Tatiana Drozhzhova, a candidate in the latest Russian cosmonaut selection process, arrives at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre for the first time to participate in the so called “Full-time Stage” of cosmonaut selection. (credit: Tony Quine)
by Tony Quine
For more than 50 years, Russia (and, previously, the Soviet Union) selected the majority of its cosmonauts from the ranks of Air Force pilots or engineering and scientific bureaus and agencies closely linked to the space program. There were exceptions, such as the four female parachutists (and one engineer) selected in 1962, but generally, this approach served the requirements of the Russian space effort.
This changed in 2012, when Roscosmos launched the first ever “open selection” for cosmonauts, to which any Russian citizen could apply, subject to having a higher education in certain specified fields, generally good health, and be under the age of 35.
As a result of this process, eight new cosmonaut candidates were presented to the media in August 2012. This group included candidates from a more diverse range of backgrounds, than the traditional careers mentioned above: mostly engineers, as well as two instructors from Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre and a solitary military pilot.
It later transpired that a problem had been identified in relation to military pilots. At that time, Roscosmos and the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center were in the process of transitioning to wholly civilian organizations, and military officers would need to resign their commission with significant implications regarding rank, salary, pension, and so on, and with no guaranteed route back to the military when they left to the cosmonaut team. This was clearly a big risk, and consequently only a single pilot was included in the new group.
Of these eight candidates, six remain in the cosmonaut squad, but none of them have yet flown in space. Indeed, none have yet been officially assigned to a future crew. This is largely a consequence of the very few flights opportunities for rookie cosmonauts over the last several years. The temporary reduction of the Russian element of ISS expedition crews to two, and the continuing need for NASA to acquire seats on Soyuz, has meant that only one or two rookie cosmonauts can expect to fly each year. This should change once NASA’s commercial crew program begins delivering NASA astronauts to the ISS, although that program is suffering continued delays.
It was against this background that Roscosmos began a new call for cosmonauts in April 2017. This new recruitment program had been in the planning stage for 18 months and subject to more than one false start. Various statements from Roscosmos officials had hinted that the concept of the “open selection” might not be repeated and that the issue facing military officers, mentioned above, needed to be resolved.
In the end, another open selection was launched, with applicants having until July 17 of 2017 to submit their documents. The criteria were similar to 2012, with the caveat that preference would be given to candidates with a background in aviation or space-related engineering. Roscosmos provided regular updates on the recruitment process, and extended the deadline for applications twice, so that it was eventually closed on December 31.
Although Roscosmos did not say so, this extension was presumably due to a relatively low level of applications. When the window finally closed, 420 applications had been received: 333 from men and 87 from women. This was approximately 40 percent more than in 2012, but was dwarfed by the more then 18,000 applications received by NASA in 2016, 8,000 by ESA in 2009, and even 4,000 received by the embryonic United Arab Emirates program in 2017.
Among the 420 applicants, pilots, engineers, doctors, and scientists were the most common, but there were also a handful of journalists, a lawyer, and an employee of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
Understanding the reasons for this small number of applicants is outside the scope pof this essay, although the relative complexity of the documentation required to accompany each application may be part of the reason. One candidate told me, “When I finished preparing the application, I felt that I’d accumulated a million pieces of paper about myself! Only the most determined candidates would be able to find the time and energy to get to this stage!”
The selection process consists of four stages, starting with the screening of initial applications, which selects about 20 percent of candidates to progress to the so-called “Full-time Stage.” Again, approximately 20 percent of these pass to the Medical Commission stage. Those who pass this very detailed and thorough medical examination have their overall credentials reviewed by the selection commission, who will select the final candidates. According to consistent rumors from sources close to the process, 13 men reached the credential commission, and eight would form the new 2018 Cosmonaut Group.
On August 10, Roscosmos introduced the eight men who had successfully negotiated this process:
- Konstantin Borisov
- Aleksandr Gorbunov
- Aleksandr Grebyonkin
- Sergei Mikavev
- Kirill Peskov
- Oleg Planonov
- Yevgeni Prokopyev
- Aleksei Zubritsky
Their full biographies can be found here.
So, what is it like to participate in this long and complex selection process? One of the 87 female candidates whose application was accepted was Tatiana Drozhzhova, a 29-year-old relativistic nuclear physicist from Moscow.
