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Preflight Interview: Roman Romanenko
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Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, Expedition 34/35 flight engineer, poses for a portrait following an Expedition 34/35 preflight press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?

A: Well, as I probably mentioned before, I didn’t initially plan to be a cosmonaut, because I grew up in Star City surrounded by cosmonauts, surrounded by those first cosmonauts that began flying to space. I lived with them together because my father is a cosmonaut. He flew three times, so I was forced to be surrounded by cosmonauts. Whenever we went on a trip, picnic, or business trip, I was always with my dad and I would just always be in contact with cosmonauts and I thought it would be always normal to be with them. There was nothing special about it for me. But I did want to be a pilot. I wanted to be a military pilot because I liked airplanes. I was interested in modeling airplanes. As a child I made a bunch of little airplane models and I really enjoyed that, because I was in good health back then, not now as a cosmonaut, but when I was younger, I was in good health, I was strong. All of this allowed me to be able to join the flight academy and I went to be a pilot, a military pilot there. Finally I was able to become a pilot and an officer. All of this happened in the ’90s, the beginning of the ’90s—the Soviet Union collapsed. It began to separate into various republics, and I was studying in Ukraine. I finished my studies there, so when I graduated they couldn’t find a place for me in Ukraine. They said, “Either you stay here in Ukraine and become a Ukrainian pilot, or you go back to your home, go back to Russia.” So I chose to go back to Russia where I had to learn to fly other types of planes. Again, the beginning of the ’90s in Russia was a critical time. There was an economic crisis and young pilots were not allowed to fly. They were not given a chance to do it. Only older, more experienced pilots were given that chance. And so finally I became the pilot of the airplane that was taking cosmonauts to Baikonur and back after they landed, so again I was back in that same environment, again I began meeting with cosmonauts, and the picture was clear, they weren’t allowing me to fly a lot, and so I started thinking about changing jobs, maybe finding something related to that. And right at the moment I was told that they’re looking for applicants to join the cosmonauts, and I thought, why not? I’ll give it a try as well. After I went through a whole series of medical tests and psychological tests, I was admitted into the office of cosmonauts and have been there since 1998. That’s how I became a cosmonaut.

You said that you grew up in Star City because your father was a cosmonaut. What was it like for you to grow up there? Was it just what you expected, or was it just the normal life?

Well, yes, of course. I was born there. All the neighbors are cosmonauts. It was the norm, and that’s exactly why I didn’t really dream about being a cosmonaut. I don’t think how it would be so wonderful to be a cosmonaut, because other people who lived on the other side of Star City, they were more interesting for me, something new and unexplored. So there was nothing special about being a cosmonaut. So now, as a cosmonaut, I think this is normal.

For some people, when their parent has a particular profession, they want to follow and do the same thing. Other people want to go a different path because they don’t want to follow. Is that what you did? Did you want to have something of your own that was different from what your father did?

Well, it was fifty-fifty. I did dream of being a pilot so that was doing something that my father did. He also finished the flight academy, also trained in Ukraine, and that was the same academy that I went to because I wanted to be a pilot also, I wanted to continue that work that he did because military cosmonauts who enter the profession from the military, when we fly to space we also maintain our pilot skills, and so in that respect I wanted to follow my father and be a pilot but I didn’t expect that I would go further.

And you mentioned some of your education and your professional history. Tell me about that. You graduated from high school in Star City, and then what were the steps along that path that ultimately led you to be a cosmonaut yourself?

OK, so I graduated from high school in Star City. After that I was already thinking that I want to follow my dad, in his footsteps. I needed to join the military. I wanted to get my act together, become more disciplined, but since my dad was always away either in space or on business trips. My family didn’t have time for me so I decided to join the Suvorov military academy which is in St. Petersburg. I spent two years there and studied general military science. At that point, once I graduated, I joined the Chernigov higher education pilot academy. After that I became a pilot and in ’98 I finally found my calling, I became a cosmonaut, which is where I am now and preparing for the next flight.

To take the job as a cosmonaut and to fly in space is to assume some risks that most people don’t have in their lives, so people would wonder what is your motivation. Roman, what is it that you think that we are learning, what is it that we gain, as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth the risk that you take?

Well, I think the people that want to fly in space, who want to work in space, who want to go to station, these people realize that there is a risk inherent to what they do. They understand that there are possible off-nominal situations, dangerous situations in space, and there’s no insurance against that. But, again, the reliability of the technology that we are surrounded with brings the risk down with every day because the technology becomes more and more reliable and we become better and better trained for various difficult situations, off-nominal situations on station. The equipment is constantly updated, modified, and all of the training that we undergo here in Houston, all of that training is aimed at having us as a crew prepare for all the possible off-nominal situations so that we can feel comfortable in space, because there can be occasions when the ground will not be able to help us get out of a difficult situation, so the main problems like depressurization and fire scenarios, we have to know those by heart. In other situations, where we don’t need to react as quickly, the Mission Control Centers in Moscow and in Houston will be able to help us, give us directions and guidance. As for risk, well, that is present everywhere. A driver can fall asleep behind the wheel; a pilot can have an accident as well; even pedestrians walking down the street can miss a sign and get into trouble. So, yes, on the one hand we do encounter maximum risk, but we train for that and we’re ready to encounter all those situations.

