Anousheh Ansari Space Blog

Training as Backup

WoW!

Not bad for a first time blogger 😉 I’m happy to see so many people are interested in my experience. Some of you asked me for a picture of the backup crew so I decided to give you more. I decided to share what it was like to train as backup with Peggy Whitson and Yuri Malenchenko.

In the first few months of training, almost all my classes were with Dice-K and the interpreters. We took the same classes and the same tests. We performed the simulations with the instructors and only caught a glimpse of the main and backup crew as we were passing in the hallways or at social events.

The last 40 days were different. Dice-K and I started to see some scheduled crew training. Dice-k would train with Michael Lopez-Alegria and Mikhail Tyurin, and I would train with Peggy Whitson and Yuri Malenchenko. I had met Peggy at a few NASA crew events in Star City and we had talked. She is a woman of strong character, super smart, and serious about space. She offered to talk with me and answer my questions any time I wanted to talk. I was very excited to get to know her and at the same time I knew she had a very tight training schedule and I did not want to be a burden. So we talked a few short times but did not connect that much.

When we started to train as a crew, everything changed. We got to know each other better. I could tell that Peggy was observing me to see if I was there just for the ride or if I’m genuinely interested in space. I think she saw my genuine passion for space because she really made me feel welcome. In ISS simulations, she was the Commander and gave me some small tasks that made me feel part of the crew. She explained everything in detail and translated for me when necessary. She gave me small pointers that made me perform well on my tasks and look professional. She was wonderful and I learned so much from her. In a way, she became my mentor. I imagine that, had my life taken a different turn and I had ended up in the Astronaut corps, I could have been like Peggy. She is a serious scientist and deeply cares for the success of the space program.

Throughout the rest of my training program I spent many quality hours with Peggy observing her and learning from her. She shared stories about her space flight and little things that you don’t think of but make a big difference when you are in space. She told me about the best observing stations onboard ISS, about how to move around, how to wash my hair and clean myself, how to use the toilet (everyone’s favorite subject) and how to interact with the rest of the crew members.

Getting to know Yuri took longer. Yuri is a quiet and private person. He is a man of few words. He works meticulously and slowly. He does not hurry and studies and evaluates everything around him before he takes action. Watching him in the simulator, during a series of manual docking and undocking procedures, it was obvious that he knew how to drive this vehicle with his eyes closed. He was calm and composed while entering a series of very precise maneuvers to align the Soyuz manually with the docking hatch on the ISS.

He speaks very good English, which made it easier for me to start talking with him. As we spent more time training together, I got to know him better. He has a unique sense of humor that is hard see from his always serious exterior. He is a wealth of knowledge and when he talks about different things you know he is speaking from experience and not textbooks. He is very easygoing and has a very calm voice. One time he started talking to me about all the different stages of Ascent and Descent and explained to me, in detail, what to expect as far as feelings, sounds, vibrations, lights flashing, etc. He gave me a sort of pictorial view of these important stages of my space flight and helped me visualize things that I had not studied in any of my classes. The information he gave has helped me prepare mentally not to panic on the day of the flight. At the end of our talk he said, with a SMILE, “Anousheh, don’t worry, everything will be very good and you will enjoy your flight.”

As I was training with Peggy and Yuri, I realized that I really wanted to fly to ISS with them. It would have made it a very special flight, with two women flying in Soyuz together and with Peggy being the first woman ISS Commander. Unfortunately the third seat on their scheduled flight was taken so I quickly started to lobby for switching place with the Malaysian candidate who was supposed to fly with them. They were both supportive of the idea and I was excitedly pushing on different people to negotiate with the Russian Space program to move me to their flight. And then… suddenly… I got the news that I was moved up to primary crew… and the rest of the story you know.