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Preflight Interview: Yuri Malenchenko
jsc2012e036093 -- Yuri Malenchenko

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, Expedition 32/33 flight engineer. Credit: NASA

Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?

Well, this is exciting field to be involved in, and so when opportunity presented itself to become a cosmonaut I figured, you know, this is really exciting to do that, and then, you know, if here’s this opportunity, might as well grab it, you know. It’s, and I never decided against it later, you know. There’s never a case that, you know, would have me doubt the choice that I had made because every year this job proved to be providing a variety of really interesting, fascinating, challenging tasks, and the sheer idea of spaceflight, when you think about it, you know, seems out of the realm of science fiction back when I was a kid, but when it became my reality, of course, this had an even higher draw for me; just wanted to try it and do it.

It sounds like it was something that you decided on when you were already an adult as opposed to something that you dreamed about being as a young boy.

Well, the short answer is yes, but, you know, once, if I were to go into detail, then the answer would become a no, because back when I was a boy, of course, I dreamt of becoming a cosmonaut, plus I was born during the year that saw the first human spaceflight, and back then everybody was aware of this. Everybody talked about it, you know, there was not a household where this wouldn’t be discussed. Each individual flight was talked about, everybody knew their cosmonauts, everybody had read books about spaceflight, and I was no exception so, of course, I couldn’t help but dream of becoming a cosmonaut, you know, as a child would. But when the reality kicked in, you know, this was a conscious decision, plus the selection criteria and the selection philosophy that was in place back then, it was something that was looking for you. It wasn’t me actively searching for an opportunity to become a cosmonaut, it’s the program folks would be looking for the right candidates, so before I was made this offer, you know, the entire history of my biography was studied in great detail. I was a military pilot back then and I enjoyed this, you know. My career was on the upswing but, you know, once this offer came, you know, it was a hard one to refuse, like I said.

Let me ask you to take us back to the beginning of your story. Tell us about your hometown. Tell me what it was like for you to grow up in the Ukraine.

Well, this was a younger city than some others, the Svetlovodsk town. In our city there was a lot of contemporary industry, and I’m saying this because there was a lot of younger folks there, you know, there was a lot of high tech job opportunities so a lot of university graduates would come there and, you know, get jobs at the high tech industry that was, you know, very relevant for the country back then, and so the environment was to such that, you know, you would expect in the brand new city, you know, brand new neighborhoods, brand new buildings, brand new folks that would be coming and taking residence in the city. It was a lot of trees, very beautiful nature, big water reservoir and pine woods. And so, you know, a very nice, pleasant, positive environment place to be, if you know what I mean. At least that’s what I recall it being.

Did you get a chance to see it from space in your flights?

Of course, absolutely; I took some still imagery and I would look at my town each time I was in space. Everybody wants to see their place of birth once they get into space. It’s one of the first urges that drives everyone.

Are you able to get in very close detail? I mean, can you see the house where you grew up in?

Well, the house that I was born and raised in wasn’t that big, for me to see but, you know, the imagery that I did take, you know, during my last flight, increment 16, you know, if I were to zoom in I would be able to see some of the location, some of the streets where I, you know, I’d be walking and, you know, that was definitely a, so good. But just the general outlines, the coastline, you know, the bigger buildings, something that you’d be able to see without zooming in.

A few minutes ago you mentioned that you were a military pilot before you were a cosmonaut? Was being a pilot something that you had dreamed of being? How did you get into that profession?

Oh, yes, I really did want to become a fighter pilot. I always dreamed of this back when I was a high school student, grade seven or eight, as far as back then I already knew that I wanted to be a pilot. I just waited for the right moment to enroll in the university so that I can start training to make this my profession. And I was of solid mind, you know, knowing that this is what, something that I would be doing. I was reading up on this, I was, you know, very well aware of what this line of work entails, and so this was a dream, big time, for me.

And I understand then that you went to military aviation colleges and the, I guess, the normal education for a Russian air force pilot?

Yes, it was a standard path as far as the path that one would need to follow to get all the training required to become a fighter pilot. As far as the opportunities, you know, there was a handful of military academies, and you know, I got enrolled in one of them, so everybody who graduated would become a diplomate and then continue on the career path to becoming a fighter pilot like I was, so multiple flights every year, obviously, and besides getting a university-level education, you know, we would get a field-specific education while training, while studying at a university, we’d be doing a lot of sorties, there’d be a lot of flying, you know, this was a very exciting education to be involved in.

Until the day happened when the opportunity to become a cosmonaut came along.

That’s right, absolutely. Honestly, it felt bad to leave the path that I had been on for quite a while, but, you know, something that I couldn’t resist.

