– Oleg Valeriyevich, could you tell us please, how did you come to be involved with cosmonautics?
I have always wanted to deal with cosmonautics, maybe not so much to fly, but to deal with something related to that. Everything associated with space was very popular in the 70s. Overall interest in fantasy, science fiction, and spaceflights of the Soviet cosmonauts made the headlines in the media… That was a period when the information provided motivated youths to fly to the stars.
Realizing that the chance to go into space was not that difficult, and having analyzed the range of professions that may be required in future for flights (taking into account the rapid development of cosmonautics at that time) I chose to become a doctor. The only university that was training specialists in the field of space medicine was the Military Medical Academy, so that’s why I enrolled there. I consciously chose medicine, moreover and specifically, space medicine. I graduated from the department of General Medicine. Then I went to work in the Cosmonaut Training Center as a specialist in space medicine.
There is no university that trains specialists exclusively for the Center - neither teaching staff nor supervisors, instructors nor medical personnel. As a result, no one who comes here is able to fully perform tasks straight away. Consequently there is a system of adjustment and personnel training in the Center which lasts from 3 months to 2 years.
– What kind of tasks have you done while being a doctor?
While holding different positions I have worked as a doctor for 8 years. I started in the altitude chamber complex as the altitude chamber doctor, and then went to the life-science experiments, and after that I worked as a flight crew doctor. One would think all of these were the same profession, but the aspects of work and tasks were completely different. In one case, you would test the cosmonaut’s body and check his state of health, and in the other, you would conduct medical training for the cosmonaut. The vast majority of cosmonauts have no basic medical education; however they will need first aid skills when they are in space.
– Was the teaching profession different from what you were used to do? Was such a change difficult for you?
No, it was natural and I embraced it with a keen interest. It was a big step in terms of moving forward. Usually no one is taken on as a teacher straight away. First of all you usually have to prove yourself as a physiologist, then you would have the chance to become an instructor, and only then – a flight crew doctor. A flight crew doctor is a trusted doctor who defends the interests of the cosmonauts. He is a mediator between the cosmonaut and the medical department, and a translator, who speaks the same language. The crew chooses a doctor by themselves, among people whom they can trust. A flight crew doctor is almost like a family doctor.
Flight crew doctors are in a separate psychology group and psychologists are well-qualified professionals, they are the elite that are chosen from the best workers.
– Not all the people have the strength to do it, do they?
No. Some stay where they are and do not go further. There are times when you decide to jump one step up but don’t succeed, so you have to step back again.
– How did the chance to go into space come about?
Before me there were no such opportunities for Medical Center workers to join the crew. They tried a few times, but they didn’t take anyone to join the crew, it just didn’t work out. As the time passed, they were then given a chance to join the crew and change their profession. But the radical change of profession means that you cannot go back to what you did. That is a conscious rejection of earlier accumulated skills. As a rule, people join the crew for at least 10 years. And the system of cosmonauts’ training is designed such that there is no possibility to maintain or to combine previous skills, which is why there is no way back. That is the cosmonauts’ misfortune, or maybe good fortune.
– You liked medicine, but you took this step. Why? Weren’t you scared?
Maybe because I liked space fights more. Fear is the wrong word. It was a conscious decision; there was a point where I had to make a decision and take responsibility, because you have a family and that life behind you.
– Did you have kids at that time?
Yes, and that’s what made my decision harder. On the one hand there is a successful and steady job with increasing professional skills and with a predictable career growth, and on the other hand there is some uncertainty, such as being finally accepted as crew, but where no one guarantees that you will perform a space flight. If you look at the statistics, you will see that among those who had completed general cosmonaut training, the ratio between those who actually flew into space, and those who did not is 1:2, in other words, only every second person, having completed training for the crew, flies into space.
People who come here understand that they may work for 5-10 years; there are also people who have worked for 25 years as crew, but have never been into space. They have regularly completed training, taken part in tests, successfully transitioned from their previous professions. Pilots ceased to be pilots, engineers ceased to be engineers, and scientists ceased to be scientists.
– How did everything work out for them in the future?
The State doesn’t take responsibility for or hold any obligations on further employment for retired cosmonauts. Those who, despite their age, have found enough strength and capability to start over, went back to the base of their original career ladder and together with younger colleagues start to study new information, with varying degrees of success.
– The ability to self-educate, to obtain results, be motivated and, moreover, having a huge bundle of knowledge are those qualities that are peculiar to cosmonauts and which would seem to help them in adjusting to the civilian life. Why do you think not everyone is able to do that?
The knowledge-base of cosmonauts is very broad, but relatively shallow. We have knowledge in biology, geography, geology, astrophysics, astronomy, i.e. in everything, but our level is not as deep as specialists that are working in each of these professional fields. That is why, only those, who left and who started over have the opportunity to achieve something.
– Once you have entered the cosmonauts’ crew, you could discard all your previously obtained experience, couldn’t you??
