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Preflight Interview: Pavel Vinogradov
Pavel Vinogradov

Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, Expedition 35 flight engineer and Expedition 36 commander, speaks to a crowd during a cake-cutting ceremony in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be a cosmonaut?

A: Why did I decide to become a cosmonaut? At the beginning of my professional career, when I graduated from Moscow aviation institute, I had been working there for six years. By that time I was teaching, researching, and I was studying the issues of medical and biological problems for the Buran project. I was testing for and researching this subject. We had quite a few very interesting experiments for short orbits, for such vehicles as the shuttle, for example. I understood that I have the potential, because to be honest, before, I thought that cosmonauts were superhumans that—pretty much gods—but the more I worked in the system the more I understood that I could do that, too. Probably by 1980, I set it as my goal to try and become a cosmonaut. Unfortunately it took me a very long time because I was working on the Buran project, and only in 1992 I was accepted into the cosmonaut corps. Actually, before I was a programmer, and I later understood that you cannot compare the cosmonaut profession with anything. He has to be a universal human being with great knowledge in all areas, not just programming but also in the field of medicine and in the field of technology. It’s a comprehensive profession that requires first of all love, and then great knowledge. I don’t know what profession would be more interesting than being a cosmonaut. I don’t think I ever thought of even changing it or starting something new or going into politics, for example. I think I will be a cosmonaut to the end.

When you were a young boy what did you dream of being when you grew up?

Well, most of all I was dreaming of becoming a pilot, or maybe a submariner, but it was in the ’60s and, of course, for us, for boys like me, cosmonauts were superhumans. They were heroes that were well known to everybody in the country and, of course, I couldn’t even dream, couldn’t even imagine in my childhood thoughts that it would one day come true. It’s my pinnacle; I have reached it.

Tell me about your childhood and your hometown, the area where you grew up, which is in the far eastern regions of your country.

That is true. I was born in Magadan in the far east of the country and then my parents moved to Anadyr in Chukotka; it’s very close to Alaska, but the closest city was Anadyr. I later moved to Moscow to enter into college but I spent most of my childhood in the northern part of the Far East, and I love this part of the country, maybe because it’s my homeland, but it’s a great place. If anybody has been to Alaska, then it’s pretty much the same: the nature is just fantastic, of course, the climate it very harsh—eight months of winter, lots of snow and ice—but I love it. When I get a chance I try to come and visit my hometown, but unfortunately the last time I was there was three years ago. But that’s what I called my motherland.

You mentioned earlier, and perhaps I could get you to repeat for us, the steps in your education and your professional career that led you ultimately to become a cosmonaut. You said you graduated from high school but then you went to Moscow for university, for study, yes?

That’s correct. I graduated high school in Anadyr in 1970 and then I was admitted to the Moscow Aviation Institute. I graduated in ’77 and I was invited to work in a research laboratory in the institute that was working on space systems, and I was working on my dissertation. At the same time I graduated from another department and got a degree in automated computer systems and in 1983, six years later, I started working in RSC Energia. By that time I had already submitted my request to join the cosmonaut corps. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t accepted because one of the conditions for me to be able to be admitted was to be working for one of the corporations that dealt with space exploration, and that’s why I joined RSC Energia. I was also working on the Buran project, on the Mir station project, and I was supporting the crew training, guidance and navigation control. We have tried a lot of various aircrafts in the process, but the Buran project was over, and afterwards I started working on the Mir project and then joined the cosmonaut corps. In 1995 is when I became active, and I was working with [Thomas] Reiter and [Gennady] Manakov, and that’s how I joined the team and I have been in the cosmonaut corps ever since.

To fly in space is to do a job that has some unique risks to it, and the fact that you are doing it tells me that you think that the rewards are worth the risk that you take, so I would like to get you to tell me why. What is that you think we are learning, what is it that we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?

