Personal choice: to be useful
2013-11-27 | Text: Interview with Sergey Volkov | Photo ©: | 3851

 

Perhaps the continued existence and development of any important activity is unthinkable without the presence of so-called professional dynasties, when the accumulated experience of fathers is realized by their children and grandchildren. These dynasties exist in medicine, power engineering, science and banking ... Cosmonautics is probably still too young to have something like this. But maybe soon it will also pick up the baton.

We talked to Sergey Volkov who is the first cosmonaut of the second generation – his father was also a cosmonaut. He told us how he had become a cosmonaut, what challenges there have been in his life and how he carries out his hard work.

 
Sergey Volkov is a Russian cosmonaut, a hero of the Russian Federation, the son of a cosmonaut and hero of the Soviet Union, Alexander Volkov. He is the world's first cosmonaut of the second generation. He had two space flights (365 days overall), 3 spacewalks for 18 hours 36 minutes in total.

 

– Sergey, tell us how you became an astronaut, and why did you choose this life and career?

The reason that I became an astronaut is probably not exotic. I grew up in the family of an astronaut, I lived in this very special atmosphere, and this had an impact on my future life. But the decision to be an astronaut did not come immediately. As a child, I really wanted to become a pilot, and this desire was with me from the age of three or four years, almost through all my adult life. One day my father, who was an instructor at the Kharkov flight school at that time, took me to the aerodrome. And because he had to fly with the students, he left me alone. His friends put me in a combat plane so that I wouldn’t get bored while waiting. I still remember that feeling – I was so afraid in case I accidentally pushed some button and might fly away. Since then I had a dream of becoming a pilot, and now it's hard for me to imagine that I could be someone else.

 

– Did you have lack of communication with your father in childhood? Was he often at home?

 

He was rarely at home. He was one of the military pilots who were trained as full-time pilots of "Buran". And they were not those first cosmonauts who were recruited from test pilots. As a rule they were experienced instructors and had a complete grasp on flying. But the demands at that time were still high, so that only B-class test pilots could be the pilots of "Buran". And the whole group trained in the test pilot’s school in order to catch up to this level. After graduation they were flying a great deal, and while my father used to fly at the test pilot’s school in the Volgograd region until he was put down for the program. He came home bi-weekly at the weekend.

 

– Did he want you to follow in his footsteps?

 

We have never had a conversation like that. But when the time came, he asked me what I wanted, and we began to discuss this issue. For example we discussed what school I should go to. I was finishing school in 1990. At that time the army may have been the best place to go to use your brains. The situation there was very difficult. I could go to civil aviation, but I decided to become a military pilot. It often happens that the son of a military man enters the same school as his father. My father studied at Kharkov flight school. But together we decided that it would be better for me to go to Tambov flight school because it was connected with long-range aviation. My father was already very experienced at that time and he knew it would be future-oriented.

 

– So you dreamed of being a pilot and even joined flight school. Why did you decide to become an astronaut instead?

 

This idea came to me when I was a third year student at the flight school and has already flown solo. During one of the telephone conversations my father mentioned that there was an intake of cosmonauts. He had just told me the news without any discussion or consideration. When I was walking along the streets of Tambov and thinking about it, I realized that I would like to fly. I wanted to be a pilot, but I understood that if I had the opportunity to join a group of astronauts, I would definitely do it. And I really had this opportunity. When I was already a pilot, I heard about an order from the Commander of the Air Force to intake a new group of candidates to become cosmonauts. Typically such an order is read out in front of the pilots throughout Russia, and anyone can submit an appropriate application.

It was a very difficult choice. It turned out that I put my shirt on it. I was 22 and I was serving in probably the best Special Designation Regiment. I was a good pilot with a guaranteed future to become at least a major. And then there was an option to go somewhere else. In addition, in this case, five years of study at flight school would have been just a waste of time. And if for some reason I wasn’t accepted in to the group of cosmonauts, there were no guarantees that I could go back.

The regiment's commanding officer was on a mission at that time, and the deputy commanding officer was against my choice and did not sign my report. But when the commanding officer returned, we talked about my situation and all the risks. Finally he wished me good luck and let me go.

 

– What were your expectations from cosmonautics when you left? Was it your personal challenge or just your whim?

 

No, this decision was not spontaneous. I had been thinking it over for a long time. While I was a pilot, I realized that by doing missions I served my country ... But at some point I realized that I could do something more. There is such a thing – to serve your country, to do something for your country. And I had a thought: "Yes, of course I 'm doing something here, but if I become an astronaut, I can be even more useful." This idea and logic helped me – it was just a desire to do something useful.

 

– What is your personal challenge now?

