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Preflight Interview: Oleg Kononenko
Oleg Kononenko

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, Expedition 30 flight engineer and Expedition 31 commander, talks to a reporter at a press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?

A: I don’t know why. I think I was born with this dream and I am very fortunate that my body, my health, my mental ability is, helped me become a cosmonaut because I could not imagine myself having another job. Maybe it’s different for some other people but I always wanted to be a cosmonaut and I did not believe there is a better job, there is a better thing to do than be a cosmonaut, on Earth.

Let’s tell us, find out a bit about the life that led you to that. Tell me about your hometown and your childhood and what it was like for you growing up there.

I had an ordinary happy childhood. I was living and growing up in a loving family. My parents cared for me, loved me, my parents took care of my education, they always supported all my endeavors. They knew what I wanted to, that I wanted to be a cosmonaut; my father said that if you really want it, then work on it. From very early on, my parents took me to the rocket modeling club. I was trying to build a rocket back then to try to fly somewhere. My parents were asking why I would like to do that: there is Earth, you can travel to different towns and research Earth and dive into ocean and see what’s there, but somehow the stars were attracting me more. And initially, back in the times of the Soviet Union, it was fashionable to publish biographies of space explorers and I noticed that those were mostly military pilots so, of course, I wanted to become a military pilot, but since I read a lot and I was performing modeling and reading a lot, my eyesight was worsening, and that was a tragedy because I realized I was going to have problems entering a pilot school. But my math teacher started telling me that engineers can also fly into space. I didn’t pay attention to that particular instance and she brought me to the idea that I can be a designer and fly the designed rockets. I grew up in the Soviet Union so we didn’t have a problem to change the town of our residency. If you wanted to go to school in any town of the former Soviet Union it didn’t matter which republic of the Soviet Union I went to. I chose the aviation institute in Kharkov, Ukraine; I moved there. When I was working I was performing science research with the [Russian space agency’s Central] Design Bureau located in Samara; after I graduated from the institute, that is where I went. When I was a lead designer at that facility I was selected to become part of the cosmonaut corps, so I was really pursuing my dream.

In fact you were born in a town in Turkmenistan, is that right?


And grew up there as well as in, I think you, you said that you moved to Ukraine when you were still a boy?


You told me a story once before that I wanted to get you to tell again about how you met the designer in Samara when you were a student and were at the Tsiolkovsky Readings in Moscow.

Yes, I was part of science readings in Moscow and the co-chair, Dmitry Ilyich Kozlov was the co-chair of one of the sections. I was awarded one of the awards and Designer Kozlov was presenting me with the award and he told, he asked me whether I wanted to work at his facility. A year later a letter arrived from that company, an invitation, and I used it and I went there. Dmitry Ilyich Kozlov is really one of the pillars of the Russian space exploration, he was one of the deputies of [Sergei] Korolev, he is a highly respected professional.

It is interesting how, for you and for others, how things that you’re doing in your, as a student, can lead you to meet people who are so influential in your life?

That is true, and they helped me become a cosmonaut.

During your first flight did you get an opportunity to see your hometown or to see Samara as you were flying around the Earth for six months?

Of course. I believe every cosmonaut during his or her spaceflight is trying to take photographs from on board of the towns where they lived, they’ve worked. I took some photographs. Unfortunately I was not able to take photographs of Chardzhow in Turkmenistan. I was able to take photographs of Rostov on Don, Samara, of the town where my spouse was born, tried to take photographs of Korolev but the weather was not good. And, of course, the view to Earth from space is breathtaking. I believe if we go to Mars and cannot see Earth from our windows I think that would be highly disappointing for cosmonauts and astronauts.

Oleg Kononenko

Oleg Kononenko participates in a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

Now that you’ve had the opportunity to fly in space and you’re about to do that for a second time, you have the job that you always assumed that you were going to have, and it’s one that carries an element of risk to it that most of us don’t have to deal with in our jobs. The question, Oleg, is, why do you do it: what is there that you think that we, human beings, what are we gaining as sen, as a result of sending people into space that makes it worth taking that risk?

It is a good question…you know, it is rather difficult to predict what we’re going to gain in the future from what we’re doing now. It is similar to us, the saying of one of the physicists, something that is heavier than air cannot fly it in the air, but then brothers Wright built an airplane and it flew and it stayed airborne for a certain period of time despite of the reasoning of the physicists of that time. So I believe the presence of humans in space is required due to the nature of humans itself. People are very curious, they’re always striving to learn new things, always trying to move forward. We have been maintaining presence of humans in space for the past 50 years and just leaving it all, I think it would not be good. And manned spaceflight as part of the space exploration of many countries is very important. There are a lot of discussions whether robots or humans should be present in space. I think they should be adding and augmenting to each other’s advantages. Sometimes robots are better but a lot of times, the flexibility of the human intellect is indispensable in space, so I believe humans need to be in space despite everything.

