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Cosmonaut interview: Alexandr Volkov

This article was first published in Spaceflight magazine (Vol 39, no. 6, June 1997) and is put here after kind permission of the British Interplanetary Society

By Thanassis Vembos

A.A. Volkov (left), T. Vembos

On 20 January 1997 cosmonaut Alexandr Alexandrovich Volkov visited Athens during the announcement of the 'West in Space 97' program. I had the opportunity to meeti him and hear his views on a number of past and present space developments.

- Are you still an active cosmonaut? Do you have the intention of making another spaceflight?

* I am still an active cosmonaut. It would be easy for me to make more flights, but I do not have any such intention. I already have made three and in my team there are other people who have not flown yet. So, I make room for the younger! But of course, if my services are needed, I am always ready.

- Which things you remember more vividly in your missions?

* The strong impressions were basically from my first flight. The first "contact" with free fall is a unique feeling which nobody on Earth can experience unless he makes a flight into space -except in the brief periods of "weightlessness" in free fall simulation in parabolic flights. Also, the first re-entry, when the descent module becomes a fireball. Also the first spacewalk -an unforgettable experience. Another one is the return to Earth. The termination of a long flight, the first "strike" of gravity and the first Earth smells, are things that remain unfadingly in memory.

- Before your first flight in 1985 you had not participated as a member of any back-up crew. What was the reason for this unusual practice?

* It was a necessity. We had a lot of work to do inside the module Cosmos 1686 at the Salyut 7 complex. There were many experimental devices inside that module. I was prepared for special work on these specific devices. I was also a test pilot, so that was the reason they sent me.

- You are very close friend of the cosmonaut Vasyutin. What was the health problems he faced during his shift in Salyut-7?

* Vasyutin faced a whole "complex" of medical ailment, which was impossible to cure in space. He had to return to Earth quickly, otherwise his life would have been in danger. He did not have any psychological problems -despite of the relative rumours then. I am telling you that responsibly, since we worked together in space for 65 days. He suffered from strong internal pains and change of size of his internal organs. His liver became so bloated that was visible on his body.

- These problems were caused from the flight?

* Every cosmonaut is going through a detailed medical inspection. Vasyutin went through this inspection and was judged as suitable for a long mission. The specialists believe that his case was one of "lethal influence of the conditions of free fall". There are conditions in which an absolutely healthy organism can "break" in free fall. However, Vasyutin is not a cosmonaut any more. He works as a deputy director at Gagarin Academy, near Moscow, where the training of military pilots takes place.

- After your first mission in 1985 you participated in a "space resue program". What was that?

* That was after my second flight, in 1988. Truly, I belonged to the so-called "rescue team". This team was created in order to improve the safety of space flights. There was a possibility that a docked Soyuz can be damaged and be non operational. So, we had to have another Soyuz with a "rescue crew" ready for flight -since one person alone cannot pilot a Soyuz, dock with the station, take the endangered crew and return safely back to Earth.

- In June 1988, during an interview of yours, you had expressed "a great ambition" to fly the Soviet Space Shuttle. Did you participate in that program?

* Actually this did not happen in 1988, but in 1976, in my initial selection. A team was formed which was prepared for flight with the space shuttle. In this team we were 9 military pilots. [Here Volkov apparently refers to the "mini shuttle" VKS and not the Buran-VKK vehicle]

- Do you remember the members of this team?

* I will try. Myself, Salei, Titov, Solovyov, Moskalenko, Vasyutin, Protchenko...

- Is it true that the Buran program was conceived as a countermeasure to its American counterpart, because in Moscow the military complex was afraid that the US vehicle could be suitable for orbital nuclear bombing of Moscow?

* (Laugh) It is not necessary to have a manned space shuttle to bomb a city from space. You can do it with an unmanned sattelite. Americans had started research in the X-planes, so our designers decided to make something similar. We had a parallel evolution and we created similar vehicles. But this -thank God- is not happening today. By unifying our strength we can create a spaceship together. The Soviet shuttle program absorbed colossal funds, and proved to be useless. Today the American shuttle serves our space station with everything necessary.

- Today, what is the status of the shuttle program and also of Energia rocket?

* Buran has been terminated. The whole equipment is mothballed. Energia rocket can -in any moment- carry to orbit any payload up to 100 tons. Buran will stay in the "deep freeze". Every year it gets older -functionally and conceptually.

