Meet The Cosmonaut


Mikhail Kornienko, a flight engineer on the International Space Station, wants to go back up, he tells RONAN McGREEVY

When you were young did you want to be a cosmonaut?I started to think about space when I was five or six, after [learning about cosmonaut] Yuri Gagarin. The fact that my father, a military pilot, was meeting the cosmonauts played a crucial role in my attitude to space.

What kind of training did you have to do to go into space?Before my flight I passed about 250 exams. There is a lot of physical training and there are hydro-laboratories in Houston and in Russia. I spent a lot of time there. I have a lot of winter survival training to know what we have to do.

When you were waiting on the rocket before taking off, what went through your mind?All the feelings stay behind me because I have to work when I’m sitting on the rocket. I have to check the systems and pressure. For the whole two hours I was busy, so there was no place for my feelings.

What affect did weightlessness have on you?It depends on the individual. Some people feel good when they arrive in space. For our crew there was no problem. Weightlessness is an amazing feeling. It is very comfortable. You don’t need a lot of power to move stuff around. All the problems started after landing because I grew 3cms in space. I had a problem with my knees and my spinal column. I had a lot of trouble sleeping. I felt like an old man.

What was your body clock like when you reached the space station?The first time I arrived all the crew was extremely tired so I didn’t have any trouble sleeping. After the first two or three days, I couldn’t get used to not having a pillow. There is no reason for a pillow in space, but I still missed it.

What did you miss from Earth when you were on the International Space Station (ISS)?I missed the whole world. It is not just a trip to another city or country. You miss the forest, the rivers, the birds, the whole planet actually. I even asked a psychologist to send me some pictures from Earth so I could put them up on the walls.

What scientific experiments were undertaken on the ISS?We finished about 48 experiments from the areas of biology, physics and medicine. [We also had to undertake] the maintenance of the space station. It is a very complicated piece of machinery.

You spent more than six hours on your space walk. Tell us about it?The preparation happens two weeks in advance. Even more extensive work starts a day before. You don’t sleep the whole day before. Going outside is hard from both the physical side and the mental side. There are a lot of dangers. You have to fix yourself to the station. If you don’t fix yourself, you will not be able to come back. I was outside for six hours and 45 minutes. You can take some water into open space, but I took some tea, and I was so busy I forgot I had it with me. I drank it in the station.

Did you get any chance to look down on the Earth?I didn’t have much time to look around because all the work was on the port of the station. You have to realise that during the flight there were several changes from day to night (every 40 minutes). I do remember flying over the Mediterranean Sea though.

You celebrated your 50th birthday in space. What was that like?It was the best birthday I ever had. There were 13 people celebrating on the space station.

What was your favourite part of being in space?Landing.

What was it like to come home?The best feeling was when they opened the door and I could feel the air. On the station you have only artificial air, you can’t smell anything. The smells on Earth are very impressive.

I had to live for two weeks after in quarantine, so I was not allowed to go home straight away.

Will you be going back into space?I hope so. They say that if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans, but I’m going to fly for the second time. Now it is time for [a medical review]. If the results are fine, I will fly again.

Are you allowed to drink alcohol in space? It would be very nice. This is an issue that is under consideration. If you work in a submarine, you are allowed to drink wine. Cosmonauts are not allowed yet to do it, but hopefully they will be.

What was the most important job you had to do on the ISS?All the work we did was very important.

How can you have a shower in space when water does not flow?Unfortunately, there is no shower on the station. Instead, we have special wet towels.

Do you support the idea of space tourism?The idea is not that bad, but sending tourists to the station is not a good idea because the workers on the station have too much to do.

What advice do you have for budding space travellers?[You need to have] health, patience and education. From my entrance to the programme to the time I flew into space took 12 years. You need a lot of patience.

What makes astronauts and cosmonauts so rare and so special?There are already 500 people from all countries who have visited space. I’d like to repeat that patience is very important. You not only need patience to get there, but you need patience if you are confined in a small place for six months.

Do you like giving talks to young people?It is very important for me and very pleasant because children are our future.

Have you ever seen Ireland from space?Not exactly. Our orbit was pretty far from Ireland. I’ve only been able to see Ireland on the horizon.

You were one year old when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and nine years later a man walked on the moon. Yet we still have not gone to Mars? When do you see that happening?A programme to Mars is at least 25 to 30 years away. The closest programme is likely to be a moon base. To go to Mars we have to understand the reasons why we are going there.

President Barack Obama got rid of the Orion programme to go back to the moon and Mars. Many people believe we will not go to Mars in our lifetime. Do you believe that?President Obama will come and go. Who knows what will be the views of the next US president. If there is the money there and the will, we could go to Mars much sooner than we think.

Do you envisage that being an international programme? Visiting Mars would be an international programme. It would be too expensive for any one country.

Now that the shuttle is finished, do you expect Russia to become the top country in space exploration?Maybe not the first, but certainly not the last. Despite the reduction of the shuttle programme, the US spends four or five times what Russians spend on space travel and the Chinese want to go to Moon.

Do you miss space?Yes, as soon as I recovered, I wanted to go again.

What are the most common questions you get asked about being in space? Are there aliens?I didn’t see them. Trust me – no aliens. How do you eat or sleep in space? How do you go to the toilet in space? What language do you speak on the ISS? English, it is the official language on the station.