I think it is well worth the risk. All these risks can be explained by one interesting comparison. I was in Spain once, and in one of the cities in Spain I was told how America was discovered and why little Spain was sending ships across the ocean and finally discovered this great land that later became America. Of course, the risks were enormous, and they were probably just the same as ours. They didn’t have clear-cut goals and routes to those new lands, they were just discovering. And now we probably can talk for hours why we need space exploration, but we do need it so that in 10, 50 or maybe 100 years we will work, so that we are capable to support, to provide completely new things, items, technology, for Earth. Because, we didn’t know about tea that comes from India, but now we can’t live without it in Europe, Russia, and all over the world. I think that I will not discuss all the terrible dangers that are described to us, but I think that space exploration is actually a way to protect our civilization from threats from outer space which are very real. Luckily we did not come face to face with them, but engineers, specialists and scientists know that these dangers exist, and the only way to prepare for them is space exploration. We need it even for that, and if we try to turn off our satellites for two or three minutes, that are basically sending signals for everything, we’ll be able to see the results. And space exploration or spaceflight in general pushes the boundaries further and allows us for new things. Also, people who were exploring the Earth did not know that they would discover America in four months. The risks were great, but I have no doubt that likewise we, as those explorers, need to explore space and should not be asking why. Usually I say that it’s boring for me to just sit at home and I want to get out, see the lands around me, visit my neighbors and friends, travel abroad, and here probably we have a small group of people who are bored living on Earth.

You and your crewmates are next in line to fly to the International Space Station. So, Pavel, tell me, just in summary, what are the goals of this mission to the International Space Station, and what is your role as a member of this crew?

I will be the commander of the crew so my role is pretty clear and well defined. Our main goal for Expedition 35/36 is to continue the research that is currently conducted on board the station, and primarily it will be to prepare the Russian segment of the ISS to accept, to dock, a new module, the so-called MLM [Multipurpose Laboratory Module]. It’s a new Russian module, a research module, and of course there will be a lot of work linked with these operations, to install all of the equipment outside the station, to lay the cables. And of course our research program is very extensive: we have about 46 experiments that we will be carrying out on board.

What are you looking forward to the most about seeing the International Space Station again after these years?

I think it will be great to go back to the zero g environment. That’s for the first and foremost, and, of course, for people who were on board the station, feel that it’s their second home, and it will be like coming home for me. And of course it’s larger, the station has expanded, it’s now beautiful and big, but it makes it even more exciting for me to go back.

You could have something brand new on your flight to the station, different than all the other prior Soyuz flights to the space station: management is considering having you and your crewmates dock to the space station on the very same day that you launch, after just four orbits of the Earth. What are the advantages of having a crew dock to the space station in just four orbits instead of two days?

Pavel Vinogradov

Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, Expedition 35 flight engineer and Expedition 36 commander, uses a computer 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

Well, if we’re talking only about the ISS, it’s a new step forward in the development of the station. But, as I have already said, we will be actually repeating our previous experience. Because we had the same flights in the Gemini program, when we needed only two or three orbits to dock; in the Soviet Union times our first vehicles, Soyuz 5, 6, or maybe second, worked according to the same expedited docking plan. So now we are going back to the beginnings. From the point of view of the crew, I think it’s a very beneficial because getting to the ISS, getting on orbit fast, is always great—it will be much more convenient to be able to get from Houston to Moscow and back in two or three hours. Of course, it’s going to be a long workday for the crew. We will have to stay up for a very long time before, getting ready for the launch, but I think it’s much more efficient. We will be able to deliver experiments that require fast delivery on board, and I think this is the most important here. As for the crew, I think, I don’t think that it’s going to be too strenuous. For the Mission Control Centers, this work is going to be something new, they have to be working very cohesively, and it’s not only about Mission Control Center in Moscow, it’s also for Mission Control Center in Houston, and the personnel have to be working in unison. We’ll see, I think everything is going to be fine.

We have heard before that the two-day flight of the Soyuz, that one of the reasons was to allow crew members time to adapt to weightlessness. If you dock in four orbits, you don’t have that time; is that still OK, is that not a problem?