You’re about to launch to the International Space Station for Expeditions 34 and 35. Roman, what are the goals of your mission and what jobs are you going to be doing on this flight?

Well, the goal of our flight, of our crew, with Chris Hadfield and Tom Marshburn, is to follow a science program, to replace the previous crew, to replenish the station, and to do all of this successfully. This is the general idea. In terms of the Russian tasks and our cosmonauts, we have some science experiments and some science programs. There are some programs and science experiments that are repeated constantly throughout the different increments, and specific experiments which will be done for the first time, and maybe some old experiments will be repeated for our expedition.

Now you’ve been to the International Space Station before on your first flight. Tell me what it is you are looking forward to about seeing or doing when you get back this time.

Well, first of all I want to see the Cupola. I’ve heard a lot about it, I’ve seen it here in Building 9, but physically I wasn’t inside of it. I want to see it, I want to see the world, the planet, from the other side, from a different point of view. Also, there are new Russian modules, new U.S. modules, which have expanded the space within the station, within the ISS. I understand that the crew has a little more difficulty living there because there is more space, you have to clean it, more space to service, but on the other side it’s better because we can breathe more freely, there’s more space and we don’t feel so stuck in a small space.

You mentioned Building 9, that’s a place here at the Johnson Space Center where there are mockups of station equipment where you’ve trained for the mission. You’ve been training with a crew member that you flew with before—you and Tom Marshburn were actually on the station together back in 2009 when his shuttle flight visited while you were there. Has the experience of having flown with somebody help you as you get prepared for this flight?

I think from the very first days when we trained together for Expedition 34/35, it seemed like we never parted. The people that I had met in 2009, it was Kevin Ford and Tom Marshburn, I met with them on station. These people already know who they’re working with and we’ve remained good friends on good terms from those times, and so now we’ve prepared and we’re training for this specific flight. So I think it’s a great benefit for our crew in that it’s made out of people who have already flown, veterans in flight, and it’s a great advantage to have us all have had already this experience on station together.

Any time you fly in space you’re going to miss certain things that happen on Earth. On your upcoming flight you’re going to be in space for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. What are your thoughts about being in space for those events?

Well, I haven’t thought about that yet but I think it will be a big adventure, a big moment in our space life. And we’ll be dressing up, we’ll be decorating the station, we’ll put up a Christmas tree, maybe we’ll have some presents that will arrive on the cargo vehicles, which of course will make us very happy and will support us during this evening, this special time. Before, it happened that all three of our crew members—there was Frank De Winne, Robert Thirsk—they both had birthdays during our flight, and now it’s a little bit different, we’re flying in the wintertime and the crew and I were born in August so we’re skipping our holiday, our birthdays, but we’ll be celebrating other holidays including Christmas and New Year.

Let me ask you to set the stage for me. Tell me about the International Space Station as it exists now: what modules and different facilities are there that you’ll be working with? Tell us about the place that you are going to.

Well, the station is quite impressive. I think not everyone can have an idea of what it looks like unless they are there. It’s huge. The space inside allows about 13, 14, even 15 people to comfortably coexist within it. Even during our flight, when the station was a third less than it is now, crew members could work in different modules and would only see each other in the evening over a cup of tea. Now the station is even bigger so I think we’ll have to reacquaint ourselves with the other remaining modules which we haven’t seen before. Specifically about the Russian segment, there is MRM [mini research module] 1 [Rassvet], it arrived right after I departed from station in 2009, I haven’t seen it yet. I’m expecting to see ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] which will possibly be docking during the end of our flight, and a bunch of different Progresses which we’ll have to unpack and then load back again. As for the U.S. segment, there is Node 3, there is the Cupola, and an additional module that arrived on shuttle, it is permanently docked to station now. It’s a big cargo module. There is a lot to see, and there are a lot of places to work.

And then all the other, the laboratories and the robotic arm, there are all kinds of things to, for you guys to play with when you’re there.

Yes, that’s, our main task is to service the station, all of the systems, and to do all of the science experiments there so we will be touching everything.

Let’s talk about the science. Because the assembly of the station is pretty much complete now, the emphasis for the crew members is on the science research. In general, how do you explain to people what the potential is for what we may be able to learn from the work that’s being done on the station now?