 

We have questions relating to self-determination all the time. After the first flight the most difficult moment is to understand what you will do next. Many people work hard to go into space. After returning, cosmonauts usually have one or two months of rehabilitation, preparing of reports and a lot of free time. But I would rather have a second flight as soon as possible, so I quickly solved any medical issues and started to train. Up until now I have had two flights into space.

And last year we were confronted with an accomplished fact – either we go back to the army and fly as pilots, or we leave military service and remain at the Training Center as civilians. It was because the Minister of Defense had decided that there would be no more military men in the Training Center. I could still serve for 11 years and being a young colonel and the Hero of Russia, I could have a great future in military service. It was also a moment of self-determination. But since I'm here now, my choice was obvious – I left military service.

Now I am serving as a civilian astronaut. My position has changed – I became the commander of the cosmonaut group. So now, in addition to my own flights, I have to care about my team. I help young astronauts to realize their dream to fly for the first or second time.

 

– I know that in addition to this you have lectures and meetings with students of all ages at the Polytechnic Museum. What is the reason of your participation in such events?

 

The modern world forces us to do it. However there have always been such meetings with students – it's even a duty. Before, it was sort of an entertaining story about what we do, but now it’s more about popularization. But we cannot count on constant television or radio broadcasts, although on April 12, for example, they focused more attention on the astronauts. On this day everyone wants to have an astronaut at their event.

In contrast to this, the Lecture Hall of the Polytechnic Museum and meetings with students is almost year-round and regular. People of all ages, from 5 to 70 come to these meetings. And it is a unique opportunity to talk with them and answer their questions honestly.

However, I do not think that my speech will draw people’s attention to cosmonautics. I consider it rather as a way to show students that there is another field of activity – not the one that is shown on TV where you can steal something and become an oligarch next day. And this area is not less interesting, and even contains more opportunities for self-realization. Cosmonautics is just one of its parts, but that is just the visible tip of the iceberg. At the same time there is a huge group of engineers, designers and inventors who work in other directions. So the children can come to study at MAI, but not necessarily in the Rocket Production Department. They can choose something else, and still we will get an engineer who will create the basis for the development of the country. This is the man who produces something. That's what I think is the main idea of our meetings with people. We should get them back in to the technical professions and helping with the technical development of the country.

 

– Are you personally interested in these meetings, or do you consider it to be some form of social work?

 

I am happy to talk to them, especially if I can make a connection with the audience. The duration of the lecture is 45 minutes but, for example, the last meeting lasted 3 hours. When you feel that people are really interested, everything works great.

It is very important to me that people come to the lectures. I understand that they are spending their time to come and see me. Even high school students often come after the lessons in their free time.

 

– If you think about the last few years, have the questions from the audience changed somehow?

 

I haven’t heard the question about my salary for a long time. About four years ago it was one of the first questions. I do not know why, but now they don’t ask it. This is symbolic because the people are no longer interested in just making money, but there is also now the concept of interest.

 

– The profession of an astronaut is very difficult. In the past people were attracted by this complexity. Do you think that the youth of today can be antagonized by it?

 

Perhaps there is this tendency. Besides now our profession is not as popular as it was in the 60s. Today people are indoctrinated that it is necessary to become successful as quickly as possible. Cosmonautics is perhaps not the quickest and easiest way to earn money. It is still a long journey to become an astronaut.

I remember that after I had finished the cosmonaut training, I met my new classmates and in the process of our talking I discovered the difference of time categories. Their time period was only six months or a year, and for me it was about 2 to 5 years. The astronauts have very short periods of time when even 24 hours is not enough. Sometimes, of course, there are areas where time drags, but in any case it is a long-term commitment. From my experience of space flights I can tell you that it is at least two years, because if you are chosen for the crew, you start training two years before the flight. This period is divided into weeks, months, terms. But we never have short periods of time; it’s always long-term planning.

 

– In society there is such a thing as a "generation gap". You are the first second-generation astronaut. Do you think there is some misunderstanding among old and new generations of astronauts?

 

We are different because the environment in which we live is different. The first astronauts treat us differently, but they have mutual respect in any case. I remember that after my spacewalk during the first flight, I called Alexey Leonov and reported that we fulfilled the mission and completed the program. He congratulated me and at that moment it seemed to me that he was touched by the fact that he had received a call from the board of the station, and that people still remembered him.

The thing that he had done was a great deed and an act of self-sacrifice, even though his spacewalk lasted only 12 minutes. But our two spacewalks lasted 6 hours and we had completely different tasks. But without his 12 minute spacewalk our work would not exist.

Of course at that time the flights were short, but each flight had such a great impact, that without that experience we would never be able to fly for six months or have such stations. We would never know how to live in space.

