Q: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?
Preflight Interview: Alexander Samokutyaev
A: When I was in kindergarten, our management there of the kindergarten gave us a present and it was a rocket, of three or four meters, but it resembled the rocket that Yuri Gagarin was launched on into space. Of course, this was a toy and I was about four or five years old. When I looked at that rocket, I understood that it was mine and I protected that vehicle, I protected that rocket, and everybody called me “Gagarin,” and that was the moment when I understood that I wanted to become a cosmonaut. I also understood that it was going to be difficult and it took me many, many years to accomplish my goal. But looking back and looking at myself today, I see that I’ve almost accomplished it. I have just a few steps that remain in order to accomplish my goal.
I’d like to ask you to help fill in some of the details of that story. Start by telling me about your hometown in Russia and what it was like for you to grow up in that environment.
I was born in Russia and at that time it was the Soviet Union. I was born in Penza, the city of Penza, and it’s in the center of Povolzhye; it is not too far away from the mighty Volga River. I grew up in a regular Soviet family: my father was in the military and my mother was a teacher of physics and mathematics, and I think she was one of the important people who taught me how to love the sciences. In my childhood I did a lot of sports, and hockey is one of my favorite sports. I went to the professional hockey academy, but also I never forgot my goal. I always participated in, avior, different groups and studied flights and different other activities. Then I started to prepare to enter a university, a flight school. I finished the high school in my hometown and then I entered Chernigov flight school that I completed, and after having done that I continued my development. I became a lieutenant and then a pilot. I became a pilot, a member of the Russian aviation forces, and that was one of the most important events of my life. Unfortunately it coincided with a not very pleasant development of our country: as you know, the Soviet Union collapsed at that time, but the flight school was then located in the Ukraine and now it is a separate country. But I also was able to extract some positive events from that as well. I found my wife there and I became a family member, I am now a husband, and my wife is from Chernigov, and we decided to move to the far east of Russia where I was in the military. Right after that I entered the flight school of Moscow [Gagarin Air Force Academy] and after having completed my studies there I was offered the opportunity to become a cosmonaut. I was, of course, very excited but a little worried. We had to conduct a lot of trainings, our personality trainings, physical trainings, I spent a lot of forces and energy, but I did it successfully and from 2003 I began training in the Star City, at first I became a candidate and then in the year 2005 I was named a Roscosmos cosmonaut, and that’s where I am until today. And this is a little bit of my personal history.
What made you choose to pursue your career in the air force instead of as a hockey player?
Hockey is mostly a hobby; I do enjoy the sport, I like it a lot, and one of the most important hockey games took place between the Soviet Union team and Canada. Of course, everybody watched those on TV and we followed hockey, our hockey players in Penza, in the city of Penza. Many famous hockey players lived there. There were different private schools where a lot of young boys would go and learn hockey. My father, as well, liked hockey; he liked skiing as well, and I don’t remember when but he told me to start ice skating and he just taught me how to do that. I was very young at that time but I remember his stories that he just decided to teach me how to ice skate, and hockey, until the present day, is one of my favorite sports, one of my favorite hobbies. Unfortunately right now before we launch we are very busy, we are preparing for that; I do not have enough time for hockey. And one addition: Yuri Gagarin, if you look back, he liked hockey a lot as well, and when he became a cosmonaut he still looked back and looked at this hobby as his favorite, but our doctors look at hockey as very dangerous sport for us because you can be injured, and it would be very expensive to treat that injury if a cosmonaut is injured during a training or a hockey match.
So you’ve gone from a kindergarten student who was called Gagarin by his friends to a cosmonaut now who is about to command the spaceship named for Gagarin. The actual flying in space, the, the final steps in, in becoming a cosmonaut as you’ve described before, is a part of the, your chosen profession which can be dangerous. So I wonder, Alexander, what is it that you feel that we as a people learn, what do we achieve, from flying people in space that makes it worth taking the risk that you do?
You know very well that humankind continues its development. Every human being, when he or she is born, we start our development, and we are just a little piece of that humankind that is trying to achieve new heights for our race. Perhaps sometime in the future we will be able to find some other human beings, some other life, out there who is sharing this space with us. Perhaps it will happen during our lifetime.
