- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 6, 2002

Fyodor Yurchikhin, who this week will be orbiting the planet aboard Atlantis, is one of a handful of Russian cosmonauts who have gotten their first space experience flying on NASA space shuttle missions.
Russia can't afford to fly its own rookie cosmonauts on their Soyuz spacecraft because its underfunded space agency must raise money by selling those seats to other countries or multimillionaire space tourists.
When NASA first worked with Russia, there were even exchanges two cosmonauts would fly on a weeklong shuttle mission and one American would fly on a long-duration flight on the space station Mir without any exchange of money.
Later NASA paid Russia to allow several U.S. astronauts to spend additional time on Mir. A couple of experienced cosmonauts flew on the shuttle in exchange for their operational experience. But NASA now flies rookie cosmonauts ones without any spaceflight experience.
In a few rare cases the Russian cosmonauts have enough technical experience and English skills that they can be integrated into a space shuttle crew. But more often the cosmonauts get assigned relatively simple tasks that they can do by themselves, such as installing the water filter after the shuttle is in orbit or cleaning tasks.
The more experienced Russians may get payload responsibilities such as spacewalks, but rarely do they get any shuttle responsibilities. Once on the space station, the Russian crew member's talents are put to more use they have more knowledge about the operation of the Russian-built modules than most American astronauts and can read the instruction and maintenance manuals in their own language.
The English skills for cosmonauts vary from almost nonexistent to very good. Some barely go to any effort to learn English, choosing to ask bilingual crew mates to translate for them. Most learn English basics and technical terms and can follow technical conversations. A rare handful become fluent enough in English to handle day-to-day communications, and a couple prefer to avoid using translators because their technical language skills are better than the translator's.
Mr. Yurchikhin is a member of the STS-112 shuttle crew on Atlantis that is scheduled to blast off tomorrow.
Flight director Phil Engelhauf said: "From an operational standpoint, Fyodor has been integrated into the crew as a working crewm member he's carrying his weight and doing the same job an American crewmember would be doing."
Mr. Yurchikhin's responsibilities are: install water filter; assist another astronaut with moving cargo from the shuttle to and from the space station; photographer; fill bags with water and transfer them to the space station; and help the spacewalkers into their spacesuits.
Normally the astronaut who helps the spacewalkers into their spacesuits also monitors the checklist and talks to them during the spacewalk. But in this case that task will be done by pilot Pam Melroy. She said: "Although Fyodor's English is excellent, some of the tasks we do are so complex, good communications between the [spacewalkers] and myself when we're inside makes it not very practical for him to be the one on the radio talking to them. So I've become the keeper of the checklist."
Mr. Yurchikhin says he studied some English in school but has only studied English intensively recently. He said: "I seriously begun my English studying on September last year when I begun my training in Houston. Before this time I didn't know English very well."
Mr. Yurchikhin usually relies on translators and speaks broken English with a heavy accent. Some of his shuttle crew mates are fairly fluent in Russian, notably David Wolf, who spent four months on the Mir space station.
Since the Russian add-on crew members are not given as many responsibilities, the rest of the shuttle crew has to take up the slack, working overtime to ensure that all of the tasks can be accomplished. For example a particular astronaut may have a triple load as the flight engineer and robot arm operator and spacewalker instead of just two of those responsibilities. When a guest cosmonaut doesn't fly, the tasks get spread more evenly among the crew.
NASA has only added a Russian cosmonaut to crews where there is a spare seat available, in effect a passenger with some responsibilities. On the more intense crew-exchange missions, the four shuttle crew members have heavier workloads and always consist of U.S. crew members and fully trained international crew members from Europe, Canada or Japan. Those crew members have had the benefit of the entire two-year astronaut-training course given to U.S. astronauts, several years of experience working with NASA and good-to-excellent English skills.
Mr. Yurchikhin may be the last freebie cosmonaut flight for a while, chief astronaut Charlie Precourt acknowledged: "Because there're fewer flights and the mission requirements are so demanding, the Russian cosmonauts flying on the shuttle will be a [smaller] percentage than we've done in the past."


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