“I always wanted to be a cosmonaut,” states Fyodor Yurchikhin without hesitation. “When I was a small boy, I jumped from a second floor balcony because I thought I was Gagarin! My father jumped after me, it all happened very fast, and luckily we were both OK.”
Born in January 1959, Yurchikhin grew up during the heyday of the Soviet space programme. Yuri Gagarin’s maiden flight in 1961 held mythical significance: “When we played in our yard, we would pretend to be Russian cosmonauts,” he recounts. “We knew all their names and I can’t tell you how much it meant to us. Gagarin was more than a name. For us, what he did was something like the impossible. He was an icon, a symbol – ‘Wow, Gagarin!’”
Yurchikhin’s face still glows with childlike enthusiasm as he talks, springing up to illustrate the balcony scenario or act out the process of spacewalking. His two missions to the International Space Station, in 2002 and 2007, amount to over 200 days, with nearly 19 hours working in open space.
“My first time on the ISS, the biggest problem was orientation. There’s no gravity, everything is floating around; until you adjust to that, you have to move very slowly, holding onto things.”
“When I first looked down out at the earth, I realised it’s impossible to understand this view from pictures. It’s black of course, but when you get there you see it’s not a normal black – it has infinite depth. I wanted to touch the colours, they are so bright and clear. No photos can convey the beauty of that sight.”
Nevertheless, Yurchikhin keenly uses orbital photography to spread his ideals for the future of humanity. His work has been exhibited around Russia. “The name of my gallery is ‘Our House on Earth,’ because everybody should understand it’s very small. Yes, very big for us, but in reality very small. You need to keep your house clean and beautiful, we need to understand this; otherwise, we may destroy the house. It’s terrible.”
He applies this approach to both environmental and social concerns, as well as international relations. “People need to understand each other. We need to stop settling problems with weapons and war. It’s quite probable there is life on other planets. I think contact could be valuable for both sides if we understand and respect each other. But this doesn’t happen on earth, a planet where people have been living together for thousands of years.”
“I think the international space programme can be used as a model for the future: many different countries, different languages and different levels of technology all working together. America and Russia in particular have very different ways of thinking. For example, there’s an old joke that when the Americans found it was a problem to write in space, they spent a million dollars to invent a special space pen. The Russians used pencils!”
Yurchikhin picks a potent analogy to look at these varying national standards. In the first class at school, children arrive knowing different things. Even if some start off being able to count higher numbers, for example, this doesn’t mean they’ll finish in first place. “I don’t know how we will graduate the ISS school. Russia and America too should understand we are all still in school, we must continue and share knowledge.”
“If we’re doing complex work in a difficult area, like cosmic research, it is very useful to work with others. Views can become clouded. Including different people can bring new perspectives to old problems.”
Looking to the future, Yurchikhin believes the next step is colonisation. “We should go to a planet, build something and live there. The moon should come first, then possibly Mars. We should also continue developing ideas for a new spacecraft.”
On April 12, Russian Cosmonauts’ Day, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics opened its refurbished doors in northeast Moscow. It is situated beneath a towering, angular monument with a soaring rocket at the peak. More than 3,000 exhibits include a life-size replica of the space station Mir, Gagarin’s legendary orange spacesuit and all kinds of lunar vehicles – in short, a fascinating stroll through Russian space history.
“It’s a good idea,” says Yurchikhin. “I hope lots of kids will go. I love meeting children who have this dream, just like I did. Maybe now more people will talk about cosmonautics as well – it’s not as popular as it used to be.”
Again emphasising the spirit of unity he so desires, Yurchikhin remains an optimist at heart. “For a while I wanted the Russian space programme to be number one, but perhaps we should change our minds now. It’s better if our national programme is part of a wider international project. Being first isn’t important. We’re all going to fly into space together.”
“Going to space, every one of us went as a patriot of our own country. But we came back as patriots of our earth.”
Fyodor Nikolaevich Yurchikhin was born on 3/1/1959 in the autonomous Republic of Ajara, Georgia. On graduating high school in 1976, he entered the Moscow Aviation Institute. He qualified as a mechanical engineer in 1983 and joined Energia, the Russian Space Corporation, where he rose to the position of lead engineer. In November 1999 he completed his basic cosmonaut training course. In January 2000, he started training for the ISS programme. In October 2002, Yurchikhin flew aboard STS-112; his first space flight logged a total of 10 days, 19 hours, and 58 minutes. His second flight, in April 2007, was a 197-day tour of duty commanding the Expedition-15 mission aboard the ISS. He was honoured as a Hero of Russia on October 23, 2008. Yurchikhin also holds a PhD in economics and enjoys reading, sports, stamp-collecting and space history.
Published in Russia Now / Russia & India Report, May 2009, with The Economic Times (India).