You are a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 27 and 28 crews. Alexander, please give me a summary of the goals of your six-month flight and tell me what your main responsibilities will be on this mission.
Well, first of all I think I need to begin with the following. This will be my first spaceflight as a member of a main crew. The goals that I will have, first of all, will be to start preparing for the launch and then to come back to Earth. I will be the commander of the Soyuz, and essentially that Soyuz vehicle will be docked to the International Space Station and I will be the one responsible for that Soyuz, as well as Flight Engineer 1. Of course we will have a lot of training to prepare when we are ready to land, on how to land and to make sure that we return to Earth healthy. This is one of my goals. Again, I have many other goals: I will have to conduct a lot of activities aboard the International Space Station in addition to the maintenance activities that all the crew will have to perform; I will have to be one conducting many sciences, and I think this is the direction we’ll be moving in.
You mentioned that this will be your first flight. What was it like for you when you were informed that you had been selected to fly this mission?
Of course, I was very excited, and I believe I was here on one of the trainings; I was a member of a backup crew of the Expedition 23. As you know, that expedition performed very well and came back to Earth and perhaps now is getting ready to fly again in a few years perhaps, and I was very excited when I learned about this. I was training somewhere here on one of the training equipment, and then a little later this information became official. It was very exciting for me because it took many years to become a member of that crew, and I’m very happy that I was presented with this opportunity.
What are you most looking forward to about this opportunity to spend six months off of the planet?
First of all, to say that I will be able to realize my goals, and second of all, this is such a pleasant experience and I’m very proud to be able to do that, to launch into space during the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight. I have to say that the Russian cosmonautics as well as the international cosmonautics have been developed and have been developing very well, and I’m proud to be able to do that.
Let’s talk about the place that you’re going to be going. Tell me about the International Space Station and describe the different laboratories and other modules that are there where you’re going to be living for six months.
I think everyone should know that there are many international partners who cooperate in developing and working on the International Space Station. This is a very expensive craft. Of course, we are all responsible for maintaining it, for making sure it becomes and remains intact and in good order. Of course, this will be very interesting to be aboard the station. We’ll have to be one family and we’ll have to work in many different modules, on the U.S. segment as well as on the international partners’ segments. For me, I know that I will spend most of my time on the Russian segment, in the SM [Service Module; Zvezda] and to do some sciences there.
Well, with six crew members on board the station now, there is more of an opportunity for more science to be done. A lot of the science is designed to find out how the human body responds to being in space for a long period of time. Tell me about some of the human life sciences experiments that are going to be conducted during your increment and how you will be involved in that.
At the present time, if we are to talk about sciences, we did look at those, at the Russian space base on the ground here. There are 40, 45 sciences we need to conduct and many of them will be done with the control from the ground. Some of those sciences will be conducted with astronaut’s and cosmonaut’s participation, and of course one of the main experiences will be to conduct the Earth surface microgravity as well as to study how microgravity affects a human body and other animals in space. This is, oh, very, very interesting and, of course, if we think about microgravity conditions, those sciences will be very interesting and the results we’ll be able to receive will help the humankind on the ground.
Give me an example of the kinds of things that you will actually be doing on the station to help, to generate this science, this scientific information.
We have science equipment aboard the International Space Station. Usually this is video TV equipment, photo equipment, spectrometers with the help of which we’ll be able to conduct different geophysical processes, they occur on the ground, on our planet. If we talk about medical experiments, medical sciences, I would like to say that we will be trying to analyze and conduct physical activities of humans in the space. In addition, sciences will allow us to understand human possibilities in terms of how fast and how accurately we are able to make the right conclusions in this or that situation.
Well, when you’re not busy working on science experiments, crew members are also busy taking care of the space station and preparing it for extending its life into the future. Give us a sense of the other sorts of work that space station crew members have to do during a typical day on orbit.