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Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, Expedition 34/35 flight engineer, participates in a 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

Well, the main idea, of course, is to use all the potential of a zero gravity of space and also the various factors of spaceflight to test various materials and products, maybe test some medicines. Also, the idea is to see how the space factor affects not only the different experiments, the different materials, but to see how it affects us, real living humans, how it affects our bodies, how space affects us as we are living in flight, in space, for a long period of time. Why do we do this? We do this to gain a lot of experience to prepare for subsequent flights, more long-duration flights to other planets. Specifically we’re talking about Mars now, maybe we’ll be returning back to the moon again, too. But if you look back 30 to 40 years ago, people were not able to regain their strength so quickly after flight, and at that time the long-duration flight was just a month. Now half a year is decent. We can fight and prevent all the different conditions that a human can experience after human flight. So now we are fully ready to spend half a year in space and return to our normal state within a short period of time to go on to subsequent flights. So that’s the general idea. There are different kinds of experiments on station. We study the atmosphere, the surface of the Earth. I won’t say that we’re studying other planets because they are really far away from us just like from Earth, so for us the key is the atmosphere, the ocean, the forests, plankton, fish, icebergs, glaciers, which depending on the general temperature, the average temperature of the planet, may be melting or may remain for a long time on mountaintops. There are different experiments with growing biocrystals because here on Earth it is impossible to grow perfect crystal because it is not the correct shape as it should have been. There are very different experiments. They take up most of the time of our flight.

As you mentioned, one area of special concentration is to find out how the human body responds to being in that environment, and to find ways to counteract those negative effects. Can you give me two or three examples of the kinds of experiments in this area that you’re going to be working on during this mission?

Well, there are several experiments, it’s called Tipologia and another experiment called Pilot—I can’t even find an appropriate translation of the terms. The experiments take a long time, and a lot of preparation goes into these experiments. For example, the crew member has to undress himself completely, attach a bunch of different sensors to his body, he puts a special cap on his head with other sensors that controls the activity of various neurons within the brain; basically it monitors the brain activity. The problem is that experiments are very interesting, they are very interesting for science and for medicine, but we have to do these experiments every month. We fly for half a year, so that means six times per increment we do these experiments. It is difficult to prepare for the experiment because while you’re putting on one sensor, another sensor flies off. All these sensors are attached to a specific computer, there is software that monitors the activity of the sensors, monitors the signals coming in, all the signals are gathered, and while all this is happening we have to do physical work, intellectual work, and some tasks. For example, we have to manually dock a cargo vehicle, or just play some simple games on the computer; we have to activate all of our cerebral functions. And while we’re doing this we have to be completely focused. All this information is read off of a computer and we see this little green space that shows us that if we’ve relaxed and stopped thinking, the green space gets a lot smaller. Once you start thinking actively, calculating something, then this green space expands and this shows that your brain is working hard. Then all of this information that is collected over an hour, an hour and a half, on the computer, all this information is downlinked to the ground, and then analysts can already analyze how all this affects us in spaceflight, how it affects our brain and our bodies. Well, this is one of the examples of such an experiment, which I think is one of the most difficult ones.

You’ve been in space so you’re had the personal experience of what that environment does to people. From your point of view, what is it that we need to do to maximize the chances that people are going to be able to be successful exploring for long periods beyond Earth orbit?

Well, I think we need to continue as we’ve been doing, six people per increment. I think this will again maximize the number of experiments that we do on station. Also this will facilitate the process of adapting to space. It will help us develop skills that we’ll be able to use when flying to other planets.

Space station’s modules are filled with some specialized equipment for science experiments in other disciplines besides human life sciences. Give me a couple of examples of the other kinds of research that are also going to be taking up your time while you’re in space this time.

I think another equally important experiment is this: from the first flight day we prepare us for landing back on Earth, we have a lot of special equipment to do exercises on station. This keeps us in a good physical shape that we had before we arrived on station, but it also allows us to pump some iron, so to speak, but the key is not to overdo it. There is TVIS [Treadmill Vibration Isolation and Stabilization], ARED [Advanced Resistive Exercise Device], T2 [Treadmill 2], they’re all great devices that helps us keep our physical shape in space. If everything goes as the medics have planned, everything should be OK because there’s an individual approach for each astronaut. It’s a little bit different. We have specific instructions to do exercises on station and if we retain our shape up until the last minutes of our flight and we feel ourselves, we feel pretty well when we land. Even if we don’t, we regain our physical shape quickly afterwards. We do this work to keep our body in a good shape throughout and so that we feel good when we arrive back on Earth. This also keeps our bones under the right load, under the right pressure. Before, when cosmonauts would arrive back on Earth, the physical exercise that they did do didn’t help keep the strength of the structure of the body, so after flight they didn’t recommend us to do any physical exercises. For example, they said we weren’t allowed to jump with a parachute or go mountain skiing. Now it’s different. Practically, just a few months afterwards we can do this because the bones are strong.