Well, you didn’t resist it, you’ve taken the job, you’ve spent more than 500 days in space before this mission. You’re flying in space and that is a job that has risks associated with it that are very different than the risks that we take in our jobs here on the ground. People would want to ask why, and so I will ask you, why—what is that you feel that we are achieving by flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?

If you asked me some time ago I probably would have come up with a different answer, but right now this is my job, and each subsequent flight isn’t anything extraordinary for me, isn’t something that I’m, you know, facing as a man against something bigger and larger, isn’t something that I’m setting out to prove that I’m capable of doing. This is my line of work. A cosmonaut needs to fly into space, because if you’re not then what you do is not spaceflight and you’re not a cosmonaut. So this is what I do for a living; this is my job. And we already mentioned that human spaceflight is critical for our future, and I always thought of this profession as really important. And regardless of what one assigns to this profession, you know, how he sees it being important and regardless of what predictions we make as far as what this profession will turn into in the future, I just feel that this is really important for the humans and for the future. And the time will come when this will become crystal clear, even to the types of people that have second thoughts about this right now.

You’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station for Expeditions 32 and 33. Tell me about the goals of this mission and what your jobs are going to be on this trip. jsc2012e035388 -- Yuri Malenchenko

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, Expedition 32/33 flight engineer. Credit: NASA

Our increment is another increment on board the International Space Station that will last approximately four months. What I’m going to be doing during this increment is I’ll be the flight engineer for the increment, also I’ll be the Soyuz vehicle commander—that will be our launch vehicle, the rescue vehicle if need be. What I would like to say is this is a standard set of tasks for an increment, the way the flight program is usually drawn. Of course, we have a lot of science packed into our increment, that is the pivotal set of items for any increment. We have station maintenance activities planned. In addition to that, it goes without saying, that we’ll be performing dynamic operations such as dockings, undockings of the Soyuz vehicle; also during our increment we’ll have cargo and transportation vehicles fly to the station. I personally will be responsible for docking and undocking of the Progress cargo transportation vehicle plus I’ll be supporting the European ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] vehicle ops during its docking and undocking operations, and all the associated activities as well that have to do with these vehicles such as commissioning of the vehicles, you know, the operations inside the vehicles, unpacking, and using the resources that they will be launching, and then decommissioning the vehicle and subsequently getting it ready to return, and then undocking the said vehicles. Also the EVAs are planned for this increment, the Russian EVAs, that I will be supporting along with Gennady Padalka. This EVA, the two of us will be planning to perform, so I’ll looking forward to a very busy schedule, it’s a variety of tasks and I can’t wait for all this to start.

Of course, you have been to the International Space Station three times before. What are you looking forward to to be special about this trip?

Every time I’ve flown to the station I ended up looking at a different station. My first flight was as far back as right after the [Zvezda] Service Module arrival and the station configuration was significantly smaller than what it is right now. The new modules continued arriving during the increment, increment 16, that had me on the station, and now that the USOS [United States Operating Segment], the American segment, is complete I’ll have an opportunity to see what the ultimate configuration looks like, the way it’s always been intended to, and so this has always been exciting for me. I’ve always enjoyed working in space and so I’m very excited and very eager to start doing all these activities.

You mentioned that your mission is going to be about four months long. It was shortened by a number of weeks because of an issue preparing the Soyuz vehicle for a crew that’s flying in front of you. How is that change in the duration of your mission affected your training, and what impact does it have for you and your crewmates when you’re on the station?

Well, since our training is fairly versatile, for that particular reason, each crew will be ready and trained to perform a whole variety of tasks that are generic tasks. And so for this particular crew, of course, the increment has been extended due to the events that you’ve just mentioned; as far as our crew is concerned, it’s become a little shorter, about a month and a half. And so everything will stabilize in the, you know, in the coming months and everything will jibe with the schedule. Of course, there will be less time for us to work in space and as a result we’ll be able to have achieved less, but the part that we were originally supposed to do, of course, somebody else will take care of and overall the flight program will not really take any losses. All the tasks that were scheduled will be performed in due time and due fashion. I don’t see any major impacts as far as the crew is concerned. Well, some crews will have to be up there for longer; of course, you know, the guys that will have to do that will be a little more tired. By the same token we have come up with more time to review some of the training aspects, maybe do some additional training, maybe spend some extra time on resting and relaxing before our flight, because, you know, truth be told, we were originally planning for, to support a different schedule. All in all, I want to say that there’ll be no major schedule impacts, no major crew impacts, and I have a feeling that everything’s on schedule, just that the schedule has slipped a little bit.