All days are quite similar when you’re on orbit, but we have a very strict schedule and we follow it every day. We have so-called Form 24 and we live in accordance with that form. Usually, first we’ll wake up, and then we conduct morning procedures as we do here on the ground. Then we talk to the Mission Control Centers in Houston and in Moscow. We discuss different issues and different activities that we need to perform on that particular day, and that in accordance with the schedule, a crew member will proceed with conducting the prescribed activities in the Form 24. Of course, we also have time to eat, we have our personal time, and, of course, we need to remember that every day we need to keep ourselves in very good physical condition and that is why, at least two hours a day, and this depends on how busy we are in the schedule, we need to conduct physical activities. We work on the sport equipment over there we have aboard the International Space Station, and at the end of the day we discuss of what we done during the day. We talk about it with the Mission Control Centers, with specialists on the ground who are awaiting these results on the ground, and then we start discussing the activities and the goals for the next day. We receive radiograms, we receive some kind of goals we need to conduct, and we talk to specialists, we talk to our crew members, and that is our regular day. Of course, we also have holidays, we have days off.
So it sounds like a regular job?
Yes, a regular job in very irregular surrounding. An astronaut or a cosmonaut sometimes has to conduct very irrelevant activities to what he or she is used to here on the ground. For example, this crew member could be a medical personnel, a member of a medical personnel, and then he needs to go ahead and do sciences. He will, should be able to do a med, a doctor and also an engineer. As a Chinese philosopher said, the most important and the largest development the human being receives [is] when he starts studying something he didn’t know before.
One of the first things that you and your crew members have on you agenda after your arrival is a visit from space shuttle Endeavour and that crew delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer as well as other supplies and hardware. Tell me about what’s on the plan during this visit of the space shuttle, first space shuttle mission that you will see.
Of course, the situation with shuttle flight is somehow difficult for our increment because at first we thought that this flight would be completed before we launch, but we know very well that it has slipped several times and now we come to learn that we will see that shuttle, and we really hope it’s not going to be the last flight in the shuttle program. Currently we have begun a joint training with the shuttle crew. As soon as the shuttle arrives, we will be working together with the crew in order to move from the shuttle and to install the equipment that shuttle will deliver to the International Space Station. Of course, this will involve a lot of work because the space is very limited aboard the ISS. We will have to analyze the situation on where to stow that cargo.
On the subject of cargo, there is a brand new kind of cargo ship that’s being developed under a NASA program, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, that has another test flight scheduled coming up during Expedition 28. Tell me about this Dragon spacecraft and what your crew will be doing when it conducts a flyby of the station.
The first time people even talked about a possible docking of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station was during our increment. It was of course very interesting because it’s a new craft, a new vehicle, but I really hope that we’re going to be able to see how Dragon performs a flyby of the International Space Station and perhaps take some very good quality pictures of that craft. It would be very good, of course, to have it dock to the ISS and not just to perform a flyby.
It’d be interesting to see something brand new fly.
I would agree with you. I think, already when you look at the space, just seeing an object right next to the International Space Station, it is already an event. It is something that we’re not used to. We used to take a bus, drive when, drive a car, to see different cars next to us; when we’re in the city, we see many people. When we go somewhere—to the forest, to a desert—we don’t see any cars, we don’t see anybody else, and that is unusual, and when we see somebody in those condition, we’re very, very happy, and the same thing could apply to the space as well.
The current plan for your time on orbit calls for a couple of spacewalks, one from the U.S. section of the space station and one from the Russian segment. For the Russian spacewalk, what is your role on the team and, and what is the plan for the work to be done outside by the spacewalkers?
An EVA, extravehicular activities, a very important procedure and a very difficult. We need to start preparing the spacesuit, we need to prepare ourselves, and we need to discuss what we’ll need to conduct outside of the International Space Station. Of course, we train rigorously to be able to do that here on the ground, in our hydrolabs here, to make sure that we train on the activities that we need to perform. The main EVA, some of the main goals are to transport different equipment from one area of the station to the other as well as to attach some equipment to the Russian segment in accordance with the Russian protocol. This is a very strenuous, physical activity, at least, and I judge this from the training that I performed in the hydrolabs. Of course, we need to be very careful and pay close attention to what we do.
Which of the crew members will be going outside to conduct this EVA?