The work on completely different format has started. The role of the teacher has been substituted for the role of the student. But the training chapter that I used to teach was, for sure, surprisingly easy.
– How old were you at that time?
I was 31 years old.
– And you started to study at what age?
I have continued my studying up till now. In our profession is full of those who get on well with each other and who like to study. We study here from one year to the next, and even during a flight we continue to study. It is never-ending work on self-improvement and on your level, a constant flow of new information, for integration and arranging systematically.
– How do you manage to retain so much information in one head?
That can be done only through understanding and logic, not through repeated learning but through comprehension. Good basic education from school helps you to learn a lot both in the technical field and liberal arts.
– How much time passed before you flew into space?
11 years. Our crew was ready for the flight a few times, but some obstacles got in the way, e.g. someone was excluded from the crew or training just stopped… That is the cosmonaut’s life. However one day I was accepted in the crew that actually flew in to space.
– Where did you draw your strength from to wait? 11 years is quite a long time, especially when such expectation doesn’t guarantee an actual flight. The lack of patience is the main reason why many young potential cosmonauts give up while going through the training process.
First of all, I had a dream that gave me motivation. Secondly, I had an understanding that my intelligence and physical capacity could help me handle the flight and that I met the regulatory requirements. Evaluating the course of events I understood that the line was always moving but that I had sufficient personal resources.
Besides, expectation is not just about wait and see. For instance, the transfer to crew was also related to my understanding that as a doctor I had no chance of flying. Being a doctor was my youthful phase I went through. Doctors don’t fly and won’t fly in the near future because there are no long-range flights, and there is no need to have such a narrowly focused specialist in the programs for near-earth orbit. That is why, understanding my chances and prospects, I entered the Air Force Academy as an aviator. I was 33 then.
– When did you understand that you wouldn’t fly as a doctor?
After two years, while I was in crew training.
– Why then was a doctor accepted in to the crew?
They take doctors, biologists, they used to take engineers as researches before, and there is a category – cosmonaut-researcher. There are three seats on a spaceship: for the mission’s commander, the flight engineer and a researcher who can perform their tasks during the flight. Thus, doctors Polyakov and Atiakov had successful space flights, when there was a chance in the form of scientific medical programs. But now the probability of such flights at an international level is zero. We have no technical capability to keep narrowly focused specialist on-board. We have no tasks and capacity for them.
– So did you find a way to increase your chances of success at some point? Did you understand it by yourself, or did anyone give you a clue?
Of course I came to conclusion by myself. That was the only way to increase the chance of a flight. The Center helped me to arrange everything. It was a 2-year long individual program with travelling back and forth, and which included engineers training and summer training, i.e. everything that would help me to become qualified as a pilot. I didn’t intend to become a pilot, but I knew that it was important for the final mission – the flight into space.
The easiest way would be just to wait and see if everything works out and I can fly while being a doctor. Who knows, maybe then it might be too late to study. It was a moment in my life when the decision had to be made.
– When your dream came true, what did you decide to do next?
The next step is to create another dream, and new goals come. The first flight is like the accomplishment of the settings’ program that had been programmed from childhood. If you look at cosmonauts’ biographies you will see that many have flown just once. Why does it happen? Some cosmonauts actually realize that what they dreamed about was totally different, it was not the same, and that is why they say, “That’s it, it is not the right thing for me, that’s enough”. Others, on the contrary, get infected by it, they are fascinated by it, and they want to do something new. For this reason, they don’t fly just for fun in their second flight. The flight’s actual program becomes important to them; they want the whole program to be full of experiments and to obtain results. And by the time of the third flight it is possible to have become an expedition commander, who takes responsibility for the whole station, crew and program, and he passes his experience on to the others.
– I was just thinking that your dream has stopped being just a dream at the moment you have achieved your goal. Is that true?
Yes, and the accomplishment of the dream has been achieved. Sometimes that goal becomes a problem though; incomprehensible, amorphous and blurred, and then can transforms into the category of a dream lacking motivation and fulfillment. A dream is a certain motive or wish, and it is your ego that pushes you to move in the right direction.
– Do you see yourself beyond being part of the crew?
Of course. As I think about myself after a cosmonaut’s career, I want to emphasize two things: firstly, understanding what I want to do, and secondly, where I could be useful. In any case, I want to stay in cosmonautics. First of all, this field is close to me, and secondly, I understand that I can be helpful there. There are times when someone invests effort in you, you are taught something and you absorb it – that is why I don’t want to eliminate teaching or organizational activities for creating something new, or solving scientific and research tasks. While understanding where the narrower and more interesting place is, I could return to space medicine. Speaking about long-term flights, there is much room to do medical research.
– Is that still a dream or a goal now?
It’s a dream for now, it is impossible to have two mutually exclusive goals at the same time.
– When something is not working out, what kind of emotions do you feel?
Reflection. You have to go back, look around and understand why it didn’t work out and what alternatives are possible. Then everything will work out.