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Preflight Interview: Evgeny Tarelkin
Cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin

Russian cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin, Expedition 33/34 flight engineer, fields a question from a reporter during an Expedition 33/34 preflight press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?

A: It’s a very complex issue. I’d say that as a kid I didn’t want to become a cosmonaut. As far as I remember I’ve always wanted to be a pilot. I think there was an event that probably strengthened my desire to become a pilot. That’s when I was twelve years old; I jumped with a parachute for the first time. Actually I wasn’t twelve at the moment, not yet. And what was interesting was that I had to weigh no less than 50 kilos because the parachute system which was in operation at that time, in order for it to perform the weight of the individual had to be no less than 50 kilos, but I didn’t weigh 50 kilos back then. But probably the fact that I liked physics and mathematics played its part: what I did, I added sand to my pockets, to my boots, and so I did come to weigh 50 kilos, so I went ahead and I jumped. So this is probably one of the major, maybe the only turning point. Actually I came to be a member of the GCTC, of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center community, before I became a cosmonaut. I was instructor for some time. I was a parachute jumper and I’d say I have around 1500 of parachute jumps on my record. I was an instructor and I was dealing with all these extreme activities and specific preparation activities, survival flights, jumps, hydro [zero] g, microgravity environment. So this is something I have been dealing with, so becoming part of the cosmonaut corps is a very logical item in this chain of events in my professional activity. I thought I was ready, I felt prepared, I felt I had the knowledge and I thought that maybe I will be of more, I make more contribution as part of the cosmonaut corps; and I’d even venture so far as to say that this is probably the main thing why I became a cosmonaut. Besides when I was going to become a cosmonaut I did realize that it’s going to be a very tough job and I won’t be at home very often and my family will probably be offended some times, but, as I said, that I believe every human being needs to contribute something to society and to the environment and I thought this is something I could do better in.

I’d like to learn a little bit more about Evgeny Tarelkin. Start by, tell me about your hometown and what it was like for you as you grew up, apparently in several places in the Soviet Union, yes?

Yes. Yes, you are right. You see, my parents were in the military: my father was a military pilot, my mother was a military doctor; so I was born in the Baikal region, this is the city of Chita, it’s not far away from Lake Baikal, it’s the far east of Russia, very beautiful location, the Taiga region. I was born in Chita, then we switched our places of accommodation very often. We used to live close to Mongolia in Chita, that’s where my father was serving, and we switched places many more times. And say, despite the fact I was born in Chita, I think my hometown is a small town in the Moscow region, Dmitrov, that’s where my father was born. Most of my family members live there. It’s a very beautiful town, as well, and I try to do as much as I can now, I try to talk to schoolchildren as often as I can, and my father same thing. My parents, after my father retired from the military, they came to live in this town, too. My father is now retired but he is still very active and he works very closely with young people. It’s a club for youth and he is doing his job trying to make them learn new things such as fly a helicopter, to make parachute jumps, and other things, too. I for now live close to Star City with my family together. I am married, I have two daughters; my elder daughter is ten years old, the younger one is five. Very good girls, but there is one thing I need to say, we did want a boy as our second child, but probably because we had wanted a boy, the girl that I have is really a tomboy, so the elder one is a princess and the younger one is a soldier. She’s really a tomboy if anything. But overall they are great daughters, I’m very proud of them; I hope they are proud of me. And my wife is from Novosibirsk, that’s in Siberia region, too. Her parents still live there and currently she is right there together with my daughters in Novosibirsk. She is an accountant by education, but right now she stays at home.

Do you think that the fact that you grew up in a family where your parents were in the military and you moved from place to place influenced your choice of careers, influenced you to go into the military, too?

Yes, I think it did have an impact. As when I was a kid, graduating from school, I had a choice: either to follow the military path or to become a doctor. I can’t really say for sure but I have a presumption I’d make a good doctor, but back then I opted for the military, and I have no regret whatsoever. But I am positive if I were a doctor I’d be a good one, too.