Oleg, you’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station to be part of Expeditions 30 and 31. Give me a summary of what the mission goals are for your half a year in space and what responsibilities and jobs will be yours during this time?

As far as the previous missions, I do not think there is a very specific goal. I am hoping to have a normal increment with the same set of science experiments. I hope we’re going to have EVAs, both on the U.S. side and the Russian side, and as far as I’m personally concerned I’m going to be fine as the commander of both the Soyuz vehicle and the station so my status is going to change.

It’ll be different, in fact, from your previous trip to the International Space Station when you were the board engineer in both cases. Tell me, what are you looking forward to about this trip that will be different from your first mission.

I hope there will be fewer off-nominal situations than I experienced during my previous mission. Otherwise, I believe I will be a more experienced crew member, I will be better appointing out my time, I will be working more on the experiments. I’m also getting ready to perform some simple experiments to show my children and schoolchildren how the physics laws work in space, so I’m hoping for a very good increment.

All of the facilities that are on the International Space Station now, that are going to help you and your crewmates do that work, are quite impressive. Give us an idea of all the laboratories and the different modules that are present at the International Space Station today.

Of course. Differently from my previous expedition, there are two extra modules docked to the Russian segment. In addition to the Service Module [Zvezda], the DC [Pirs] and the FGB [Zarya], we have MRM [mini research module] 1 and MRM 2. The subsequent goal of MRM 2 will be to replace the airlock and we’re going to be using it to perform EVAs in the future, and the port where the airlock is docked to we’re preparing to have a major research module called MLM [multipurpose laboratory module], and the small research module, uh, [MRM] #1 docked to the FGB, we are providing additional volume for the execution of the Russian science program. There is new equipment installed in the module, the Russian crew members already started utilizing that equipment and I will continue that. On the U.S. side there are several new modules. Cupola is the most impressive. I’m looking forward to going in there and experiencing and having the feelings other cosmonauts and astronauts are sharing upon their return because the view is truly breathtaking. The station has expanded and we’re able to perform the full scope of utilization program.

Let’s talk about that utilization program. Science research is what the International Space Station was designed to be there to do. Now there are six crew members and there are several laboratories to do this kind of work. One of the biggest areas of science research is to find out how people react to living in this environment. Give me an idea of some of the human life sciences research that you and your crewmates are going to be involved with during your time on orbit.

Mostly we’re going to have biomedical or purely medical experiments. As far as I’m personally concerned, I prefer the medical experiments of, that require participation of my mental abilities, my abilities that are going to be put to the test. There are several medical experiments where my body is being tested. I am as a cosmonaut going to provide the body and perform the research and report the results.

Oleg Kononenko

Oleg Kononenko participates in 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. Credit: NASA

In some respects, the fact that you are present for an extended period of time is a part of the research, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s true.

And while you are a subject of research on how this environment impacts human beings, you’re also working to help conduct science that is in other scientific disciplines, and being the hands in space for the scientists on the ground. Give me a sense of some of the other kinds of research that are going to be conducted that you are going to be involved with.

Along with the biomedical and the medical experiments I have already mentioned there will be some technical experiments where we’re going to use both the station, its capabilities, the materials it’s made of, and the microaccelerations existing on board of the station, and vacuum that surrounds the station. I like an experiment very much, it’s called Plasma Crystal. It is a joint Russian/European experiment aimed at testing plasma conditions. It is very interesting, I am hoping it is going to take place as planned. There will be several sessions I’m going to be involved in.

And that’s a physics experiment, if I understand it correctly; you also have research in biology and in chemistry and other fields as well?

I’m hoping so.

Among the jobs for crew members on the International Space Station, they’re not only the science work that we’ve been talking about, but you’re also responsible for taking care of the laboratories that you work in and all the rest of the facilities on board. Can you give us an idea of what life is like for a space station crew member, whether it’s a Russian crew member or a crew member in the U.S. segment of the station, what kind of other things do you do during a typical day?

Our standard day is planned and looks like a regular working day on the ground. The conditions are different, the environment is different, zero gravity. However, we’re using a standard schedule. We wake up in the morning, we clean up, we talk to the ground; after that we start working. Same way, the ground would be planning physical exercises at least a couple of times a day for us; we’re having lunch, we have the afternoon part of the day. When I was part of the increment 17 crew, Sergey Volkov and myself were heavily involved in activities on the U.S. side because we only had three crew members on board; now the functions have been divided, the Russian crew members are more involved on the Russian segment and the U.S. and European astronauts are more involved in the activities on the U.S. segment. However, there are multi-element operations where we’re trying to help each other and we do help in certain areas. So this is just a standard day, if you don’t take into account the conditions in which the day is taking place.