Actually, when we decided to take our time docking, we wanted to give the crew some time to adapt to the zero g, and it was in the ’70s, and we didn’t know much about the human body, reacting to zero g during the flights, and in the IBMP [Institute for Biomedical Problems] they have different plans to prepare the crews to adapt very quickly, within the first few hours, to the zero g environment. It was not a rash decision to choose this plan, and all effects of the zero g on the vestibular systems of the body actually show themselves, and they can show themselves within those two days and if they do present themselves they only increase. To be honest, it’s not easy to be, although it [Soyuz] might be a very comfortable, convenient vehicle, it’s not easy for the crew. Before you actually try something, you cannot decide whether you like it or not. We should try it. If everything works out and we don’t see any more negative effects on the human body, then why not?

Let’s talk about the place that that Soyuz is going. Describe for us the International Space Station that is on orbit today, the modules and the systems and equipment that are there to support the crew members and, and their science mission on board the station.

Today the International Space Station is a large spacecraft. It’s a large structure. I think it’s actually a pinnacle of our technological development and advancement, and undoubtedly it is a spacecraft that provides everything. It is a space home that provides everything for the people working there to work there, to rest there, to keep up their physical condition, and I can enumerate for hours all the systems that are required for that. For example the motion and navigation control system, the system that is in charge of attitude control. Of course, these systems are extremely sophisticated and nothing on board the station can exist without them. Life support systems, for example, that provide us with oxygen and pretty much provide for the environment on board the station. I don’t want to go into great detail; there are dozens of systems that provide for the operations of the station, but I think scientific experiments are extremely important. It’s even hard for me to name the hundreds of scientific equipment items that are on board and delivered on board all the time for the experiments. And I would say that we have been preparing for a very long time to be able to carry out the experiments because this equipment is very sophisticated and requires necessary training to get the results and not to break or damage anything. And the ISS today is pretty much the pinnacle of space exploration arts, and it shows how many different countries, dozens of countries, engineers, specialists can work jointly on one project, and to work reliably.

Since the assembly of this space station is all but complete the emphasis now is on the science work that’s being done by the crew members on board. What do you think is the potential for what we can learn from flying this space station and conducting science on board?

To be honest, we are at the very beginning of space exploration. What we know today is very exciting. Twenty or 40 years ago we knew nothing about it, but now we are at the threshold of developing new ways and understanding how reliably, and how we can explore medium space, not deep space, and I’m talking about Mars, and not just orbit the Earth. And the tasks for Mars exploration are going to be much more complicated, and traveling to Mars or somewhere else, we have to ensure that the crews return to Earth healthy. So the plethora of experiments and research is great: human behavior, human adaptation to zero g, which also includes adaptation to the higher radiation levels, here we are just at the threshold of the exploration, at studying the basics. And it will help us understand how our vascular system adapts to zero gravity, microgravity. Of course, we have different and new methods to explore and to study, but we have not tried them in flight yet, so that’s what I think will be the medical side of space exploration. And we have a lot of tasks in front of us, but I think that we’re still close to Earth; if we fly to the moon the level of reliability of on board systems, of the vehicle itself, should be much greater. There are a lot of tasks facing us. The ISS is like a platform, the first step for research and for our advancement.

In the area of finding out how people can survive and thrive in this environment, the space station program has recently announced that they’re going to send two crew members to the station for a full year to find out more about how the human body responds to that environment. What are your thoughts about the idea of sending crew members to the station for 12-month missions?

I think, first of all, it’s a very good decision. For the ISS it’s going to be the first time, but in Russia, in the Soviet Union, there were missions like that, for longer than a year, but from the point of view whether the human body can endure a flight that is one or two years long, is not the goal here. We want to learn how to, and find new ways to provide for the support for a long-duration mission. Of course there are a lot of nuances and we want to try not only two or three people in a 12-month mission. They’re doing just fine in long-duration missions, but we want to find new ways for manning the station. For example, everybody knows that when we go to Mars, the speed of light is not limitless and there are delays in sending the commands and receiving the commands on board, the delays in receiving the telemetry and evaluating the telemetry, and of course there is an issue of the comm[unication]s, and it’s a rather complicated process and we need to find out how to work in such situations. So I think that the mission that we’re planning will give us some answers to these questions, and of course such long-duration missions require a different level of support of the crews. Now we are sending people to space over three, four months, or vehicles into space, and it can be a Progress, or other vehicles, and we can deliver almost anything on board. However, with this 12-month mission we will try to minimize our support from the ground and to have the supplies on board the station that will be enough for them, and it’s not an easy task. We have to coordinate our actions on the ground and it’s, requires some phenomenal degree of coordination almost down to every single hour, so I think that it’s a new step and we’re learning to fly and we are starting to learn from the ISS platform.

