Aidyn Aimbetov, Kazakhstan’s third cosmonaut and a colonel in the country’s Air Force, travelled to the International Space Station Sept. 2 as part of an international crew. He remained in space for 10 days, conducting research.
Our interview with him covers how flights to space impact the human body and what was actually done during his space travel.
Your journey was postponed several times. Please tell us about how your journey began.
First of all, I should mention the person without whom this travel would not have been possible: our President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. His political will, great support and careful attention resulted in the fact that Kazakhstan is one of nine countries in the world that have sent three or more explorers to outer space.
In relation to my preparation for the travel, it took me more than a year. Initially the flight was scheduled to happen on Sept. 3, 2009. However, it was postponed due to financial concerns caused by the world economic crisis. Negotiations over including a Kazakh cosmonaut on the international space crew were constantly held between 2009 and 2015.
On Sept. 12, 2012, I was made “cosmonaut researcher of Kazakhstan.” For all these years, I kept my hopes up concerning the flight. And eventually we succeeded, thanks to the decision of our President. An agreement with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, concerning a Kazakh cosmonaut’s flight was reached on May 9 this year.
On June 22, the Joint Committee of the Cosmonauts Training Centre approved my candidature to be part of the crew on the Soyuz TMA-18M.So the preparation began. By the end of July, I got the [necessary] medical assessmen. In August, I completed the complex training as a main crew board engineer and after that our crew passed a crediting training on the special training device. Eventually, we were sent to the space port of Baikonur to finish our training.
The space travel started Sept. 2. Our crew consisted of board commander Sergey Volkov, board engineer Andreas Mogensen and myself. Soyuz TMA-18M took off from the launch pad Site No 1, also known as Gagarin’s Start, at 7:35 a.m. Moscow time. Automated docking at the ISS happened on Sept. 4.
People who work together on the ISS usually come from different countries and have different attitudes and languages. Please tell us what the relations among your colleagues were like.
If you take a look at our planet from orbit, you won’t see borders. The same situation is among the ISS crew: no separations exist. All of us felt a special brotherhood, despite differences in languages and behaviours. Actually, we used our own “galactic language” which consisted of technical terminology, English, Russian and Kazakh words. I remember that when we came back from ISS my first words were half Kazakh, half Russian: “Assalamaleikum, Zemlyane!” [“Greetings, Earthlings!”]
During the flight we conducted physical research. In particular, we examined how zero gravity and radiation influence the human body. We also studied Coulomb crystals, conducting experiments on the features of plasma in a weightless atmosphere under the influence of magnetic fields.
In another research project, we monitored atmospheric changes and conditions of the glaciers in eastern Kazakhstan and studied their melting speed. We also monitored pipelines carrying hydrocarbons and examined the Caspian Sea shelf where there are many suspended wells.
A number of large-scale environmental investigations examined conditions of the Aral Sea. There was also an interesting experiment developed by scientists in Kazakhstan, the point was to observe the consequences of consuming different types of food during space flight.
Results of the experiments will be further analysed on Earth; there are still many aspects to complete. The outcome of those experiments, particularly on Coulomb crystals, may prove useful in such areas as electronics, medicine or construction of facilities for flying vehicles.
Would you please share some of your most vivid impressions from the flight?
Of course, the strongest impression is the view of the Earth from the spaceship’s portholes. It is a truly magnificent spectacle to watch. I would love to fly again and not only orbit the Earth. If there was a chance, I would love to help build lunar settlements. As you might be aware, there is a Chinese lunar programme, as well as similar U.S. and Russian programmes. Through these programmes, moon settlements are developed and new moon flights are planned. So far Kazakhstan is not part of these programmes, but in the future I think anything is possible.
Another unforgettable experience was the shooting stars. … When you close your eyes you can see a shower of light flashes, dots and dashes. This effect is caused by heavy charged particles that are part of the cosmic rays that crisscross the galaxy. When these particles pass through the fundus of the eye through the retina, it is possible to see flashes without opening your eyes. It can only be observed in space.
Many children say they dream of becoming cosmonauts. Was it your dream too?
Yes, definitely, space was my childhood dream. When we were kids, all of us dreamed of being like Yuri Gagarin. He inspired us and paved the way to space for the whole world. Early on at school, I firmly decided to become a cosmonaut. I started to make plans and found out that mostly military pilots with good health travelled to space. I began to actively engage in sports to strengthen my health. In addition, I studied sciences. My favourite school subjects were always physics, mathematics and chemistry.
Of course, after graduation, I never doubted that I would enrol in a military school. I graduated from the Higher Military School in Armavir, Russia, with a degree in command tactical fighter aviation and was qualified as a pilot-engineer. From May 1993, I served in the Air Force of Kazakhstan. I mastered the L-39, MiG-23ML, MiG-27MD, and Su-27 aircraft.
In 1993, I first applied to the cosmonauts group. Then in May 2001, I applied for selection into the first group of cosmonauts in Kazakhstan. … Then there was the main medical commission in 2002, following which we were approved to to train with a group of Russian candidates into cosmonauts, and general space trainings at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.
General space training lasts two years. Upon its completion, the qualification “test cosmonaut” is conferred. Then there is training in a group of specialisations to gain full knowledge of the Russian segment of the ISS. This stage lasts from two to four years. Only after that does one proceed to training as a crew member to work on a specific space programme.
It takes at least eight years to become a professional cosmonaut. In my case, it took 12 years.
How has the world changed for you after this spaceflight?
During spaceflight, many things happen to us that might not be visible from outside. You are going through a re-examination of the true value of life. Many parting wishes from colleagues and relatives, some ideas that seemed profound to me, all came to my mind. You start to rethink all these things when you are in space.
After returning from the flight I feel I became more tolerant. Along with this, I’ve come to understand that man is just a speck in the infinite universe and we should be more tolerant of each other.
I was also glad to notice that young people in Kazakhstan are seriously interested in the space industry. They often ask me how to become a cosmonaut, where should they study for that, how to become a crew member.
This makes me confident that our younger generation still has a serious interest in this area, and in the future they will be motivated and drive Kazakhstan’s space programme.
The article is published in a shortened version. The full version appeared in Kazakhstanskaya Pravda newspaper. It is translated and placed here with permission.