Tell me a little bit about the path then for you. I understand that by the time you graduated from high school you were living near Moscow, but tell me about the, the different schools that you went to and the steps in your career that led you to, working at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center and then ultimately to become a cosmonaut.

Yes, I did switch lots of schools when I was a school kid. I’d say five schools. I don’t even remember correctly. My graduation took place at the Chkalovsky, a town that’s close to Star City, that’s where my father was finishing his years in the military, but now as I look back I find out this is school #14, it’s named after Yuri Gagarin, and now the school is very proud of me and I’m an often visitor, often guest to the school, I try to help the school as much as I can. And after graduating I went to a military school, after which I went to the military academy at Monino, then to the Krasnodar region to the Eisk aviation school. It was for fighter pilots and bombardier pilots. Then again back to the Gagarin military pilot academy so, you see, somehow I kept going closer to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center just by the names of the entities and education units. And after graduating from there I became an instructor at the Gagarin center, and then in 2003, after passing the exams and stuff, I became a cosmonaut. In 2005 I became the test cosmonaut, that’s the way, I mean to say that I finished the general cosmonaut preparation classes, and now again the finishing touch is my becoming ready for the flight.


So that’s the summary.

Do I understand then that the course of the several different schools and academies that you went to, that you went directly into, as an instructor of cosmonauts rather than into an operational role in the air force?

Currently, when I look back, I see that somehow I kept turning towards the cosmonaut path. I don’t know whether it was God or fate or, I don’t know, destiny. I remember that I had always wanted to be a pilot but somehow I found myself in the cosmonaut corps and I am a cosmonaut. Here I am.

When you were an instructor at the cosmonaut training center what were you teaching? What disciplines or what subjects were you an instructor?

Mostly practical activities, cosmonaut preparation for parachuting instructor. You probably know when a Russian cosmonaut is being prepared he or she goes through the mandatory parachuting exercises, so it’s not really to make a parachute trooper out of a cosmonaut, but it’s more in order to prepare the cosmonaut to be ready to perform the task set under stressful conditions. But for the purpose of the cosmonaut being able to do all those tests during the free fall period, he or she needs to know how to work with the parachute, what to do in case of an off-nominal situation, how to set up the backup parachute and, in addition, zero g flights, L-39, this is an aircraft flights. I participated there as part of the survival instructor group ’cause again all cosmonauts go through survivals, winter survival, survival in desert, sea survival. This is something I was busy with prior to becoming part of the cosmonaut corps. I was the one who prepared cosmonauts and astronauts who came to the Gagarin training center in order to prepare for their flights.

Do you think that it was your proximity to cosmonauts and astronauts in instructing them in these things that finally made you think, I could be a cosmonaut myself?

Probably, yes. As I was teaching somebody I could see that I was no less, I could do all of that myself, so I could say, yes, that was probably one of the reasons behind my applying for becoming a cosmonaut, so that’s why I went in, sat down and wrote that application.

To fly in space as a cosmonaut is to take on a job that carries some risks that most people don’t have in their jobs; but most people would wonder why. So let me ask you, what is it that you believe that people get, or what do we learn, as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking the risks to do so?

Cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin

Russian cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin, Expedition 33/34 flight engineer, talks on a microphone 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

As I said before, the justification of these risks probably lies in the intention of humankind to go forward, and probably one of the major steps now is exploring the new planets and in order to explore this new planet and to understand how to do things we need to acquire quite a mass of knowledge in the near Earth orbit. So what knowledge can to get here? Say if we want to, when we wanted to fly to Mars we had to perform a number of experiments in the near Earth orbit in order to understand how life support systems operate, and in order to understand how orbit works we needed time, dozens of years, to fine tune these systems to make them work with no defaults or imperfections, because there are so many devices that operate in space, even if we try to simulate all these observations on the ground, if we set the conditions high temperatures, low temperatures, as far as I know. After these items are flown to the station they behave in a totally different way. So this low Earth orbit stage is really necessary, but we need to look forward and to think about flying to stars, to other planets, maybe meet our alien brothers there. Who knows? Something like this.