From the 420 applicants, around 80 were called to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) for the Full-time Stage. Candidates spend two weeks living at GCTC, and undertaking a range of psychological and medical tests, interviews, examinations, and being fully immersed in the atmosphere of the cosmonaut environment. Tatiana was one of only 11 female candidates invited to take part in this process.
Tatiana has talked about her experience of taking part in the cosmonaut selection process, what she has learned from it, and her future plans.
A member of the same cohort of candidates as Drozhzhova at Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center was Konstantin Borisov, who would ultimately be selected to join the cosmonaut team. This photo was taken in the main simulator hall. (credit: Tony Quine)
Why do you want to become a cosmonaut?
Since my early childhood space has always attracted me a lot. Each time in my childhood when I went for a walk I lifted up my head and looked in the sky. When I was a kid my parents were professional skydivers and my father was also a pilot in the skydiving club, so it was a common part of my days to fly on An-2 airplane in the pilot cabin with my dad. I liked it a lot and wanted to become a pilot like my father when I grew up. At that time, it seemed to me that, cosmonauts and astronauts were like superheroes: this profession was not accessible for ordinary people. I thought one had to be born as a special person to have an opportunity to enter this field.
Truly, I was convinced about this till the moment when I saw the advertisement that selection to the detachment of cosmonauts became possible for ordinary people. First, I thought that it was a joke or some TV-show advertisement, so I surfed the Internet and found the confirmation that it was real. It was like a cold shower for me when I realized that the dream, which seemed absolutely impossible, could become true. I had been living in Europe for two years before I returned to Russia again. And at the very moment when I came back I saw that advertisement. I understood that was my chance and I had to do everything possible not to miss it! That was in May 2017. So, I started the documentation procedure and submitted my application.
When I received a call from the Cosmonaut Training Center in November 2017, they told me that they accepted my candidature as an exception, because normally they accept only engineers and pilots. I am a relativistic nuclear physicist, now working on my PhD degree. Since 2011 I have been involved into the scientific activity at CERN in two experiments: the ALICE experiment on the Large Hadron Collider and NA61/SHINE experiment on the Super Proton Synchrotron. The area of my research was connected with investigation of initial state nuclear density at high-energy heavy ion collisions. So, I did data analysis and also phenomenological model investigation. Due to this activity I had to become not only a scientist, but also a good programmer. Also, I have a work experience in international collaborations, participated a lot in scientific schools, and presented the results of my research in international conferences (Italy, Switzerland, India, Denmark, Germany, and Russia.) So, I hoped that my scientific background could be useful in space. Why did they make an exception for me? To this question I don’t have an answer. But I was happy that even a scientist can have an opportunity to become a cosmonaut, inspired by example of our great cosmonaut, biologist Sergey Ryazasnsky.
It took me some time to collect all the documents, especially different medical certificates, but I managed to do it without any problem. When I applied, it still seemed to me absolutely unreal, but when I received a call from the Cosmonaut Training Center that I passed first step of selection, I understood that now everything depended on me and I had to start serious preparation. It was a great feeling that the dream started to come true.
How did you prepare for the Cosmonaut Training Center?
For this second stage, candidates are invited to the Cosmonaut Training Center. They receive a schedule of exams for next several weeks. There is a great opportunity to live in a cosmonaut’s campus on the territory of the Center and to have meals with pilots and cosmonauts in a flight dining room. And everything is for free.
The first week is for a psychology examination, then two days of sport ones, and after that intellectual exams. And successful candidates who passed all these exams go through hard medical tests, which kick out from the game most of the amazing great people who really deserve to be cosmonauts. One my friends, who was also a candidate, was told that her health was great for NASA, but was not good enough for the Roscosmos. This is very strange, and I hope that this requirement will change soon in Russia.
Sport for me has been a common part of my life since my childhood. I like swimming and skiing. I have 2nd sport class in swimming and 3rd sport class in cross country skiing. Also, I like to learn something new that I have never tried before. So, last year I received the yellow belt in karate and also learned the Eskimo roll on kayak . Several years ago, I tried, for the first time, mountain skiing in the Alps and now I adore black and off-piste tracks. Mountains take a special place in my life. When I saw them first time during my summer student practice at CERN in 2011, it took my breath away, and I left part of my heart in the mountains (the other part belongs to the sky, space, and science.) I also have an experience in diving and skydiving.