One of the impacts of that change in the schedule is that the next Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle will be arriving very soon after you arrive. Does that really impact your orientation, your getting familiar with the settings when you arrive?

Personally I have no major input into the vehicle’s docking operations. This is something that’ll be performed by the other crew members, but based on my personal experience I don’t see any major issues here. I have all the confidence in the world that these, you know, we’ll have a lot of expertise to support these activities, all the crew members have been trained very well. And if we have to perform Soyuz docking during day two of our mission while we’re still inside the vehicle, we’re able to pull that off, you know, we’ll be able to pull that off, too. So the first days or the first couple of weeks of a mission is always quite intensive and so it’s always been a challenge or two being thrown our way and I’m pretty sure that we’ll be able to come around this one, this time, too.

Let me ask you to help set the stage for us. You mentioned how the station has changed since the first time you saw it. Tell us about the International Space Station on orbit today. What’s there now? What modules and what different equipment are there to help support the crew and to support the science mission?

At present time the International Space Station is a gigantic space laboratory and it’s had a multiple-year experience of successful operations in space. So a lot of modules, a lot of interior space, a huge list of scientific equipment to boot. And what matters to me the most is the international nature of the station and all the countries have their own segments, and, as we speak, besides the Russian and the USOS segment, you know, that were there from day one, we have the European module that’s been added to the stack and the Japanese [module] as well. The Canadarm, Canadian-designed space arm has been operating successfully for a number of years. A lot of equipment is based on the exterior of the station and there’s a number of, all kinds of activities that will keep us busy both inside and outside of the station. Currently we have a permanent six crew member presence on the station, everybody has a fairly busy schedule, everybody has their own program tasks, and from dusk till dawn we have things to do and accomplishments to achieve. And that only speaks to the face that there’s a lot of potential to the station, both on the scientific side, there’s a lot of experiments that have been performed and will be in the future, and there’s no doubt in my mind that for many years to come there’ll be other items of scientific interest that will be scheduled and performed on board the station, besides using the international joint experience in operating something as complicated as the space station. All the matters of integrating and coordinating this very difficult piece of technology and its operational aspects, I really don’t see any other field where there’s been so much experience of this depth that’s been accumulated, you know, this high-tech level that we have on the station. So, in so many words, this is how the station is right now, this is what its outlook and its scientific aims are, and it’s very important for everybody on Earth.

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Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, Expedition 32/33 flight engineer. Credit: NASA

Let’s talk about the science. As you say, now with a six-person crew and many more modules, there’s an opportunity to do more science investigation. For starters, one area of science research is to find out how you, the crew members, are affected by being in that environment, and there are a lot of different human life sciences experiments. Tell me about a couple of those that you’re going to be involved with during your mission this time. What kind of human life sciences and medical research will you be working on?

The science program for our increment is currently being reviewed, but it goes without saying that it’ll be dozens of experiments that I will be directly involved in, in all kinds of fields. If you want to talk about medical research, there’s going to be in excess of 10 experiments that I will be involved directly in. The objective of these is such that they will have us do research in human life sciences, in human capabilities, in the space impact on humans in space, all kinds of techniques and philosophies of supporting human body in space and compensating for the hazards of humans being in space, improving these techniques. So all of these steps are being taken so as to be able to develop the techniques that will provide the most comfortable environment for humans in space for a variety of terms, for short-term as well as long-term increments and missions, so that we can replicate and imitate the comfort as we know it here on Earth for the future progress where there’ll be a significantly more people involved in space program. So this experience cannot be overestimated because these research activities will be able to expand the presence of humans in space, we’ll be able to make human spaceflight more populated and more popular, and that’s what we’re working towards.

Will you be doing some of the same experiments that you’ve done on your previous flights?

Yes, we will. Some of the experiments are long-term. What that means is that accumulating statistical data is critical to serve as a basis for results and findings that will be grounded on the statistics, and such experiments also are going through a lot of changes. New equipment arrives, new units get designed, manufactured and launched, you know, with better performance. Some of the particulars of this and that experiment will change, some things will get clarified, some things will get definitized, some of the analytical data will serve to make some changes to the experiments, and so in light of all of that and in order to keep it up with the experiments and, you know, we have to refresh the data and the knowledge that we have. We have to get familiarized with the new equipment, trained to work with it, and give it a year and a half or two, an experiment will change even if you were directly involved in it the last go-around, especially if this is something, you know, that goes back as far as 2007, ’08. You know, a lot of things have changed since then.

Along with the research for which you and your crewmates will be the subjects, you will also serve as sort of laboratory assistants for the investigators on the ground who are doing science in a lot of other different branches of science. Tell me about some of the other different kinds of scientific experiments that you will be working on during your mission this time.