You’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station for Expeditions 33 and 34. Evgeny, what are the goals of your flight and what jobs will you be doing during this mission?

Well, my primary task is that I am flight engineer on the ISS, and there are lots of goals, lots of objectives, but the main ones are to perform the tasks set. And the task is to maintain the space station in due condition so that all the units and all the apparati perform as they should, and should any of those break down, to be able to fix it. However, there is a second objective and I’d say that’s conduct experiments, scientific experiments. Our expedition will see around 50 experiments. We have studied, we are well-prepared for these experiments. I’d say for the major part these are scientific experiments like monitoring the Earth’s surface; there are also certain experiments in the education area aimed at children. No matter whether they are Russian children or U.S. children, we’ll try to conduct certain education programs and I hope these are going to be real exciting, at least for the children, because, well I say it’s one of my primary tasks because I have two kids, two daughters, and that’s why I hope I’ll do a good job. I would say that I know how to conduct myself when around kids, and I’ll do my best.

On the subject of excitement, this is your first spaceflight so I’m guessing that there’s a certain level of excitement for you about finally getting to make that trip to space, yes?

Certainly. I’ve been looking forward to it for the past 10 years, I mean, this flight, because I’ve been on the Russian cosmonaut corps for 10 years now. What I’m looking forward to, I’d say it’s the accomplishment of my dream and I feel really confident, I feel really well-prepared for this flight, and of course I’m really looking forward to making my own contribution to this expedition, to this mission. And I’ll do my best not to break something but try to contribute something to the project, and I hope I’ll be able to.

Are you excited about being part of this project in the sense that it’s also using the assets and the expertise of so many people from all around the world?

Oh, yes, of course, I’m really happy about this. I wouldn’t say that I’m nervous or anxious because as I mentioned earlier I feel really well-prepared, I feel confident, I feel assured and I think that I know what I’m going to do and I can navigate through all the machines and apparati. Yes, I’m happy but I’m not nervous.

You know what there is on the International Space Station; I want you to make sure that the rest of us do, too. Could you give us a little verbal tour of the different modules and the facilities that are present currently at the, what is soon to be your home in space?

Well, to paint a general picture, we have the Russian segment and U.S. segment. In addition we have a Japanese module and a European module, but I think I’ll start from scratch, that’s the Russian segment, and I’ll work through the entire station. So the first, and may I say the main module on the Russian segment is the Service Module [Zvezda], the SM module. This is the module that houses all the major units and apparati that provide for the crew environment, life support, comm[unication] with the ground, scientific experiments, etc. Besides, it houses crew quarters for two Russian crew members; there’s also food there, which is the most important thing, I’d say, because no one can survive without food or water. Later on, and as I mentioned, I am painting a big picture, we move to FGB [Zarya]. This is a storage facility, so to speak. I wouldn’t say it’s a garage, but I can say it’s a storage area like a warehouse. And eventually we find ourselves on the U.S. segment and its Node 1. Node 1 is mainly for food intake. To the left we will see Node 3; at the bottom, at the nadir point we’ll have the PMM [Permanent Multipurpose Module] module, to the right we’ll see the airlock [Quest], and as we move forward we find ourselves in Lab 1 [Destiny]. This is probably the most important module on the U.S. segment and I say this because even when they have emergency simulations I know for sure that this is the module where electricity is powered down at the very last stage. Later on we move to Node 2 after Node 1; this is also a home, we have four crew quarters there and most likely I’ll be one of those who’ll have their crew quarters there, and I hope this home is a very cozy and convenient one. And then past Node 2 to the left you’ll see the Japanese module and to the right the European module. So, I have been a guide to the ISS just now, but I haven’t been there yet so this is only in theory; once I get back, I’ll be more specific.

There are many modules that are devoted to science research, which is the main task for a crew on this space station these days, and you explained to us how, what some of those modules are. How do you explain to people the potential for learning new things that the space station offers and the value that that knowledge may have for us in the present and in the future?

