Chatting with a Cosmonaut, Part 1

Sep 20, 2017

Lia Paola Zambetti

Senior Project Officer

Office of Research Development and Collaboration, The University of Sydney

When the renowned Russian cosmonaut and space flight veteran Anton Shkaplerov was in Singapore for a series of events, our guest writer Dr Lia Zambetti interviewed him, via a translator, about his experiences in space (and beyond!), and the main challenges faced in space exploration today.

Lia: Would you please introduce yourself?

Anton: My name is Anton Shkaplerov, I am a cosmonaut and a jet pilot and I come from the military. I flew in space twice, the last time it was last year [2015]. 

Lia: How relevant is science for space exploration in 2016 – and beyond?

Anton: We fly to space to make experiments that are not possible to do on Earth, and the most important thing [to consider] is gravity. It helps being far from the planet, which means we can explore our planet from outside. We can also explore space without having the impediment of atmosphere. 

In terms of concrete applications, for example, we can produce different types of crystals, which are then used in computer chips. These crystals [need to] have an ideal structure that is impossible to produce on Earth — because of gravity. Space gives us a chance to grow the almost ideal crystalline structure — the better, the more precise and ordered the structure is, the better the performance of the computer will be. 

Lia: Space work is one of the catchiest forms of scientific exploration/research — what strategies would you recommend to attract interest in sciences that are not so catchy (e.g., any earth-bound research)?

Anton: The time of colonization of other planets will come soon, because Earth’s population is growing fast and soon our planet won’t be able to feed this [increasing] number of people. That’s why we need to explore other planets. That’s the future. So, in order to do this, we need to improve the science and develop new techniques to make this happen. So if the scientists want to help this situation they need to improve their knowledge in space programs. 

Lia: What have you learnt from your fellow scientist colleagues (both on and off Earth)?

Anton: To make experiments in space, we need to have [scientific] training here on Earth. For example if we need to explore volcanoes on Earth, we work with scientists who are experts in the field and they explain to us how a volcano works, how it explodes, how it all functions and everything else that is necessary [for the mission]. And before every experiment we have a consultation and session with the scientists [involved] on what the experiment will be about. So, besides being a pilot, I was forced to learn a lot more things as a cosmonaut. But it was fun!

Lia: Where do you think mankind will be able to reach in, say, 20 years from now and how do you see the far future (say, 100 years from now)?

Anton: In 20 years, we will use the International Space Station (ISS) again. I hope that new spacecrafts will be launched, from Russia, America and other countries as well — and I also hope there will be also commercial partners, such as Elon Musk [and his company SpaceX]. In 100 years, we will be able to reach Mars and even further. 

Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Anton, where we discuss his thoughts about Singaporean space travel and space food!

About the interviewee

Anton Nikolaevich Shkaplerov was born on February 20, 1972, in Sevastopol, Crimean peninsula. He graduated from the Kachinsk Air Force Pilot School in 1994 as a pilot-engineer. After graduating from the N. E. Zukovskiy Air Force Engineering in 1997, he served as a senior pilot-instructor in the Russian Air Force. He flew 3 different types of aircraft: Yak-52, L-29 and MiG-29. In addition to being a Class 2 Air Force pilot-instructor, he is also an Instructor of General Parachute Training.

Shkaplerov was selected as a test-cosmonaut candidate of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center Cosmonaut Office in May 2003. From June 2003 to June 2005 he attended basic space training and in 2005 he qualified as a test cosmonaut. He served as a Flight Engineer for Expedition 29/30 (2011-2012) and in Expedition 42 (2014-2015), flying to the ISS with Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts from the USA, Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova from Russia, and Samantha Cristoforetti from Italy.   (Adapted from here)

Dr Lia Paola Zambetti is a scientific journalist and avid science communicator, with over seven years of experience as a researcher in Immunology. She is currently a Senior Project Officer at the University of Sydney’s Office of Research Development and Collaboration, where she manages a fellowship programme and offers strategic advice, training, and mentoring to scientists.