 

– At the time, every new flight was kind of a breakthrough. The first man in space, the first spacewalk, the first woman in space... Do any groundbreaking things happen nowadays or has everything become more routine?

 

Now we don’t have such groundbreaking things. Firstly because we don’t have any space race now as it was before. You probably know that there were people ready to fly one way in order to help the Soviet Union to be the first on the moon.

But today everything is going relatively slowly. In many ways this is a matter of psychology, because life goes by very quickly now. There is a lot of news, permanent changes, even phones become obsolete after six months. It seems that we have slowed down. Now people won’t be surprised, even by a flight to Mars, because firstly it will take a very long time (flight only in one direction will take at least six months), and secondly because people have just got used to the constant news about it.

Although the flight, landing on Mars and return to the Earth would be a real breakthrough, it would be so time-consuming that, I 'm afraid, when astronauts return home, the heroes of the reality-show "House-2" would be much more popular. We won’t be able to do the real show because we need a normal, serious flight. And it would be too difficult to maintain public interest even with plenty of news because you couldn’t throw out a member of the flight crew once a week, or be able to save anyone by SMS voting. Perhaps it is important to raise a generation that will be interested in it, our meetings are aimed at long-term projects.

 

– During the flight preparation you have to learn a lot of information in a very short time. How did you develop the ability to learn, and do you have any special techniques?

 

I didn’t have any special training; I just studied, learned and tried to understand. I always say that you can’t force anyone to join cosmonautics; it can only be a deliberate step. If you make such a decision, then you take on the responsibility. And once you have been accepted, you should work at your very best level.

The complexity of the situation lies in the fact that you do not know when the marathon will end – that is how much time you will need from the moment of admission to the group, to becoming part of the flight crew. After becoming crew, you have two years for cosmonaut training. However this does not guarantee that you're really going to fly, because everything can change during this time. For example, I was trained as a crew member three times. I did not make one flight, but not because I could not cope with it, but because of different reasons: either a space shuttle blew up, or they decided to take tourists, and our seats were just sold. I had to keep myself constantly in good shape and prove that I was ready. I have to prove that I am ready to fly right now. This is a marathon, the end of which you do not know. You won’t be able to cope with it without the support of your family.

 

– Did you face any difficult non-standard situations when you had to take on the responsibility of becoming a cosmonaut?

 

On the first flight we were together with Oleg Kononenko – neither of us hand any experience of space flight. It happened that the two previous expeditions had problems – they returned by ballistic descent, with an overload up to 9 units. The reason for this was a non-separation of the lock on one of the planes, so the ship was returning with everything included from the forward hatch, where the thermal protection was minimal, therefore everything was badly burned. There were a few seconds left before there would have been complete hatch burnout, but fortunately nothing bad happened.

And our plan was to perform just one spacewalk. But because of the problems of previous expeditions, they decided that we will emerge into the open space from our ship, which is generally not designed for it. We had to open one of the locks manually.

Structurally, the spaceship has only five locks and each of them has two pyrocharges. If they are weakened, the lock crumbles. Of course it was all done so that it would never unwind or unplug everything.

One of the greatest challenges was to decide what we would do when we go in the outer space. Would we continue trying to unscrew the pyrocharge, if we did not succeed on the first try? How many times could we do this? Three days before our planned spacewalk the flight director, Vladimir Solovyov, talked to us and he told us we should try as necessary, but was better to do it on the first attempt. The task was set, and we started to implement it.

Of course, it was difficult. There was apprehension that you were beginning to dismantle the ship, which has to get you back home, although they said: “Guys, don’t worry, there are five locks and only four will be enough to return home.” In addition, we had to unscrew the explosive thing – the pyrocharge. However we understood what we were expected to and overall it was pretty exciting.

According to the buzz of voices from the Control Center we could hear what was going on ... It was one of the few spacewalks that was broadcasted in the USA on some news channels. There was a lot of attention on us. Together with Oleg we worked 6 hours, but we managed to do it even though it was not easy.

 

– You mentioned that family support is very important for the astronaut. Do you manage to combine your job with family life?

 

I have 2 sons, 11 and 2 years old. I always try to find time in my schedule to talk to them as much as possible and to educate them in a proper way. We often talk about the future with my eldest son. I don’t force him, but I try to understand his interests, abilities and maybe somehow try to help him.

 

– In conclusion, is there any internal motto that helps you in your life?

 

My motto, or rule, is: “Always do your best in everything”. First of all, I don’t want to be ashamed of what I could do, but more what I did not do because of laziness or fear. It is necessary to do your best.

 

Photos are from the archive of press department of Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre; from website federalspace.ru; by Alexey Kirillov.

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