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2010 Interview: Sergei Krikalev
ISS01-E-5071 -- Expedition 1 Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev

Expedition 1 Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev works at a computer station in the Zvezda service module aboard the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Sergei Krikalev, flight engineer for Expedition 1, the director now of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. Sergei, thank you very much for joining us today. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since you and Bill Shepherd and Yuri Gidzenko launched on the Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft to the International Space Station from here in Baikonur to begin that first mission, the first occupancy of the station that has begun unbroken permanent human occupancy of the space station. Tell us your thoughts as you look back on October 31st, 2000, when the three of you climbed aboard. What were your thoughts at that time?

A: Well, a great deal came to mind. The main thought I had was that now it’s starting for real, a long chain of expeditions. This is our first work and often times it’s the way you start it, the way it is going to go then, so I felt a huge load of responsibility then, about great responsibility of where, what we are going to do, how we are going to begin, what is going to come out and that expedition was especially critical then because that was the first day of a human being on board that was constrained by the availability of the systems for life support on board the station and it was critical to stay on the station and not to let the moment of exhausting those resources happen. In addition to the beginning of the long path, there was a very weak start that would have supported the functioning of human being on board the station.

The two day flight from the launch pad here in Baikonur to the International Space Station and then you finally arrive. You dock and you prepare to open up the hatches. As the three of you opened the hatch to the station for the first time and floated inside, I remember that you all grasped all each other’s hands in jubilation. You were very happy to arrive on the station. Did you have a sense of history, that this was a very historic moment, that you were beginning a new chapter in human space flight?

Yes. It was a historic moment, of course. We did understand that that was the beginning, a start, although for me that was the second opening of the hatch because the first time I opened the hatch was between the FGB [functional cargo block] and the node in STS-88 when we entered the station for the first time. The station was very small then. It was only FGB and the node. The node was the first entry and, for me, this one was sort of a return to the station but retuning as a member of the expedition.

And, of course, as you point out the station, it was an infant at the time, very primitive, very simple, just a couple of modules, no significant infrastructure to the station at that time, technically. Did you feel as if you were pioneers, in a sense, in this brand new facility? How primitive was it? What was day to day living like?

Day to day work was rather close to usual work because I used to live at the station for many months, at the Mir station. The thing that was unusual was that we would have to open the station, turn the light on, install television, find all the cables that were hidden behind the panels and, although the station was small, it had a full set of all the necessary life support systems and they were just inactivated and we had to put some of them together and start operating on the station activation. So when there was a question on experiments and what were the most interesting experiments, I would always say the most, the greatest experiment was the assembly and revival of the station, making it come to life.

Sergei, as you’ve mentioned, arriving with Expedition 1 in November of 2000, actually marked your second arrival on the station after STS-88 which was the first assembly flight, of course, for the complex. For you, some sense of familiarity, how did you convey to both Bill Shepherd and Yuri Gidzenko what it was going to be like once you arrived on board?

In reality we all knew what was supposed to be there because the training was very long. It was very detailed, very involved, maybe even unnecessarily too involved, so we had a pretty good idea of what we were going to encounter at the station and it was interesting to have a sense, to have a feel of the new order, the new way of life on the station because the station itself, from the start, was international and it had international crew from the very beginning and it was interesting to work with the two Mission Control Centers and under their guidance and here coming back to the station, we were coming back with new quality and a new role.

And again did you feel as if you were pioneers in a sense, this starting and international process here that was going to be unprecedented in spaceflight history?

Probably not. At that moment we were thinking of the present and the moment we were in, although, subconsciously we understood that that was a certain threshold that we were supposed to cross.

Ten years later, the space station has grown into a massive complex, visible in the night sky very easily on a clear night, capable of supporting six people as we see today. Is this the space station that you had envisioned ten years ago when Expedition 1 first opened the doors?

SS01-E-5353 -- Expedition 1 Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev

Expedition 1 Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev floats in the U.S. Destiny laboratory aboard the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

Yes, almost like that. We had the day similar to the one that exists now. The only thing is we didn’t anticipate the same configuration and five years ago I expected that the station would have been fully assembled and I would have preferred to work on a more sophisticated equipment but, unfortunately, the assembly of the station happened as it happened and the serious delay was the shuttle disaster and the reason for the period of delay is quite understandable and now the station is virtually assembled and one of the elements that we wanted to see on the station from the very start already is present there and I know that the cosmonauts and astronauts may enjoy the view of space.

I get the sense that you’d almost like to go back again. Is that something that you ever might do again or are your flying days over?

