This year the 24th edition of The Astronomical Festival of Villa de LeyvaIt is the largest in Colombia and one of the most important in Latin America. As usual in the event, which will take place from Friday 30 July to Sunday 1 August, there will be various activities of interest to visitors: telescopes for observing the night and day sky, specialized conferences, astrophotography competitions, exhibitions, a LEGO game exhibition with astronomy decorations, tourist trails through the constellations and workshops For children, among other things.
The festival, organized by the Astronomy Society of Colombia (Asasac), will have as its main theme the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the first man into outer space, Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut and pilot who, on April 12, 1961, gave an orbit to Earth aboard the craft Vostok 1 satellite.
As part of this celebration, and thanks to the support of the Russian Embassy in Colombia, the event will witness a special participation of the Russian cosmonaut of Greek origin. Fyodor Yurchin, 62, an engineer participating in five space missions and awarded the title Hero of the Russian Federation.
Can you tell us about your career?
My career path began in my childhood with a dream of becoming an astronaut. This dream in school led me to a group with an emphasis on physics and mathematics. After graduation, I applied to the Moscow Aviation Institute Sergó Ordzhonikidze, one of our cosmonauts. After graduating, in 1983, I was fortunate to start working for Sergei Korolev Energy for Rockets and Space, the entity where the world’s first satellite and Vostok spacecraft were developed, where Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight, as well as many other leading exploration missions outer space. In 1986, I applied to participate in the astronaut selection competition, but for about 11 years I could not pass all the required medical examinations. And only until 1997, finally, was I registered as a candidate to be a test astronaut. Then everything was easier: in 2002, I made the first flight with the STS-112 mission on the shuttle Atlantis, then four more flights to the International Space Station (ISS) followed: in 2007 (ISS-15 mission), 2010 (EEI) -24/25), 2013 (EEI-36/37) and 2017 (EEI-51/52). I was also the captain of the International Space Station and the Soyuz spacecraft. I’ve spent over 672 days in space and done nine spacewalks. I am very happy to realize my childhood dream.
What is the most satisfying thing about being an astronaut?
Reunited with my family after every trip. All the hustle and bustle are gone, being with my loved ones again. It’s unforgettable minutes when I can hug them.
And the hardest thing about this job?
Two things, at least for me: the hope of a new journey, whether there was one or not. The second is to understand, as in 2017, already in orbit, that this is the last flight, this is it.
Who was your childhood idol? One might think that Yuri Gagarin.
I was born in that happy time when everyone was talking about the first astronauts. Gagarin is the first of its kind. I knew him in three ways. The first was Gagarin as such, the winner and the hero, the hero. This is how it was for us children at the games: Gagarin was the winner. I met him at school by the name of Yuri Gagarin.
I understood that I was the first person to fly into space and open the way for all of humanity. In school days, Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin was made for me, whose civic achievement cannot even be compared with his professional one. Imagine a young man from Gzhatsk (a small town in western Russia that was renamed Gagarin), not even 30 years old who falls into world glory. He is received by the Queen of England, various heads of state, movie stars … and he is not lost among them. He was still Gagarin. I will quote his words: “As I flew around the Earth in a spacecraft, I marveled at the beauty of our planet. Humans, let us preserve and multiply this beauty, let us not destroy it!”. These words are compelling today. With each trip, you better understand how fragile our planet is. From space we can see the catastrophic consequences of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, fires, the results of volcanic eruptions, and man-made disasters.
What is the main contribution of the Russian program in space exploration?
Soviet space program episode. We open the way to space for humans. And we open it in many ways: the first satellite, the first man in space, the first spacewalk, the first orbital station, the first plants in space, the first animals. Many other developments in astronautics were preceded by the word “first”.
You had to live part of the space race. What do you remember most about those times of the scientific battle between the United States and the Soviet Union?
In 1975, the Soyuz-Apollo program (when Soviet and American spacecraft docked in space). It was an example of fruitful cooperation between the two countries, and an example of how easily engineers and builders could agree if there was the political will of leaders.
How do you envision the future of space exploration in the world?
On the one hand, there is research with the help of autonomous devices, and on the other hand, manned astronauts. In the first case, I foresee a promising method, namely, the study, with the help of robots and artificial intelligence, of the planets and bodies of the solar system, with Venus occupying an important place. By understanding the mechanism of climate change on this planet, predictions can be made to prevent a climate catastrophe on Earth. Then there is the study of the Sun, on which our lives depend, and the search for the Moon and Mars, which was and will be possible with the help of machines. It is less expensive. A huge spaceship with a human on board could not land without a prepared platform on Mars. It is too risky for the members of the expedition. In my opinion, it is the robots that should prepare the ground for the landing of manned spacecraft.
Another topic is the study of deep space with the help of radio telescopes that are launched into higher orbits. And let’s not forget the problems of our planet such as climate change and other environmental issues that require specialized international investigations and advanced equipment to implement them.
Have you ever imagined that the space arena would be dominated by private companies like SpaceX?
Like I said before, I’ve dreamed of space since I was a kid. My favorite books were science fiction. There he writes what will sooner or later become a reality, including reusable launch vehicles, with vertical landings, as SpaceX does. I am sure that in his childhood Elon Musk also loved to read science fiction and that this led to the creation of the spaceships of the future. To buy a car and travel in it, we go to an agency. I don’t know what spacecraft agencies will be called in the future, but I think they will certainly exist and in fairly large numbers. It is very likely that one of them called SpaceX for you.
In his time and even today, training astronauts has been very difficult. Now, with the commercial opening of space, anyone can become an astronaut in time. What is your opinion?
When you buy a flight ticket, for example, from Bogota to Moscow, do you become a pilot? Being an astronaut is a profession in which yesterday, today and tomorrow you need excellent health, new knowledge in various fields, a long and difficult preparation and waiting for your turn. Hard work from you and your teachers. All this takes years. It is not a profession for everyone. But if you just want to look out the plane window, buy tickets and go ahead.
How do you think the US-Russia relationship will change now that NASA no longer depends on Soyuz rockets to go into space, as it will with private operators?
I have already mentioned the example of Soyuz-Apollo. Now I will quote from the Mir-Shuttle program (in which American cosmonauts visiting the Russian Mir space station took part). Each nation has its own spaceships. If the political will of the leaders were not there, then there would be no such kind of programme. Not even the International Space Station program. Unfortunately, cooperation in any field, including space, depends on politicians and not on the availability of spacecraft. Imagine if politicians agreed to launch a space program that would include all space powers: Russia, the United States, China, Europe, Japan, and Canada, on the basis of fairness. We already believed beyond Mars. But that’s not what it would be like. At least not in the near future.
Is the isolation we experience during a pandemic similar to that experienced on a private journey?
Epidemic isolation and spaceflight certainly have a lot in common. It is about compliance with the routine of work and rest in an enclosed space to avoid sleep disturbances; Doing the required exercises, talking to friends through modern media, doing health procedures…many things. But there is a fundamental difference: astronauts go on the flight voluntarily, while isolation during the pandemic is forced.
What should a country like Colombia, which does not yet have a space program, do to engage in these developments?
Guidance of professionals. For this, first of all, you need to believe in youth. Among them are certainly those who dreamed of space in their childhood. Give them the possibility to realize their dream. Start small, like building satellites from universities. We are ready to help you with that. We have extensive work experience in this field, both in national and international programmes. Our universities have been operating for a long time and with great efficiency with many universities in Latin America. In collaboration with students from Peru and Ecuador, they created and launched satellites for students. The students we started working with 10 years ago are already experienced professionals. I think this work is very promising.
Nicholas Bustamante Hernandez *
for the time