- How long will the Mir station be operational?

* Till 2001. In fact, until the start of operations of the International Space Station. After that, Mir will stop to be operational.

- Will it be brought back to Earth or be left to make a destructive re-entry?

* I don't know. But ISS is delayed, the time schedule is hindered and this means that Mir operations will be extended.

- In the past, were the long duration manned flights to Salyuts and Mir actually made to gain experience for a Soviet manned mission to Mars? In 1986, cosmonaut Savinykh said that in the future he "would ride a Mir vehicle to Mars". What do you know about that?

* Truly, one of the main objectives of Mir was the ensuring of the preparing of a manned mission to Mars. Of course, the only relation is the duration of the flight and nothing more. There are no rockets for propulsing such a vehicle to another planet. Mir is a bulky structure, with a mass over 120 t, and there is no way to move it to Moon or Mars. There must be a special upper stage for something like that. The long duration stays at Mir had the objective of the better knowledge of extended missions in space. We also tested recycling systems. We are developing a system of extracting oxygen from urine.

- In the past, cosmonauts were members of the elite of the Soviet society and had several priviledges. Today, what is their status?

* We never considered ourselves as "members of an elite". The cosmonauts always considered themselves as the "workhorses of space". The attitude of the people, in a way was glorifying them -in every country. As you see, I came to you country and you wanted to see me! The public has still an increased interest for cosmonauts.

- Today Russia is cutting dramatically its space funds. Do you believe it is something right? Could this money be found from somewhere else?

* At this very moment, the economic situation in Russia is complex and the government is trying every possible way of stabilizing the economy. The funds for cosmonautics have been reduced to a level lower than the one needed for evolution. So, we are promoting international cooperation to save money.

- Were there any lethal accidents, like the Bondarenko one, before the Gagarin flight?

* I do not know of any such incidents before the Gagarin flight.

- How is the situation at Baikonur and Leninsk today?

* At first, we had a very intense situation, an worrying one. Leninsk lost a great part of its population. Many of our military people left town and the latter ceased to be a closed city. Upheaval and hooliganism started and life -for those who stayed- became difficult. The launch pads that were not used, became targets for looting. They stole metals and sold them. But we reacted in time. Thanks to the Russia-Kazakhstan agreement, an ex-Russian military officer was appointed as commander of the city. Order was restored and today one can live in peace there. The launch pads are being used in cooperation with the Kazakh personnel, just like it was before.

- In the past, cosmonaut Serebrov used the autonomous flight unit, also named as "space bicycle". Do you plan to use this unit again?

* The so called SPK unit is now stored aboard Mir. If there is a need, we can use it again. But in present we do not consider such an operation necessary.

- Are there any Russian women cosmonauts preparing for a mission?

* Yelena Kondakova is preparing for a mission with the space shuttle. There is also one more who is undergoing preliminary training. Her name is Nadhezhda Kuzhelnaya.

- There are rumours about stories where somebody managed to smuggle objects into the Progress cargo vehicles. What do you know about that?

* I have heard of rumours that somebody wanted to hide inside a Progress to fly into space! [Laugh] It is possible that there were thoughts and intentions of such an act. But I do not know of any actual incident.

- Besides of the 1983 emergency, when the Soyuz rocket cought fire on the pad and the escape tower was activated, was there any other similar event?

* No, there wasn't.

- The program for the Polyus module, had any relation with Soviet plans for space-based laser weapons?

* I do not know of any such program or vehicle.

- Do you know anything about a case where a useless space suit was jetissoned into space?

* We throw away a lot of things in space. Once, a crew made up a "samalyot", of a frame and two buckets of waste for engines, and of other garbage! They put on an empty non-functional space suit and jetissoned the whole "spaceship" and then they filmed it! I do not remember which crew was that.

- To which other cosmonauts are you a close friend?

* With Titov.

- Tell us about your family and hobbies.

* My wife Anna, works at the library in Zvyozdni Gorodok. We have two sons. The older is 24, he is a military pilot and flies in airports around Moscow. He wants to be a cosmonaut! The younger is 18 years old and he studies. As you see, the whole family flies! Also, the whole family plays tennis. My hobby is flying with everything that can fly. I have piloted 21 different types of airplanes and have collected over 2,500 hours of flight. I also like windsurfing.

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