I hope there would be such an opportunity. It would be interesting to be at the station when it is fully assembled finally because when I was there, there were only two elements present and that was the first lengthy expedition. I remember the questions which I was asked, journalists would ask, “What would you like the station to be?” and I would say, “I would like it to grow bigger.” And now it has grown bigger.

There are many people who think that the construction of the space station to what it is today may be the greatest accomplishment in the history of human spaceflight, and that includes the moon landings because of the complexity involved. In your mind do you see it that way? Has the station fulfilled its potential yet or is it yet to fulfill its true potential?

Indeed, the assembly of the station and its buildup is a big interesting project and often time speaking of results, they only mention those results which can give some valid scientific experiment or results, and what I was focusing on from the very first flight was that the biggest experiment is the building and the assembly of the station and the greatest achievement is that in spite of the rather sophisticated international cooperation, the building of the station continued and it went through certain stages and right now we are at a stage where it’s a final completion stage, virtually speaking, so the very fact that that project came to life and actually was accomplished is the greatest achievement.

Last year for the first time all the partner agencies were represented at one time aboard the International Space Station, a true symbol of international cooperation. How impressed are you - nobody’s flown in space for as many days as you - how impressed are you that the station has overcome language, technical, cultural differences between the countries, the various countries, to be as successful as it has been?

For us it, it was a goal. It was a dream, and we thought that that’s exactly the way the work should be done on the station, and that’s the way it should continue and so in our thoughts we have decided a long time ago that that was the normal course of events, that the specialists of different countries would be working together and, because we used to work to collaborate with the traditional partners on multi-lateral levels and it turned into a qualitatively new level and I think that’s the way that it was supposed to be. You know what happens when you wait for something for along time, then it seems to you that it’s already happening so, from my point of view, I don’t think there is anything unusual about that.

In your mind what do you see as the International Space Station as a next step to go beyond low earth orbit? How do you see the station as a forerunner for future spaceflight activities?

First of all, in the same ways with the Mir station, the stations that support long duration spaceflights are a basis, a foundation for any remote missions because remote missions tend to be lengthy missions and we have learned to fly for a long time and to support life on board for a long time and we learned how to build life support systems accordingly. And the second factor is the factor that will provide further development of international cooperation as we had some doubts whether we would be able to be building significant projects together and whether we will be able to complete them and the station is a good illustration that we’re capable of doing that and we have achieved the result if we wanted to achieve together. The most important thing is developing certain procedures, developing communication processes, developing mechanisms of obtaining that data and in reality you can do it all on the station right now and, at this point, there is a remote mode of interchange that is starting to work on the station where each, where the communication sessions happen only when it’s necessary and autonomous can be worked out on the station, autonomous stand-alone actions, and interorbital complexes are a matter of the future.

Sergei, if somebody told you, “I want you to write the history of human spaceflight.” What place in history would the International Space Station take in your mind?

ISS01-361-017 -- Expedition 1 Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev

Expedition 1 Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev is positioned at a port hole on the Zvezda service module of the International Space Station as Space shuttle Atlantis approaches for a link-up leading to several days of joint activities between the two crews. Photo credit: NASA

It’s hard for me to prioritize what is more important. Of course, the event is the first, the launch of the first satellite or the first extravehicular activity or a flight to the Moon, these are very important steps and without those steps it would be impossible to achieve further goals and long duration flights are a part of that chain of events, also the buildup and operation of the station is a significant success with respect to the fact that we were able to do it all together and this is one of the few events that is one of the landmarks in human space activity, exploration. If I were to prioritize, I would prioritize the events chronologically, although many years down the year one would be able to reevaluate the importance of each individual event.

We’re just a few months away from an extremely historic anniversary, the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin launching, not far from where we’re sitting, to become the first human in space. It certainly changed the world forever. In your mind, what was the significance of that flight and the significance of where we’ve come in space exploration, exploration in general, over fifty years?

This significance of Gagarin’s flight, it speaks for itself. It was the first flight into uncertainty. Right now it may appear trivial but if you look at those tasks that were given to the first cosmonaut, they were so trivial from the modern point of view but so critical from that times’ point of view to try and swallow, to try and breathe. Nobody was certain that a person could have steady breathing in that space or nobody had a hundred percent confidence that the person would be psychologically stable in the state of microgravity or high acceleration environment so therefore Gagarin’s flight was indeed a step into the unknown and without accomplishing that step, nothing else would have been possible in the future so Gagarin’s flight is a great event in the Russian space exploration history and it has allowed us internationally to make further steps because we understood that the first one was possible.

Sergei Krikalev, thank you so much for taking the time. We appreciate it very much and congratulations, ten years since Expedition 1. Thank you very much.