Now on board the space station, a lot of the science research that’s conducted is focused on this question of finding out how the body responds to a long period in this environment. Could you give me two or three examples of research in this area that you are going to be involved with on this flight?

Pavel Vinogradov

Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, Expedition 35 flight engineer and Expedition 36 commander, is pictured during an emergency scenario training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Now we are beginning a study that is geared to evaluate brain activity of humans. We have studied it on the ground. We have a lot of methods on studying the human brain, how brain processes are sped up or slowed down, but now we are trying to study these detailed processes regarding the neurological system of the human body and how it influences the physical activity of the humans. We are studying this research on board the station and it’s not very easy, especially on Earth. And now we have the methods, we have the means, and we are beginning to work on this research. Chris Cassidy, our colleague, will be involved in this research and experiment and he will be the man who will be measuring different parameters, different characteristics of the human brain activity. The second experiment will be about the vascular system of the human body and we would like to know the dynamics of the changes in the human body. I think it is a very important area and requires some really fine research. The third area, we will need to provide and to support our crews in good physical shape in long-duration missions and to develop special physical exercises, and I should say that the USOS [U.S. Operating Segment] segment has great equipment that allows for training every part of the human body, and we would like to study the degrading effects of the zero g on the muscular system. We will try to find ways to support the human body in zero g for two or three years, and we understand that the methods that we have been using or used before when each crew member had to spend an hour and a half [a day] to support his physical shape is not the most optimal. It’s not very efficient as far as crew member’s activity goes, because we basically take out two hours out of our work day to just provide a safe return. Now we have quite good exercise equipment, or biostimulants that can actually stimulate different muscle groups and support the human body. Now we want to find the ways to maintain a human body in a good physical shape. We need to learn how to live in space.

Those are good examples of the kinds of things you’re doing in that area. There are also other areas of science that you’ll be working on in portions of your days and weeks as well. Give me a couple of examples of science in other disciplines that you’re looking forward to working on during this mission.

In my first spaceflight, when I was on Mir station, we had a very unique experiment, plasma crystal, and it began as a fundamental study of physics of cold plasma, and we came to the conclusion that it produced a lot of results. The study of the plasma crystal is actually study of how different structures of weak, cold plasma react to the space environment, to zero g, and how tiny particles in the plasma interact with each other. We call it a plasma crystal because these little particles form a certain frame in the crystal, and it’s surprising. We would like to conclude this experiment that began in 1998. We did not cease to study it, but now we have new equipment, and I think that we were going to have a new item for this research, in the nearest future. We do not just push a button and turn the equipment on, but we can actually manipulate the state of this plasma, and each crew member is capable of influencing it and to see on the screens what structures our actions and manipulations produce. It’s just a phenomenal study. It answers so many questions that we didn’t have answers to such as how those particles and structures react to the zero g and vacuum, and vacuum is very complicated. This is one of the examples. Another unique experiment is actually about the study of new materials that we can produce in the zero g environment. I’m talking here about the alloys that we are not capable of producing on the ground. Also, there will be a number of experiments that answer the questions on how the outer field around the station works. We have never studied it before. It’s such a great man-made structure at the height of 280 miles from the ground that is actually influenced by different fields, and magnetic fields, that we have not studied before. I think that exploring deep space without the study of what is going on around the station is not feasible, and it’s going to be a very important step in creating new spacecraft that will allow for this deep space exploration, so of course we need different, sophisticated equipment. There will also be an experiment on laser communication devices. We have actually carried out a few tests and this laser communication will be very beneficial and gives phenomenal results in space.