I think you know that we have a Russian spacesuit as well as a U.S. spacesuit. I will be participating in one of those EVAs using a Russian spacesuit in accordance with the Russian protocol, and that EVA will be a part of 28 increment, increment 28, and that is our increment. All the crew members will be preparing for that EVA, but the decision will be made when we’re about to start conducting that EVA.
Now the American spacewalk that is planned during the last space shuttle mission this summer is unusual because usually shuttle crew members conduct a spacewalk during a shuttle mission, but this time station crew members will be going outside. What is the reason for that change in the usual procedure?
From what I understand, I think the reason for it is the following. The shuttle will only have four crew members this time around and it will be very difficult for them to perform the necessary activities during that EVA. Usually, as you know very well, shuttle flight involves more crew members than that, and that is why we need additional crew members from the ISS crew.
And at this time it’ll be your crewmates Ron Garan and Mike Fossum who will be going out to do that spacewalk. What will your role be on board the station while that EVA is going on outside?
This is for now a difficult question; we have not discussed it yet. We have just begun our U.S. training, and in the future we will have more classes on how to work together, the U.S. and the Russian side, before we conduct the U.S. EVA.
Well, as we know, STS-135, the flight we’re referring to here, is 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 this space station?
I think that any important event in the history of cosmonautics leaves a very big mark on it, and I think that the shuttle is an extremely important vehicle that was able to bring all the necessary components into the space, and what we see the end result right now on the near-Earth orbit is an immense, a large station that is very heavy, and the shuttle was the one responsible for it, and it is very difficult to look back and understand that this flight will be the last one, and it is sad, I would like to say. And, I, I do not think that a lot of people were able to comprehend that it’s the last flight and we’re not sure how the manned spaceflights will be developing in the future. Perhaps in the future we will have more developed vehicles, but the shuttle will remain in history as one of the most successful vehicles in the history of the cosmonautics. I would like to say that we’ll be able to observe the shuttle rendezvous as well as the docking with the International Space Station, and everybody who has seen this before told us that we should be very happy because this is an important event in every cosmonaut’s life, especially when we are able to open the hatches and meet the new crew and greet them aboard the International Space Station, and, of course, we expect a lot of happy events to happen during that time.
There are going to be some happy and historic events very near the beginning of your flight ’cause, of course, April 12th is the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin; it’s also the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight. Alexander, tell me what are your thoughts about the idea that you will be in space while the world is observing these historic milestones.
This is one of the most important and the most interesting parts of our flight. I think as, you know it very well, that this year in Russia is the year of cosmonautics and the prime minister of the Russian government is heavily involved in preparing the celebrations, and we think that this is a holiday, a day that everybody around the world should be celebrating. Many organizations that are tied and participate in the development of the space industry will be participating in that event. Of course, we are a very small chain in that long chain of events and people and organizations. Of course, we are a little worried but we are very proud that we’ll be able to participate in the celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first human in space. We have planned several activities; we will not be discussing them first because this is a secret for now, and we’ll be able to celebrate these important dates for everyone.
One of the ways that it is being celebrated, it has been announced that, by Roscosmos, that the Soyuz vehicle which you will command has been named for Yuri Gagarin. That must be, that must be a source of pride for you.
This is the first time that, that vehicle will be named after someone, and as soon as we learned that this would be the case, especially that Yuri Gagarin’s name will be used to name a Soyuz spacecraft, we were very happy. I believe this is a very important event and we are very proud of our country, as well as for our cosmonautics.
Well, the state of cosmonautics has changed quite a bit since the days of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard 50 years ago to the International Space Station of today. Where do you think human space exploration will be 50 years in the future, and how will the International Space Station help get us prepared to reach that goal?
This is a very difficult question, of course. It’s very difficult to discuss future. Fifty years ago we did not have any televisions, and now look at us today. I would like to believe that in 50 years we’ll be able to simply be transported to a different station because the sciences would have gone so far. Of course, the technologies will continue to be developed many fields will continue to be developed, and many international partners will be cooperating and developing new technologies. Right now we have been doing that and I think in the next 50 years we’ll be continuing to do that and we’ll be able to make sure that we have a very quantitative and qualitative leap in the space development.