Along with all of this science work that you and your crewmates are going to do, you’re also the people who are charged with the responsibility of taking care of the station to make sure that it can keep flying. What other kinds of work do International Space Station crew members have to do outside of the science experiments? What else do you do during your day?

That’s a great question. Each crew member can set up his day differently. For example, one crew member, after they do several tasks of the work plan, can take a break and watch a movie, they can speak with the ground using a special channel for talking with family, with friends. Some people write emails or letters. Others like to do additional experiments, additional work, but I think something that we all enjoy doing is just looking at Earth, taking pictures of the Earth, taking photographs of various processes, movements on Earth, and just to soak in the beauty of the Earth. This is something that practically all of us do with some of our free weekend time, but then of course there is time to speak with Earth, take some pictures. Some people have a task list of additional experiments that we don’t actually have to do but that we can do. Whenever we have a time, we try to do this task list just to add some variety to our weekend.

Even during the week you have other tasks to do, and the plan for your increment has to be flexible to take into account things that are unexpected that crop up. That includes the possible need for you to go outside to do spacewalks. Right now, is there a plan for a spacewalk during your time?

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Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, Expedition 34/35 flight engineer, participates in an extravehicular activity (EVA) preparation and post EVA training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

I have been preparing, even a week ago I was preparing for my EVA, for my spacewalk, to do the installation of some experiments outside the station. All this is hard work. Also I’m supposed to collect information from other experiments that were installed outside the station. But it seems that this EVA will be pushed a little bit to the right. Basically this is done because practice has shown that it’s not a good idea to have crew members do spacewalks a few weeks prior to departing back for Earth. So the plan is now to have the next crew member do that spacewalk, which is unfortunate because last time I was unable to do a spacewalk. There were no plans to do it, and this time I was really excited to be able to do my EVA, but now it seems that as of today at least I won’t be doing that because the spacewalk was moved.

But you’ll be ready to go if asked?

I’m always ready. It’s really a shame because I trained a lot here in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, and even from 2002 I began preparing and training but the program changed, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to do some tasks on the U.S. segment. Again, this has happened the second time, the second increment where there are no EVAs, but we’ll do what we can.

This space station is receiving supplies from the Earth in a small fleet of unmanned cargo ships, and there are a few of them that are scheduled to be coming and going during your time up there. Tell me about the different ships that are bringing supplies to the station now, including the two American commercial ships that may be arriving during the time you’re in space as well.

I didn’t mention this before but we are looking forward to those moments when the two commercial vehicles will arrive, which, the dockings are actually planned for our increment. I know that these vehicles will carry different types of equipment, our clothes and our food, and so over the course of our increment two commercial vehicles will dock. About three cargo vehicles, Progress vehicles, will dock. Also, there will be two Progresses already docked when we arrive plus there will be ATV, which is the European cargo vehicle, so if all of this happens we’ll be very busy for the whole duration of our flight.

The whole landscape of space flight has actually changed a lot in the last few years, because now you’ve got private companies flying cargo to space and different nations that are working together instead of competing with one another. Is that the kind of arrangement that you think is going to continue as human beings continue to try to explore space and go beyond Earth orbit?

I think that the space agencies will not miss an opportunity to move forward, to just trample on the ground here on Earth, but they’ll continue expanding forward. As for commercial programs or space tourists, there is some rumors going around that possibly there’ll be a commercial tourist from the Russian side, someone who will participate in space flight, but right now it’s all in the planning stages and I think our agencies will continue looking into this question, see how it turns out. Because right now we’re flying half a year, there is a constant rotation, those who arrive on their vehicles depart on their vehicles and there is no opportunity to arrive on a different vehicle—take a taxi, so to speak—in order to be able to have a rotation of tourists. So we’ll see; time will tell.

The point of sending people into space, in part at least, is to prepare us for exploration that will go on in the future. You’ve been there so, Roman, tell me what is it that you, that you know that we are learning from sending people to the International Space Station that is helping us prepare for the deep space explorations to come?

In 2009, when we flew the first time, that was the first time when there was a six-crew group on station. It was an experiment, a major experiment, but it proved that everything was good, we had good relationships among the crew members, and this happened because we were both prepared well for flight and also because we were psychologically compatible. We were stable and up to this day we’ve remained on good terms with the cosmonauts and the astronauts that we flew together. I think these types of flights give humanity a lot to think about. We learned to work together jointly with different nations, different people, all in one boat. This is very useful. Again it’s preparation for longer flights to other planets. If everything is going well, if we’re able to successfully follow the program, the flight program, even while orbiting Earth, with this rich experience we’ll be able to reach other planets as well with no problem.