Very interesting examples of a range of different kinds of things that you will be doing inside the station, but there’s also in the plan now the opportunity for you to do work on the outside of the station. Now, I know that plans can change, but I’m interested to hear what is the current plan for spacewalks for the crew members during the Expedition 35 and 36 time?

We plan a few EVAs, and the plans are very dynamic and can be changed, and I think it is due to the increase of the tasks that we have to perform. It’s not because of us not knowing and not being capable of doing something; we are trying to get as much as we can from the spacewalks. Of course, we are going to have a spacewalk with Roman Romanenko and it’s going to be for the installation of special sensors and antennaes that show the state of the electromagnetic field around the station, not only around the RSOS [Russian segment]. Another task is going to be the installation of equipment necessary to dock, and targeting to dock, ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] 4, because with ATV 2 and ATV 3 we had a few negative moments and a few problems because of the measuring channels and the targets, so now we’ll try to resolve it. And we will also expose a number of new materials to the space environment because not all of the materials pass the test of this space environment: they’re fine on the ground but not there, and they’re going to install special trays with this, with these new materials. Also we’re going to study biomaterials. They have been in space for almost a year, maybe even longer, so the IBMP, institute of medical and biological problems, has been conducting this study for almost a year, and they discovered that despite the radiation and vacuum some organism are capable of staying alive in space, and our scientists revealed that some bacteria are capable of surviving in such harsh environments. We are going to remove one of such trays. For our further spacewalks, we are planning five spacewalks in all. They’re going to be about operations to dock the new module, the MLM module. We will have to provide power lines and to transition the power lines from the USOS to the RSOS, and it’s not a short route to attach them, to lay the cables for data transfer as well, and to install data trusses, data buses and we’re going to be installing scientific equipment on the outer shell of the station. I think that we are going to install two telescopes that will be tracking the Earth’s surface and also other astronomic bodies. These telescopes are produced in Canada. All in all, the plans are very extensive and it’s a new period, it’s a new leap in the increase of the scientific potential of the station, and we are very excited about it.

That’s a lot of different kinds of things that you are going to do, and you’re going to make some of these spacewalks yourself, right?

Pavel Vinogradov

Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, Expedition 35 flight engineer and Expedition 36 commander, participates in an emergency scenario training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

That’s right. I am sure that I will have the spacewalk with Roman Romanenko; I think it’s EVA 32. Alexander Misurkin, Fyodor Yurchikhin [of] the crew that is arriving on board a little bit later, will be performing other EVAs. How they decide who performs the EVA is very hard. It’s very hard to prepare a person to perform the EVA, it’s very hard to measure and spread out the tasks between the crew members, and the load between the crew members. Almost all our crew members from the Russian segment are going to be participating in spacewalks.

And then there are even perhaps a couple of U.S. segment spacewalks during this time as well?

Yes, that’s absolutely true. I have just mentioned five Russian spacewalks, but there are also three American spacewalks that are planned from the USOS; Chris Cassidy and other crew members are planning for three spacewalks. The number of the EVAs will depend on how successful they are, or maybe two or three, but we don’t want to put too much pressure on the crew and give them time to work at a measured pace. I will do all I can to support these EVAs. It’s great when you have a lot of tasks and when your time line is full.

Over the course of the time that you’re going to be in space you’ll be part of Expedition 35 and 36. That change occurs in mid-May, and at that point you will also become commander of the space station once again. How does that change life for you, to go from flight engineer to commander?

Of course it will change. It’s a high level of responsibility; there are new tasks for the commander. The commander is in charge and is responsible for all crew members and for the whole station. Also, there will be more troubles, but my responsibilities are set forth by the flight rules and it’s clearly spelled out what the commander and what the flight engineer are responsible for. I don’t think it’s going to be difficult. I love being in space, I enjoy being a flight engineer, and I am sure that I will enjoy being the commander, too, but of course it’s a higher degree of responsibility. You can definitely feel the weight of this responsibility on your shoulders, but I am sure in Chris Hadfield, we have known each other for a very long time, since the ’90s, and we’re not just colleagues we are good friends. I think it will be very easy for me to work with him.

