving hints, and he’s suggesting that somebody do something, if they have forgotten something, if there are some difficulties when performing certain tasks  as far as our daily activities are concerned, of course the commander is the one responsible for psychological comfort of everybody who’s on board the station, but actually we spend so much time together when training in different situations also—say winter survival, real extreme things, or sea survival—that we know each other pretty well.  We know particularities of each other’s characters, and I don’t expect any problems whatsoever in our crew.  I hope that my functions as a commander would be more like a reminder to the crew that now it’s time for us to gather in the central post, say in the SM module, and have lunch or have breakfast.

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Russian cosmonaut Andrey Borisenko, Expedition 27 flight engineer and Expedition 28 commander, is pictured during a routine operations 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

One thing that will be new for the space station that your crew will see will be a new cargo ship that is being developed under a NASA program, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.  That Dragon spacecraft has another test flight coming up during Expedition 28.  What will you and your crew members be doing in conjunction with that flyby of the station later this year?

We’ll be observing the vehicle.  We’ll be looking at its behavior and monitoring the situation in general so that there are no emergent situations.  But if such a situation occurs, or say if the vehicle will come too close to the station or not at the time when it should be approaching the station, we will report it to the ground and if the ground cannot do anything in case, or this emergency situation happens, we have certain procedures, emergency procedures, that we should follow in order to prevent the development of such a dangerous situation.  This is a very interesting experiment because when new equipment, new hardware, new vehicle comes up, this is interesting both from the engineer standpoint and just human being standpoint, just interesting.

The current plan for your time on orbit calls for a couple of spacewalks.  One will be out of the U.S. side of the station and one will be a Russian segment spacewalk.  For the Russian spacewalk, what is your role going to be on the team and what will be the plan for the work outside during this EVA?

Unfortunately we do not have training so that we can support a U.S. EVA, spacewalk. We only get ready for Russian spacewalks, and I’m talking about Russian cosmonauts.  The U.S. spacewalk will be performed by U.S. crew members, but should an emergency happen during a U.S. EVA spacewalk we’ll try to respond to the situation and provide any kind of assistance in order to get out of this dangerous situation.  And this is something we simulate here at Johnson Space Center.

For the Russian spacewalk then, what will you be doing and tell me about what the plan is for the cosmonauts who will be making that EVA?

Alexander [Samokutyaev] and I are both preparing for this spacewalk.  We undergo the necessary training and we do the necessary simulations.  It will be decided later which of us will be doing the spacewalk, but in any case we’ll both be ready.  As far as the spacewalk program, this is new scientific equipment on the outside of the station, and this is both for scientific purposes and for future EVA operations on the Russian segment, in order to ease those operations.

And the U.S. spacewalk that’s planned is to occur during the visit of the shuttle mission STS-135 when Ron Garan and Mike Fossum will go outside.  Apart from that spacewalk, what are the other activities that are planned during this visit of shuttle Atlantis and its crew to your space station?

We know only the general plan for our flight, and as far as specific activities go, the specific things that we are supposed to do at certain days, at certain times, we’re unaware of this.  And I believe even the ground isn’t aware of this yet.

Well, we are aware that STS-135 will be the last flight of the space shuttle program.  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 rocket engineer, rocket scientist, and when at the institute I was trying to find some information on the space shuttle and I was getting ready to, this topic, and even then it was clear that even though this is a very technically-complex system, this system is a huge scientific experiment in order to create spaceships of a new type that can return safely to the ground after a spaceflight.  It goes without saying that this U.S. program, and even the Soviet program of the Buran vehicle, provided responses, answers to a great number of questions that came up when creating this type of spaceships. I think that at the present stage of the development of technology and, rockets and space, such system as that of Buran or of the space shuttle, they’re very costly in terms of their operations and workings, and that’s why we’ll have to use other means in order to deliver crews and different types of space cargo in orbit. I do believe that the future lies with such systems as the space shuttle and the Buran vehicle.  Ten years may pass, maybe even 20, and our technologies will allow us to create such spacecraft in a short amount of time and much cheaper, and then, of course, the new shuttles and new Burans will be in space.

There’s another, there are other historic events that will take place during your mission.  Near the beginning of your flight, of course, the April 12th anniversary of the, 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight, as well as the third, that being the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight.  What are your thoughts about these milestones of spaceflight, and about you getting to be in space when they take place?

I’m happy that I have this present to be in space during the year and during the time when the 12th of April is going to happen.  When I was a kid wishing to become a cosmonaut, it would never occur to me that I would have this chance, this opportunity, and I feel a great responsibility.  Great responsibility because I understand that our crew will be a symbol, an emblem of human success in space, and everybody will monitor what we do up there very closely, probably every person who is interested in spaceflights.  And we’ll have to show great work, right results, and also show that the time which has elapsed since the very first flight of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard hasn’t gone in vain, that we’ve learned something in space.

Another thing that is new, we have recently seen the news that the Roscosmos has announced that the Soyuz vehicle in which you are going to fly will be named for Yuri Gagarin.  That’s a special thing that you will get to take a part in.

It is very unusual because, yes, indeed, proper name is not something which has been in use for the Soyuz vehicles.  This is one more responsibility that we’ll be having, perform our duties such so that everything goes well, and fully perform all the tasks that we’ll be tasked with.

Things have, in spaceflight, have changed quite a bit from the flights of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard 50 years ago to the International Space Station that you’re going to be flying on today.  Andrey, where do you think that we will be in human space exploration 50 years into the future, and how will the International Space Station contribute to getting us ready for that future?

I think that the International Space Station not only can help, it does help.  It does help prepare us to what we will have 50 years from now.  Now a day the space station is the best field for working scientific experiments.  There is nothing we can think of which would be better, so if space station were not there we’d have to think it up. I strongly hope that 50 years from now a human being will step on the Red Planet, on Mars, and I want to believe we will come back to the moon.  I want to believe as well that a human being will be able to step on an asteroid, and probably will personally reach the satellites of Jupiter.  This may be something of nonsense, fiction, science fiction, ’cause there are many more problems on Earth other than spaceflights, but after the end of the Second World War in 1945 and all of Europe was destroyed, nobody would think that 15 years from that time human beings would be in space, and this is probably even more of science fiction than our plans 50 years from now.