I for one try to say the following when asked questions on science: I’m trying to be as simple as possible because as a cosmonaut I don’t go into depth regarding experiment, I need to understand the general principle of functioning, and be able to set and to ful, to carry out certain tasks myself manually, so when asked about experiments I’m trying to be as short and sweet and concise and brief as possible. I consider all the experiments being carried out on the ISS as experiments that look forward into the future, and I’d say with all of these experiments are for the benefit of humankind, for health research, for certain experiments in the field of physics that will contribute to the development of science on Earth, but without these experiments in space you won’t be able to do certain experiments on the ground. Say, as an example, work with crystals: this is something that can be done only in the space environment, not on the ground. Some of the experiments are done in space because much less energy is used in space because of micro, zero gravity. So, indeed, these experiments are very significant and important part for science development and for the future; very glad to be part of this project.

As you mentioned, one of the main areas of the science research is the health of the cosmonauts, to find out how living in that environment affects the human body. Could you give me an example or two examples of different things that you’re going to be doing during your mission that will help advance that research?

Cosmonauts Evgeny Tarelkin and Oleg Novitskiy and astronaut Kevin Ford

NASA astronaut Kevin Ford (right), Expedition 33 flight engineer and Expedition 34 commander; along with Russian cosmonauts Evgeny Tarelkin (left) and Oleg Novitskiy, both Expedition 33/34 flight engineers, participate in a routine operations training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Well, as far as I know, there are quite a few experiments that are carried out and directed at aiding people with limited physical ability so they can be reintegrated into regular normal life. A long-term existence under the conditions of zero g leaves its trace even on a healthy person such as a cosmonaut, so it is really vital to find that fine path between being a really healthy person, at the same time someone [who] has been adapted to the zero g environment, and one of the important steps on this path is when a cosmonaut gets back to Earth. The importance of this step is in the activities that are done, started one month prior to landing. A cosmonaut starts training really hard; moreover, Russian scientists have developed certain devices on the station that aid in this. I’d say the basic part is the physical exercises, but besides there are certain mechanisms and devices that help, so this is something that has a huge potential in aiding people with limited physical abilities. This is a very important stage of helping a cosmonaut getting prepared to return to the ground. Moreover, I’m thinking that what is also important is that when we get back to the ground the circulation, the mode of circulation, blood circulation, in the human body changes, too, because mostly when you’re up in space your blood is concentrated in the upper body, but these experiments on how arteries behave, how blood behaves, how the vestibular apparatus behaves, how the brain behaves, during the expedition when on board the station and after landing, is also very important part.

You mentioned several different experiments there and earlier you talked about physics experiments and plasma crystals and, and whatnot. In many of these cases you are going to be working with researchers who have, who came up with these ideas, with these experiments, people who are from all over the world. That must be an interesting aspect of the mission for you as well.

Certainly. We are going to work in close cooperation with developers, with those people who stand behind these experiments, develop them, because, in any case, I and my crew members will need the help on the part of the specialists. I’m a military person and I don’t have any direct relationship to science, so I’d say I’d guarantee that I’ll need help, but at the very little amount of knowledge and of practice that I need in order to conduct these experiments, that’s something I have.

You mentioned a few minutes ago that a large part of your job is taking care of the station. Give us a sense of what a regular day on the space station is like for a flight engineer. What sort of things will you be doing that are not directly related to science experiments?

A usual day on board the station, a normal day—again, that’s in theory for now—but this is something that starts after we wake up, hygiene procedures, breakfast, our daily planning conference, so-called DPC, and after that our workday starts. As I said before, a workday consists of maintaining station in due operational condition, conducting experiments, and a large part of the day is devoted to performing physical exercises; we also shouldn’t forget about a rest. We have meals, lunch, talking to family, talking to specialists on these experiments I talked about before, so this is somewhat of a psychological relaxation. So I’d say it’s a usual working day, and after dinner, free time; we can watch news, movies, talk to each other.

