‘Astronauts Don’t Talk Politics’

PHOTO by Vitaly Belousov / RIA Novosti
Interview with Oleg Kotov, head of manned programmes at the Central Research Institute of Machine Building

Oleg Kotov, a pilot-astronaut and head of Manned Programmes at the Central Research Institute of Machine Building (TsNIImash) spoke to Rambler News Service about the new Federal Space Programme 2035, as well as the role of private companies in both the aerospace industry and space exploration.

There are two schools of thought regarding the world of space exploration. One believes that robots can carry out space exploration without any need for human involvement, the other claims the opposite. How do you see it?

It’s not an either/or situation. The task of machines is primarily to carry out auxiliary functions on board, to assist humans in maintaining a safe environment and in travelling through space. But machines can't fix every problem. They can only be programmed based on constant variables. A human, on the other hand, can easily adapt to changing conditions. So I believe the future lies somewhere in between – a mix of robots and people.

TsNIImash is a leading research institute in the rocket and space industry. What are the aims of the new Manned Spacecraft Centre?

The Manned Spacecraft Centre is a new division that tackles a range of fields. Its primary task is to provide scientific and technical support to the Russian side of the International Space Station (ISS), including Soyuz and Progress spacecraft flights. The centre also carries out research on manned spacecraft, including a next-generation transport system, called Federation, and rocket launchers which will deliver the new ship into space.

Another area has to do with the scientific experiments being performed aboard the ISS. Our work is connected with the International Space Station, ensuring its functionality and ability to achieve the goals for which it was created, i.e. experiments, research, working on practical issues and, of course, developing our payload.

At the Aerospace Research Institute, as the name suggests, we focus on research. Our goal is to come up with bright ideas and develop pilot programmes that define a sense of direction for the future. We are not talking about unrealistic projects but rather decisions based on scientific findings, taking into account the country’s economy, our financing options and technological advances.

What are the priority tasks?

Perhaps focusing on one area is the wrong approach. For instance, is the ISS essential? Certainly. What about a new spacecraft, a new rocket system? No doubt. These projects will be fundamental for space exploration in the coming decades. At the same time, we cannot set objectives without understanding the whole picture.

Thanks to our centre and TsNIImash, the Federal Space Programme has clear targets until 2025. It’s no secret that a programme for 2035 is in the works.

Roscosmos 2
Launch of the Soyuz-FG launch vehicle carrying the Soyuz-MS spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, July 2016

How innovative is the new Soyuz-MS spacecraft?

The astronauts are not likely to notice any changes as the modifications were mainly made to the technical side of the craft. The interface, control and response system, and dynamics are basically the same as before. The systems were given a boost though: some analogue blocks were replaced by digital ones. Because of this, the control circuits and the Earth communication system, in particular, were changed, as we deployed digital broadband communication. The Mission Control centre (MCC) will gain a broader channel for information exchange. And that's not mentioning the power save mode.

Was rescheduling the launch of the modernized Soyuz-MS this summer justified?

Yes. The decision was made by the State Commission. Safety is our priority. If there are doubts then it’s better to postpone, there is no ambiguity there. In our industry it happens – even with unmanned flights. The Americans and Europeans also rarely launch ships on their set date, they always reschedule. And it’s not about technological flaws: even when there’s just the slightest uncertainty, it’s better to wait. The stakes are high because these are human lives we are dealing with.

Which stage are you at with the Federation spaceship?

There’s a plan, a huge one. It covers all the elements: the ship, ground control system, prelaunch tests, simulators. We’re working on documentation, design and testing. An unmanned launch is scheduled for 2021, then after two successful launches we'll plan the first manned mission for 2023.

Will the ship be finished on time?

As far as I know, there are no technical or organisational issues. Given the complexity of the project, the scale of collaboration is immense. We’re working hard on every aspect of it.

How will the new spacecraft differ from Soyuz?

The Federation will be used in a near-Earth orbit as well as in deep space. It will go at least to the Moon, perhaps even further afield. It was specifically designed for these kinds of tasks. It has more work space, as it needs a crew of four, as opposed to the three-man Soyuz. In short, there are a number of differences, but the main one is its technological development.

Roscosmos 1
Live broadcast on the screen in the Mission Control Center: Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazansky walk into open space with the Olympic torch, 2014

What do you think about building a lunar base in partnership with the European Space Agency and NASA?

International cooperation is the only effective way to go about deep space exploration (I put the Moon in the same category). It’d be a waste not to capitalise on the gains made on the ISS.

We have established a solid interaction and cooperation base between mission control centres, Energy rocket and its foreign partners. Everyone works as a team. And it should continue to work like that on another similar project, for example, a lunar village or something. We’re getting there.

So there's no point in building separate Russian or American bases on the moon?

Of course not! Each agency, be it NASA, ESA, JAXA or Roskosmos, has a specific set of competencies and technologies. Why try to replicate them at home, when you can borrow from each other?