I wanted, you mentioned earlier on that there’s a plan for Russian spacewalks during your time on orbit; I think the first one is currently on the schedule for the early part of the year 2012. Can you tell me, based on what you know now, what are the plans for that EVA?

Right now we can definitely say there are at least two tasks. They’re very time- and labor-intensive. Anton Shkaplerov and myself will need to move the Russian cargo boom from the airlock to MRM 2 and we will need to install additional micrometeoroid shields on the Service Module. These are two time-consuming and labor-intensive operations, and if time allows another three or four tasks that deal with experiments, external experiments on the Service Module.

Are you looking forward to the opportunity to go outside?

That would be the most interesting part of the flight; certainly do.

Is there not a second Russian EVA on the plan for later on in your increment?

As far as I understand it is planned but it might or might not take place so I’m not certain it’s going to take place. I know for sure there will be at least one EVA.

Early on when I asked you to summarize what was going on, you mentioned the fact that your role is going to change roughly in the middle of the flight. You will become commander of the International Space Station for Expedition 31, which begins and Anton and Anatoly [Ivanishin] and Dan [Burbank] will go home. How is, or does that, change daily life on board the station for you when you become the man in charge?

It’s not going to change considerably. The change will be, I will be the one starting the morning and evening DPC [daily planning conference] so I’m going to be starting the conversation with the ground as the station commander. Otherwise everything will remain the same. I believe the commander is responsible for the psychological environment in the team on board, but I believe also each cosmonaut and astronaut should make his or her contribution to making the environment comfortable for the entire crew.

Oleg Kononenko

Oleg Kononenko participates in 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

These days there are supplies being delivered to the International Space Station on board vehicles that are launched by Russia, by Europe and by Japan. But there are also two new cargo ships that are being developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program that have their first flights scheduled, coming up in a few months. Fill us in on what these new vehicles are and how they mix in with the current fleet of supply ships to keep the International Space Station fully stocked up.

Of course, the Russian cosmonauts did not study in detail the new cargo vehicles but I believe everything that’s going to be developed and will arrive on board the station would be good. The more cargo vehicles we have, the more opportunities we have to deliver new science equipment on board, and that’s great.

And I understand that they will arrive at the station in a way similar to the Japanese HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle] in which there will be robotic operations involved. Which of your crewmates will be operating the Canadarm[2] for that?

Of course, all these vehicles are going to be docking to the station differently from the European and Russian vehicles. It has an active, those vehicles have active docking system that allows us to rendezvous and dock to the station. The newer cargo vehicles do not have that type of docking system. It’s going to be grappled by the arm and berthed to the U.S. segment. Yes, we’re going to be using the Canadarm. It is very interesting, it is fascinating; I was assisting Don [Pettit] during training. It is very interesting. I was sometimes regretting that we do not have that capability on the Russian side.

There’s still a plan to be able to have that arm based on the Russian segment so in the future it may be able to operate back in the Russian segment.

I hope that after all the integration between the Russian and U.S. side will be greater in terms of the space operations.

Now that we’re about to have this integration of commercial cargo ships to deliver to the International Space Station, along with vehicles that are provided by government space agencies, do you feel that your flight is going to be part of an historic transition to a new era of spaceflight?

Frankly speaking, I’m not thinking that my flight is going to have any historic value. I like my work, I like flying into space, it is very interesting for me, I enjoy gaining new knowledge, and help the humankind acquire new knowledge and move forward.

Well, let me let you look ahead then, beyond your flight to the International Space Station. When you think about what human space exploration will become in the future, in 10 or 20 years or more, what do you think is coming for our species’ exploration of space, and how is the work that you’re doing on this space station getting us prepared to do that?

It is probably too difficult to predict our, the time farther away, the future, but I believe the humankind is going to explore new planets, as part of the race to acquire resources. I believe sooner or later the humankind will have to leave the confines of Earth and will fly to the moon, to Mars, and build bases there. The experts that are saying that the gain will be minimal, I do not think they, realize how useful it can be. I believe those bases are going to provide a huge advantage to the humankind.

Are the International Space Station missions helping get us prepared for that?

Yes, certainly do because even now we’re starting to perform some small and some individual operations that are going to help us assemble complicated stations on orbit. We’re preparing for the flights of this type physically, scientifically, nutritionally, , behaviorly. It does provide food for thought on how we’re going to explore the space in the future.