Do you think it will be very different for you to command the station today as opposed to when you commanded Expedition 13?

Of course. It’s a different station. [Jeff] Williams and I were finishing that sad, sad period when they were only two crew members on board. Then we had Thomas Reiter join us and there have been many missions with three crew members and then the number was increased to six people. However, when there are two crew members or three crew members you can feel the difference. Six people are a whole team. The psychological relations between the team members differ from when there were only two crew members on board and the commander has to take into consideration all the six crew members and to create a very good psychological atmosphere that will provide for no conflicts between the crew members. This is one of the main goals for the commander, besides the technical tasks and providing for the safe operation of the station. The commander has to create in this small group of people a good environment and a good working climate because every crew member is an individual, and putting them together is the task for the commander.

These days the International Space Station is receiving supplies from Earth on board a small fleet of unmanned cargo ships, and there are several of them that are due to arrive at or depart from the International Space Station during the time that you are going to be on board. Tell me about these different ships and their different capabilities including the new American commercial ships that are joining the fun.

Our plans, as of right now, are to have a lot of vehicles arriving: ATV, the European spacecraft; HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], the Japanese spacecraft, is also scheduled; SpaceX as well; maybe Cygnus. We are ready to see them all. Each vehicle is interesting. Free flyers that cannot actively dock to the station, unlike the Russian vehicles—for example, Progress—are very interesting. It’s very interesting to capture them near the station using the Canadian arm, manipulator, and to dock them. This task is just wonderful. Each vehicle has its own peculiarity. The ATV is a huge spacecraft which is slightly smaller than our SM, the Service Module [Zvezda]. It’s a humongous vehicle, and the plan to dock it is very interesting. We have never had anything like that, and the plan for the docking is very complicated. As for the HTV, it can deliver not only cargo that is required inside the station but also the items, the payloads, that should be located outside the USOS, and the majority of the power supply system is located outside of the USOS and we have to provide items, spare parts for it. And I am pleased to see commercial vehicles as well, not just the spacecraft created by states but by commercial companies, and they, they are made by very efficient, by companies that work very efficiently and that prove that space exploration and space cooperation is also possible on the commercial level. If everything goes according to plan, we will be excited about these rendezvous, and it’s a very big event when a transportation vehicle arrives to the station. And I think it’s going to be a very exciting mission; something out of the ordinary will be almost a daily occurrence.

Can you pick what you’re most looking forward to out of all of those things?

Most of all? That’s not an easy question. I am very fortunate to be in this profession. Of course, I think most of all I’m waiting to meet my colleagues, to see the station again, and I want to believe that our expedition will go smoothly. I think being able to see the station again and to see my colleagues on board, this is my greatest wish.

Of all the different kinds of things that you’re going to do that you’ve described here today, and you think about those and the kinds of things that you can learn from science experiments or spacewalks or vehicle operations, what do you think it is that’s most important that we are learning from the International Space Station that is going to help human beings get ready to explore space out beyond Earth?

Today space exploration is very integrated into our everyday life. We often forget or sometimes don’t even know that a lot of things on Earth came from space exploration programs, beginning with our Velcro that is ubiquitous in everyday life. They were actually created for the missions to the moon, and imagine if we didn’t have Velcro today. It is as if many, many years ago the Egyptians would not have come up with the idea of a pencil. Piloted space exploration today gives a lot of new information for the medical field. We had to develop a whole complex, comprehensive approach to recover after spaceflights, and this system that was developed by American and Russian medical communities allows for recovering of people who just went through complicated surgeries or are seriously ill, and it can be used everywhere, in all hospitals, in Russia and in the United States, and we are developing new methods and carrying out new research. I can say that today we have a lot of developments from space medicine slowly trickle into the general medicine. And we’re developing special suits that allow for moving after being in space, and these suits are currently used in children’s hospitals. For example, paralyzed children can take advantage of that, and without these new developments, new materials, paralyzed children would not be able to ever get on their feet. And I can talk for hours about different examples that were first developed for space medicine and space exploration and then moved to our everyday life, and the list is enormous.