How would you characterise the ISS' technical capabilities after more than 15 years of operation?

Let's concentrate on the Russian section. It is constantly changing. We have new modules, the multifunctional laboratory (MLM) and the scientific and energy (SEM) hub unit, which are ready to launch soon. So its technical capacity is improving. The same applies to existing modules. Today, the station is equipped with modern laptops, which are connected to each other by Wi-Fi and have access to service systems and the internet.

It's true that some equipment is obsolete, for example, the interior panels, or “wallpaper.” The original panels, which have been there since the beginning have worn out. But people live on the station. The panels are replaced with new ones, taking into account structure, design and the comments of crew members.

Roscosmos 5
The screen shows Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov (L) and Sergei Ryazantsev during a live videolink between Red Square and the International Space Station (ISS) on Day 2 of the Russian leg of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay

How does the Russian section compare with American one?

They have different systems but the idea is the same: constant modernisation.

As an experiment, an American and Russian spent a whole year, instead of the usual six months, aboard the station. This experiment was not for the benefit of the ISS, but as preparation for future, longer-term flights into deep space. It is essential for training purposes in the future. There are many such experiments on board the ISS. The testing of new spacecraft – both American and our own – still includes docking with the ISS. So the station will continue to be used as a testing ground for new space technology.

Is there any chance that the ISS will remain on the orbit after 2024?

It will be a mutual decision between Russia, the US, Japan, Canada and the ESA. Technical analysis will reveal whether or not it’s feasible. A second factor for the partners to decide on will be the station's financial viability: whether it's cost is still justified.

Have western sanctions been reflected in any way in relationships between the astronauts?

Not at all.

Do the astronauts talk about politics?

Not usually, no. I was on board during the Sochi Olympic Games, so had a lot of fun getting into friendly arguments. There was a Japanese astronaut, an American, and we all eagerly followed sports events. In general, the crew tries to steer away from religious, ethical and political issues that have no direct connection to life and work of the expedition. Why debate if it’s meaningless and potentially harmful?

Roscosmos 3
Russia's President Vladimir Putin awards Russian cosmonaut, engineer and test pilot Oleg Kotov with an Order of Merit for the Fatherland

TsNIImash deals with plans and forecasts for the space industry. Can you predict what will happen to the space programme in the next 10-20 years?

Piloted space programmes will still exist, but will change structurally. I reckon space travel will become commonplace, as private companies take over flights to low-Earth orbit. We should expect jump-flights, when a ship, flying in a steep parabolic trajectory, breaks free of the Earth's gravity for three or four minutes.

Tourist flights are highly likely and private companies will quickly dominate the near-Earth orbit. Modern technology will allow smaller companies to build rockets and spacecraft to carry out flights in near-Earth orbit. Soon we’ll have to face the question of space flight regulation, similar to that which the aviation industry has already been through. Near-Earth space will mainly be used by private companies, while large government agencies will take over missions to the Moon and deep space.

How do astronauts regard movies like “Gravity” and “The Martian”? Do they look for unscientific and implausible things in them?

These are awesome films. “The Martian” leads by a great margin, in terms of the science. It is less of a spectacle, because it is more scientific. Either way, the laws of physics were not ignored. “Gravity” is more of a space thriller though.

The astronauts watch them with a sense of humour. I’ll share a funny story from my own flight. “Gravity” was released when I was on the station and I was keen to watch it. The station can normally ask a psychological support group to send out a movie. We asked the Americans first, because the film came out there earlier. They said, “Our psychologists think that you’d better not watch this movie. There are scenes where everything explodes, the station catches fire. We don't recommend it.” At the same time the Russian section was preparing for a spacewalk. We asked our control centre whether “Gravity” was out in Russia. They said yes, that it was such a hilarious movie and we’d definitely have a laugh. So you see, for Americans it's a thriller, but a comedy for us.

Roscosmos 4
Spaceflight participant (fifth space tourist) Charles Simonyi, flight engineer and Soyuz TMA-10 commander for Expedition 15 Oleg Kotov, Expedition 15 commander and a Russian cosmonaut representing the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, Fyodor Yurchikhin (L-R) seen prior to the exam at the Gagarin Russian State Science Research Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, 2007

What were the most difficult and most interesting aspects of your time on the ISS?

Doing something new is always exciting. It could be a spacewalk, re-docking, meeting other ships and modules. Engaging in scientific experiments are another thing. The most difficult is the routine and doing nothing, all of the free time, surprising as that may sound.

How much free time do astronauts have?

It depends on whether it’s the beginning or the end of the expedition and the programme itself. It’s hard to believe but the competition for work is fierce. Everyone wants to be busy all the time.

You are a medical space expert. Do you plan to carry on research while managing the centre?

Biomedical research is vital for the scientific programme: the experiments are conducted not only aboard the station, but also on the ground before and after the flight. They make piloted space flights possible. Space medicine is necessary for people to live and work in space. So, of course, we will continue research.