I am in Moscow, Russia, five weeks till launch

These are the last weeks I will spend with my feet firmly on the ground (my head is still in the clouds, as always). I feel as though I was thrown in a blender: there are many last-minute things to do that need my direct attention and cannot wait. Despite being so busy with my training, I need to find a way to distribute my attention to other matters. My focus is mainly on the  final exams for the Soyuz spacecraft and on the Russian segment of the International Space Station that will begin this week.

As far as I am concerned, the two individual Soyuz exams (which will take place on Thursday and Friday) are the most difficult. I talked about preparing for these exams on the Shenanigans09 blog (the class of astronauts I belong to) in February 2012.

I will start with a docking exam whereby I have to manually dock with the Space Station. It is an individual exam and I will sit in the commander’s seat, where cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin will sit during my launch. I need to show that I can fulfil Fyodor’s role safely if, for whatever reason, the commander himself cannot perform the docking. The safety parameters are very restrictive, for example the speed at contact needs to be between 6 and 15 cm/s which the operator must estimate by sight alone. Exceeding the safety parameters, however slightly, will invalidate my qualification.


Friday I will do another individual exam that is rather demanding: manual reentry of our Soyuz capsule. Once again, I will be sitting in the commander’s seat and I will need to demonstrate that I can land safely in various conditions under very strict parameters, all under manual control. This is a special exam as it is carried out in a centrifuge. Over the course of three runs while being pushed back by g-forces I need to land the capsule on Earth whilst minimising g-force (acceleration) and homing in on the landing site. It is a bit like trying to hit a 10-km target on Earth by dropping an bowling ball from orbit!

These exams are tough because they require a lot of concentration and practice and I am on my own. Access to the simulators is limited as all the crews in training use them. We do a minimum number of runs for our preparation and pass the exam as best as we can. I took this exam six months ago as backup crew for Expedition 34. Now, I will go through the same experience as part of the prime crew. Having had some practice six months ago I will try to do well and improve my previous score. Nevertheless, it is thrilling and fun to pilot a space ship – for a pilot like me it is as close as I will get to feel like Luke Skywalker….