We always do Earth-monitoring experiments and new types of experiments and new points of interest come up all the time, too, and the flight program always has a lot of Earth-monitoring activities built into it. Such equipment as spectrometers and video and photo equipment is always used broadly and we do monitoring in different aspects, if you will. In this part of the work on station is very fascinating, and that’s because on top of monitoring the Earth as an experiment, you will, you’re able to actually monitor the Earth per se, which is an exciting thing that never wears off. There’s a certain list of science experiments, biology-wise and otherwise, that will, have us do the following: we will be studying various liquid behaviors and basically, you know, in those kinds of equipments we’ll be acting as lab assistants, all kinds of media that have to mixed and, you know, temperature has to be maintained, certain time stamps will have to be kept, and everything needs to be done with a lot of precision and a lot of attention to detail because such exact experiments sometimes get done in full synchronicity on the ground, and the results that are achieved are looked at as to see what the deltas are, the differences may be, and that is how we get some knowledge into, and insight into the intricacies of performing these experiments in space. The Plasma Crystal is another experiment that I performed before, there will be sessions in support of that, a part of science which will have me study and examine the particles’ behavior in vacuum, studying the particulars of atmosphere and electrical discharges, examining the above, its behavior, you know, due to different particle sizes and different environments, what structures get formed, you know, very fascinating experiment as well; something like that. If I were to go through the exhaustive list of all the experiments it would be quite hard because there’s so many of them. It will take me hours to go through all the experiments that just our increment crew members will have to perform.

And you’re doing this work, this science work, in cooperation with researchers who are all around the world as well. Similar, as you mentioned earlier, that the entire project is an international cooperation, and it’s ironic—maybe ironic is the right word—but to note that you’re going to be in space during the times when the international Olympic Games are taking place in London this summer. Is there an analogy, do you think, in your mind, to be made between the space station’s goals of fostering international cooperation and the spirit of the Olympics?

Well, as far as the Olympics are concerned, historically, it’s always had a lot of resonance in the general audience; in other words, the Olympics always bring the people together based on the common interest in sports because everybody across the globe love the sports, are involved in the sports, and the, every time Olympic Games take place it has a lot of political weight that it carries, you know, ’cause it allows us to perform a lot of exchanges showing various nations that they can be friends, that they can exchange the knowledge that they have and the skills that they possess, and this knowledge and skill base are maintained for many years to come, and its serves very well to maintain the friendship across the globe. And the, you know, in this sense the International Space Station is very critical and carries a lot of significance as well. Like I said before, the ISS is a complicated structure and when you put your minds together and work on the details of problem resolution from the technical standpoint, the technical problems that seem unassailable at first, you know, it brings people together, no matter what, because we have partners there and a lot of partners are in constant communication across the globe and it creates a community that is led by a certain set of objectives and goals and since this is such a humongous program, International Space Station program, it builds very good experience of building this community and maintaining it, and so, you know, that’s the significance of the International Space Station in that sense.

jsc2012e018748 -- Yuri Malenchenko

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, Expedition 32/33 flight engineer. Credit: NASA

A few minutes ago you mentioned that there is at least one Russian EVA that’s in the plan for your mission. Tell me some more about that. What are you and Gennady Padalka going to be doing when you go outside and conduct this EVA?

Yeah, the plan is for us to perform this spacewalk, and its main objective, both time-wise and significance-wise, is the cargo Strela boom relocation from DC [Docking Compartment; Pirs] to FGB [Functional Cargo Block; Zarya], and this task will take up two hours, maybe more, at least that’s the plan. We’ll be relocating this boom using a similar cargo boom. I’ll be based as an operator and Gennady will be on the end point of this telescopic cargo boom, and in doing so, doing so he will be controlling the second boom that will be used to relocate the first one. Ultimately we’ll be relocating it and positioning it in the location that will be its permanent one for the future. Then there’s also a set of sub-items for this EVA: science-wise we’ll be launching a mini-satellite that’s launched onto a spring-loaded device, and once we reach a certain orientation we’ll have to launch this mini-satellite, which will eventually become a point of study and analysis in and of itself by the specialists on the ground. Plus we’ll be bringing back some of the scientific hardware that’s been exposed to the space environment, some of the panels that have been outside of the station for eight years, you know. These are the material studies, how space environment impacts materials, you know. There’s a lot of expectation as far as getting these materials back into the station and then returning them to the ground for further examination and analysis. Plus we’ll be installing some micrometeoroid panels, MMOD [micrometeoroid orbital debris] panels, in those sections of the station that haven’t been adequately protected from that standpoint, and so we’ll be enhancing MMOD protection, you know. There’s a procedure to relocate those panels there and install them in the certain fashion, so that’s the list of our spacewalk items and we’re planning to get all of that done in the approximately six hours that we have, and then successfully be able to close the hatch when we’re done.

