HOUSTON — The radio call sign "Pulsar-1" sounds exotic enough, especially considering it comes from a piloted spaceship. And this weekend, Pulsar-1 will signify a new arrival in human spaceflight that might just carry some of the flash of an astronomical pulsar.
The call sign has been chosen by Oleg Kotov, commander of the Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft heading for the international space station on Saturday. Riding along will be fellow Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, who will take charge of the space station, and billionaire space passenger Charles Simonyi.
Cosmonaut commanders tend to pick call signs with classical references — things like jewels, rivers and occasionally constellations. But Kotov, 41, represents a new generation of cosmonauts taking command, and the differences extend far beyond his choice of call signs. He'll be in charge of the Soyuz craft for the flight up to the station, and again for his flight home in six months, even though he's never been in space before. That makes Kotov the first rookie commander of a transport to the international space station, a sign of the confidence that space planners have placed in him.
“These guys are very facile with computers,” NASA astronaut John Grunsfeld, who trained with Kotov, told MSNBC.com in a telephone interview. “On the station, they easily use all the computer tools.”
That's becoming increasingly important — because unlike previous space vehicles with gauges, buttons and cathode ray tubes, the space station is controlled almost exclusively with laptops, through software interfaces.
The new cosmonauts are “a mirror of their changing society,” Grunsfeld continued. He noted that on earthly roads, the next-generation space flier may drive Hondas rather than the clunky Soviet-era Ladas, but they still carry the right tools and can perform all the maintenance tasks and emergency road repairs.
A decade of training
Kotov’s official biography is impressive enough. He is a graduate of a military medical school, and was then assigned to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center as a medical officer preparing crew members for spacewalks. He was an instructor for crews in training, and was the "crew doctor" for one team preparing for a Mir mission. When selected as a cosmonaut in 1996, he didn’t even have to move.
Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 Even as he went through cosmonaut basic training — following a curriculum that he himself helped update — he was called upon for a flight-related assignment. In 1998, a former Russian presidential aide named Yuri Baturin was selected to visit Mir briefly as part of high-level evaluations of the future of the station. With the ink on his training certificate barely dry, Kotov was picked to train as his backup.
Baturin’s mission went smoothly, and Kotov was not called upon to fly in his place. But he was ready. That was nine years ago, and now he’s ready to blast off — not as a third-seat passenger with minimum flight responsibilities, as would have been the case in 1998, but as spaceship commander.
“It’s a curiosity to me why it’s taken so long to get him a spaceflight,” said Grunsfeld, who was once teamed with Kotov and Yurchikhin for space station training.
“From Day 1 they were warm and open and helpful,” Grunsfeld recalled, adding that Oleg was “very patient and very nurturing of me coming in late to the training flow.” Both cosmonauts had excellent English skills. “Oleg seemed to me like he was a seasoned commander,” Grunsfeld said.
Practice makes perfect
Grunsfeld speculated on the secret behind Kotov's high level of knowledge on space hardware and procedures: repetition.
“He’d often joke, as we were headed for a classroom, that ‘I’ve had this class five or six times,’” he recalled.
Kotov took the same approach to winter survival training, an outdoor ordeal that cosmonauts were required to go through at least once before flight. Over the years, when American astronauts and other foreign guests showed up for training in Moscow, the Russians would often have to throw together a "scratch crew" filled out with volunteers in order to have a full three-person Soyuz team in the program. Kotov, a native of the comparatively balmy southern Ukraine, kept volunteering to fill in these training crews.
Grunsfeld recalled walking down a hall in the cosmonaut training complex, headed for a briefing on his survival exercise, with Kotov at his side. The passing trainers greeted Kotov and joked, “Oh, you’re going out for winter survival — again?” Kotov probably racked up four or five such sessions, Grunsfeld recalled, under conditions that were actually made more difficult to keep him challenged.
On his single survival run, Grunsfeld recalled that they were dropped into a fir forest, not the more usual birch forests where the trees were easy to cut down for shelters. Once they had their parachute tent erected and got a fire going, Kotov just grinned: "Well, here we are, let’s enjoy it and learn about each other."
"As a medical doctor, he was kind of an outsider. In the Russian cultural program, that put him at a little bit of a disadvantage vis-a-vis the pilots – but it didn’t seem to sour him at all," Grunsfeld said.
“This guy is even-keeled, knowledgeable and patient — well-tailored for long-duration space flights,” Grunsfeld said. “It’s not a sprint on a shuttle."
Kotov learned patience while watching two other men from his class selected for spaceflights — but only short station visits. He is the first of his class to go on a long mission.
“I had a totally different view of what cosmonauts were like,” Grunsfeld admitted. The American had heard colorful stories from astronauts who took part in the Apollo-Soyuz program of the 1970s, and even in the shuttle-Mir program of the 1990s. “Very few smoke cigarettes, and they drink a lot less vodka than I’d heard, and more beer and wine.”
‘Relaxed and jovial’
Robert Dempsey, a NASA flight director in Houston, worked closely with Kotov in training for this mission. “He always appears relaxed and jovial but is extremely sharp and very focused — so focused at times he might not respond to you talking to him during a task,” Dempsey told MSNBC.com in an e-mail.
Space station timelineKotov is also the first Russian cosmonaut to become a prime operator of key systems on the U.S. side of the station, such as the robot arm. Dempsey said that's “an impressive accomplishment,” because the Russians are generally given only minimal training on U.S. hardware.
“He so impressed people with his robotics skill, it played a key role in deciding to perform the Early Ammonia Servicer (EAS) jettison during the stage rather than during a shuttle mission,” Dempsey wrote. The piano-sized EAS is due to be pushed out from the space station this summer.
“He also has a sly wit,” Dempsey said of Kotov. “I have seen him, while performing complicated tasks, slipping seamlessly between Russian, English and German, while also making jokes.”
Kotov is not the first doctor to be in command of a Soyuz — that distinction goes to a Russian pilot named Vasily Lazerev who had gone to medical school after earning his wings. Nor is he the first non-pilot to command a Soyuz mission. But no other cosmonaut came into the program as a doctor and wound up in command on his first launch.
That puts Kotov in line for assignments beyond this current mission, and he could conceivably be walking on the moon in the post-2020 years.
Grunsfeld said he feels "a little bit of remorse" that he's not going along for the ride this week. He was pulled off the station crew last year to be payload commander of next year's scheduled mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. But there will be future mission assignments, and men like Kotov and Grunsfeld could cross space paths again.