Astronaut Yuri Malenchenko: The Most Beautiful Thing in Outer Space is the Earth

An astronaut is one of those unique professions which almost everyone dreams of. But just few people can realize. Yuri Malenchenko is one of them.

The stringent selection process means that, ultimately, only one individual out of tens of thousands of candidates will ever make a trip into space and thus space exploration is an experience of the elect. We open the fourth issue of «Youth Time» with an interview with one of these elect. The hero of our “Personalities” column is the cosmonaut, Yuri Malenchenko. He has accomplished four space missions, adding up to a total of nearly one and a half years spent outside the bounds of our planet. At 49 years, Yuri was promoted to colonel and has been awarded the medals of a Hero of the Russian Federation, a National Hero of Kazakhstan, and a variety of other orders. Yuri Malenchenko also possesses a unique title – “the first space groom”. In 2003, because of a mission delay at the ISS, the cosmonaut was under the threat of missing his own wedding. And then it was decided to hold the first ever space wedding. The leadership at NASA and the Russian Air Force did not object so the bride and groom celebrated the happy event, looking at each other across monitor screens.

Tell us how you came to choose your profession? Was it your childhood dream, as with so many children during the Soviet era, to become a cosmonaut?

That too, of course. After graduating from a military academy, I served four years in aviation. It was there that I was offered the chance to transfer to a cosmonaut division. I must say that the whole process is quite a long one. It took one and half years from my first interview to the time I actually started the job. The selection process is very strict. Out of almost a thousand jet fighter pilots, only five were ultimately chosen.

What does it take to pass such a rigorous selection process?

First of all, good health. The medical requirements are very high, and one must have perfect health to meet the criteria. Military pilots already undergo an annual medical examination and the largest number of candidates is dropped at this stage of the screening. In addition, one must pass the psychological exams and tests of professional competence. We even had to go through an interview with representatives of the CPSS (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) in the days when there was still such a commission.

How did your family react to your decision?

I did not tell them right away, only after I had passed most of the tests. Of course they worried. But they supported me. I wanted to change my profession. The decision was not easy, but I never regretted it.

Tell us about your first experience of weightlessness. Can you compare it to anything?

We prepared for weightlessness for a long time on Earth. For example, we trained in a special apparatus, which moves in a parabola. But the weightlessness which is achieved there lasts only for short periods of time, and in space it is constant, 24 hours a day, and you can’t escape it. When you first get into space, it’s impressive. The lightness you feel is very unusual, everything is floating, it’s so interesting. By pushing hard from the wall, you can actually fly a few meters and then, to stop, you have to grab onto something with your hands. Initially it takes your organism a long time to acclimate to these conditions, because on Earth, under the conditions of gravity, a totally different set of muscles is at work and, being unaccustomed to the new environment, one feels overexerted. Another problem in microgravity is sleep. Since it is not possible to fix the body in any particular position, we have to attach ourselves to a wall, and you keep wanting to rest your head in a manner where it doesn’t wobble. That is really hard to get used to.

When you return, you need to get used to gravity all over again, don’t you?

Of course that took time. My first flight lasted more than 4 months, so my muscles weakened. The first few minutes after the landing, when you start moving vertically, you feel as if your internal organs are being dragged downward. You also experience a rapid heartbeat and labored breathing. But within an hour, it already becomes easier and within three hours you’re pretty stable although, for several more days, you still sway when you’re walking. One theory is that the organism is only entirely restored to its normative condition after you spend a period of time back on Earth equal to the number of hours you spent in space. Your blood count returns to normal, the calcium lost from your bones is restored (in space, bones do not need rigidity and so the body starts to excrete its calcium).

How do you spend your free time in space? How do you relax?

In space, your free time just depends on your schedule although in some ways the schedule is less rigid then the working day on Earth. There is a great deal of work to be done, but you can decide what needs to be done right away and what can wait. And when you are really tired from the work then you can take some time off to write home.

What are the difficulties faced by families of astronauts?

The difficulties are probably about the same as those faced by other families although our work load is pretty huge. Because of our long business trips, we miss a lot and don’t always get the chance to participate in family events. And when you are away for prolonged periods of time and not able to do certain things for your family, then others have to do it for you.

Would you like to have your son follow in your path?

If my son wanted to be a cosmonaut, I don’t know if I would be happy about it or not. He has never mentioned such a desire. But I think I wouldn’t be negative about it.

Why has no one been able to repeat the mission to the moon since Armstrong first got there?

First of all, it wasn’t just Armstrong that landed on the moon, even though he was the first one to do it. NASA has carried out nine missions to the moon, of which 6 involved landing expeditions. It was a fairly complex program. Secondly, the Soviet Union was engaged in planning such a mission as well. Unfortunately, the circumstances were such that our program got cancelled. But sooner or later we will get back to it. Now, for example, there is a promising idea of constructing a base on the Moon. Another possible direction would be to investigate the nearest planet, Mars. There is much talk of these projects, and a flight to Mars no longer seems entirely unrealistic.

You’ve participated in NASA programs and prepared for flights at a U.S. facility as well. How different is the training level between our program and the U.S. one?

There has been an international program going on for a while now. We began to cooperate in the ‘90s with the “International Space Station.” In those years NASA generally used shuttles for space flights. The missions for the crew were quite specific: short-term flights where all the tasks were performed inside a manned spacecraft with the help of a manipulator. Within the framework of these objectives, there developed a corresponding system of crew training. By comparison, we specialize in long flights to conduct research on the Mir station, and our astronauts have trained specifically for these kinds of missions. So when the joint program began, the NASA employees were very interested in our experience with long-term flight preparation. Now that the two systems have merged, each side contributes something from their own expertise.

Which country is tougher in terms of recruitment?

I think we have more challenging requirements in regard to the health issue. In the U.S. anybody can submit a request for training at the center. Naturally, not all are accepted, but the approach is more open. Another difference is that we select cosmonauts mainly from among military pilots and engineers from space industry while NASA recruits people from of all kinds of professional backgrounds.

Experienced cosmonauts are subjected to the same requirements as the rest?

The requirements are standard. But for the first round of selection higher medical criteria are enforced.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become a cosmonaut?

First of all, pursue sports and physical training. We don’t give it enough thought, but we should develop and strengthen our health from childhood since good health will always be useful. Other than that, it is essential to gain experience in life and to accomplish something. It is important to choose one’s vocation, to make an effort and to challenge yourself. But very young people, who are just starting out in life, are not accepted for space training. At the same time one has to be relatively young. I myself prepared for 7 years for my first flight. And for some, it takes up to 10 years so that it’s possible to simply miss the age eligibility.

What for you personally is the ultimate happiness?

It is an inner feeling, so it can vary. One must be able to make oneself happy. And our internal state should not depend on the external world.

What are your dreams?

When I’m very busy, I wish I could be at home for a few days, with no one interrupting or calling, to just stay in and not have to go anywhere. I would like to spend much more time with the people I love, to go on a vacation, to break away from my routine.

Are you involved in sports?

Well, I can’t really call it sports. I do calisthenics and jog in the morning. Sometimes I play football. I love to swim. I do go skiing in the winter. So, some seasonal activities.

What is the most important quality for a man?

One quality is not enough. But any man needs toughness in life. You need to set goals and execute them.

What about a woman?

A woman should be feminine. But, in either case, all people should be good people. That’s what really matters.

Photo: From the archive of Yuri Malenchenko

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