Well, you and Gennady have plenty of experience doing spacewalks so perhaps you have a good opportunity, good chance to get all of that done?

We hope so. At the very least, based on the Hydrolab runs that we’ve had, we feel very comfortable that we will be able to, and, you know, these are activities that are well within realm of possible and, you know, every once in a while will go not as planned but we hope that everything will go well.

You’re moving one of the Strela booms in much the same way that Anton Shkaplerov and Oleg Kononenko moved the other Strela boom in February. What is the reason for moving the Strelas off of the Pirs module?

Well, the intent is to change their configuration so as to be able to use them with more efficiency in the future, and besides the EVAs that we know of, there’ll be more of them planned for the long term and the, what their content will be and what the tasks that will be performed during those EVAs will be, will be made easier using this new configuration of the Strela cargo booms.

And then they’ll be in a position to help when Pirs departs and the new module arrives, as I understand, yes?

That’s right. That’s exactly right. It’s possible that a decision will be made later down the road to position them in the way that will make relocation during an EVA easier because you’ll be able to translate using the cargo boom and it’ll save time and make it easier overall.

The International Space Station is receiving supplies these days on uncrewed cargo ships that are supplied by Russia and Europe and Japan. There are two new cargo ships that are being developed by NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program that may be flying during your mission. Tell me about these two new vehicles and how they would mix in with the existing supply ships to keep the station fully stocked.

That’s right. These are brand new vehicles that haven’t been flown before, that we haven’t seen in space, and every time a new transport asset comes around, whether this is a cargo vehicle or a manned vehicle, you know, this is always reason to gather a lot of attention for a lot of people, especially those that have designed it and built it and will eventually be operating it once it starts flying. And so we’re looking forward to the maiden voyages of these vehicles, goes without saying that we are. I remember the time when the first ATV flew in the, and you know, back when we were watching how it was being prepped for flight, and it so happened that during our mission, during increment 16, we were seeing it arrive and, you know, this was a very exciting moment for everybody. And everybody down here on the ground were witnessing this historical moment and making sure that everything goes well, and we as a crew that was on station back then were so thrilled to be the first one to see it fly, arrive, rendezvous and dock, and when we were able to open it and ingress it, you know, we were the first one to see how this new vehicle looks inside; this is something that one does not forget, and I’ll be real excited if I get to see another batch of new vehicles fly and arrive on orbit. And, you know, the availability of a variety of different vehicles, you know, the sheer numbers of the vehicles that are in the works right now, of course, it enriches the program and opens a brand new set of all kinds of functional capabilities, you know. Of course, these vehicles will be able to back each other up and, you know, the cargo traffic will be simplified as far as getting the supplies to the station because, you know, there’s a lot of partners and everybody has their own tasks and, you know, there’s a lot of cargo traffic so, you know, all in all we’re looking forward to these new vehicles arriving on the station.

With the addition of these new vehicles, that are commercial cargo ships, it’s a sign that the human space exploration is evolving beyond just an enterprise that is run only by the governments of the Earth. Yuri, where do you think human space exploration is going to be in the future, in 20 or 50 years and how is the International Space Station’s mission contributing to that future?

That’s exactly how I’m picturing it. In the future there will be a large number of different ships and the, very likely there’ll be a commercial, at least that’s something that one wants to see happen, because the presence of commercial vehicles will prove to be a much-needed boost for development. It would be hard to imagine, you know, if we were in a situation where there’ll be only one airplane being built in all of the countries or, at least you know, two cars for all the countries, you know, and this situation is not all that different. Of course, you know, it’s a whole different level of technology and complexity, of course, it is much, much more involved; it has a lot to do with safety. It’s more complicated, but the trend should be expected to be similar if not the same, and the, what that will serve to do is to make flights less expensive, to make supply missions simpler and cheaper, and I’m thinking in the future this will give us an opportunity to have a larger number of people to fly in space. So the spaceflight accessibility is something that also will be achieved. And so, you know, the popular spaceflight era, you know, once we’re in that era it’s kind of hard to imagine what would follow in those footsteps. Once humanity receives an opportunity to let more people fly is ha, you know, sky’s the limit as far as the opportunities that are thus afforded, and everything that we do as part of the program that we’re currently involved in, of course, will lay a robust foundation that will make this future possible. To learn to fly, to learn to fly longer, to make human adaptation in space more efficient, all of these issues and many more, something that people are working on day in and day out.