It’s not too different from the life on Earth except for the, the isolation.

Oh, yes, you are right. That might be a problem for somebody. As you mentioned, it’s one thing that you’re isolated, however, as far as I imagine it, for somebody from the military it’s not a big deal, I don’t see any problem with that at all. In addition to that, if we talk about our crew and the previous increment and the subsequent increment, the folks are just great and I’m really positive we’ll have excellent understanding and cooperation. And, in fact, we’ve been acquainted with each other even before we became part of these specific crews. I’d say that I’ve known each of my crewmates for five years at least.

Now, almost in the very middle of your trip to space will come the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. What are your thoughts about spending those occasions on board the space station?

I hope in a very cheerful way, but again I think it’s going to be rather nominal. We’re going to watch some Christmas movie, I think we are very likely to have a Christmas dinner, maybe Christmas lunch; presents, I presume; and I think we’ll have to do a bit of work, too. So I think there shouldn’t be anything extraordinary, just the way it is on Earth.

The plan for your increment or any other mission on board the space station has to have some flexibility in it to deal with changing circumstances, and that could even include the possibility that you or some of your crewmates might have to go outside to do some work. As we talk today, what is the plan for spacewalks for your increment? Do you know who would go outside or what jobs are on the agenda for them?

I cannot say for sure right now whether there will be a Russian extravehicular activity, a Russian spacewalk, during our increment. There was a plan to have an EVA, that’s a spacewalk, during which Roman Romanenko and I were supposed to participate, but right now I cannot say for sure whether we are going to have a spacewalk or not. We’ll probably find this out after Gennady Padalka and Yuri Malenchenko have completed their spacewalk. It depends on how many tasks they will have accomplished. If there is something left for us, then Roman and I will probably finish it. So if there is a big wish, I know how it will turn out in the end. I hope we’ll have one.

It did, it looked like you were eager for that opportunity to go outside, yes?

Very much, very much indeed.

The International Space Station is getting supplies delivered to it these days by a fleet of uncrewed cargo ships. There are about a half a dozen of them that should be arriving or departing during the time that you’re going to be up there. Could you describe for me what these different cargo ships are, including some of the new commercial cargo ships that are coming from the United States?

I’d say for the major part, the cargo vehicles, it’s the Russian Progress vehicle. Then what I really liked, judging by the size is the Dragon vehicle and, to tell you the truth I was really impressed. I don’t see a big difference between Russian cargo vehicles and certain commercial craft. Probably if there is a difference in terms of size and how much payload they can take and bring to the station; I think the only difference is basically the way they were manufactured, what the country of origin is. Otherwise I don’t see much difference.

With spaceships now coming from, as you say, from a number of different countries as well as starting now to come from commercial companies, we see private industry and sovereign nations all working together in space rather than competing against one another. Is that the way that you think things will continue into the future?

I hope it will. I think that everything new is good and useful for the space industry. Of course it’s great that we have old cargo vehicles that have been flying for dozens of years, but we need to improve, we need to modernize, to update, because something new is not always bad. Yes, of course, one of the basic principles in aviation and space industry is that if something is flying, don’t touch it; it’s good enough to fly so let’s continue flying. But my guess is that right now science has achieved lots of new things, and if say we have a new unit and the weight, the overall weight of the vehicle reduces, and the square footage reduces, too, it means that the space that can be allocated for payload increases, and if we talk about man-piloted vehicles, this means the square footage for the room for humans increases, too. We’ll have more room; it’s going to be more comfortable, so if you ask me I think that that cooperation between commercial companies and government companies is a very positive thing. I think so.

As you look ahead into the future with all of those involved, how is it that you see that the work that’s being done now on the International Space Station is going to help prepare all those different entities for the exploration that’s going to take place in the future?

Frankly speaking, I’m not a politician, I cannot predict anything, but the advantage I see is that cooperation between different peoples is going to strengthen and increase. Cooperation because of close ties and communication between different people is great.