But when, at the end of November 2017, I received the news that I had been admitted to the second stage of the cosmonaut’s candidate selection, I started to do sport hard to meet physical requirements. I started to spend five hours per day, fove days per week in a gym and swimming pool, with good training programs written by my trainers. And I have to say that I like that lifestyle a lot.
A trampoline jump was supposed to be one of the sport exams. I had never done it and decided to take several lessons just to be ready for that exam. Well, for me the entrance exams finished at the end of January 2018, but I still keep doing trampoline jumping, because I really like the feeling of flight.
During the exam preparation, I refreshed my knowledge too, especially in history of cosmonautics. The only thing I neglected was the psychological exam. That was my fault, as I understand now this part must be properly prepared for. Concentration, out of all other emotions, is very important during the selection. As for me, I was over-emotional, and that didn’t let me go to the further stages of competition. I had never been in the Cosmonaut Training Center before, but I dreamed about it so much, so when I finally arrived there, for the exams, I needed two days just to muffle the feeling of delight and happiness, and unfortunately the psychological exam was on the first day.
Drozhzhova with Oleg Blinov, an instructor on the Orlan EVA spacesuit. Blinov was a successful cosmonaut applicant in 2012, but has since reverted to his instructor role. (credit: Tony Quine)
What was the Full-time Training like?
Everything started from the psychologists, and they are quite a strong filter; only one out of four people can pass. This first day starts at 9 am involving tests with 250 questions, then immediately you have a logical test including some calculations, and after that the interview when you sit alone surrounded by several psychologists and superiors of the Training Center. They try to understand your motivation and ask a lot of questions. As soon as the interview comes to an end, you go the drawing test—to draw some unreal creature, as your personality is visible from your drawing. If you pass the interview successfully, after lunch you are invited for the second round. This time you sit in front of a computer with a physiologist next to you. You are asked to do a huge amount of logical tests within a limited time. The aim of this task is to see how well you can make decisions under stressful conditions. The psychologist examines your behavior and reactions, and tries to provoke you.
Sports exams take two days. You have to demonstrate good coordination during the Rumberg test and trampoline jumping, making turns for 90, 180, and 360 degrees in a height not less than 60 centimeters from net and be in a cross with 40 centimeters. The next step is to show your strength in the test like pulling the crossbar, pushing-up on the sports bars, and hold it at an angle. Then they test your endurance and stamina with a five-kilometer ski race in winter or one-kilometer run if there is no snow, and 800 meters of swimming. Of course, there is a time limit. They also examine your quickness and agility. There is one test that is the most difficult in my opinion: you have to jump from a platform threes meters high like a falling fork, just straighten the body and start to fall without movement. The aim of it is to go into the water by your head with minimum splashing. Also, there is a test like to swim no less than 25 meters underwater without breathing and pass a hand-rider bicycle and treadmill that is similar with one using in the ISS.
The next day is the operator’s ability test. You receive a task to construct some electronic device or to capture a specific object by camera from the illuminator, like cosmonauts do on the ISS.
Then they test your native and foreign languages ability. They check your grammar and mindset, examine your essay on a space theme, check the fluency of your speech, and the level of a foreign language (English).
Then you receive a book which contains 45 to 80 pages with the detailed description of some specific parts of a spacecraft. By the next morning you have to become an expert on that, when the main examination committee will examine your knowledge not only from the book but also from other fields. This exam is the most difficult and the most important. For each discipline you receive points: 10 is the maximum. So, you have to demonstrate good knowledge in physics, math, social sciences, art, cosmonautics history, literature, and so on.
Later, one person would summarize all the points you got during all exams. If this is higher than the lowest passing score (55 points this year), then you are admitted for the next stage, the Medical Commission. After each level of exams, at the end of the day, they told you whether you passed or not, directly, while in the Center. So, to start full medical tests you have to pass all exams before, where only lucky candidates have a chance to go through a centrifuge, a swivel chair, and other attractions, which follow complex medical tests of your health conditions. Some of my friends were out, because of teeth problems. A lot of candidates failed the test because of a curved nasal septum and tonsils, but they were given an opportunity to come back to the examination if they fixed those problems. They underwent surgeries without a guarantee that they would pass the next stage.
There was some strange diagnosis that kicked out a candidate: one girl, who is a strong football player, had an over-trained heart. Somebody else didn’t pass a cycling test due to a high pulse.
As cosmonauts said, you have to have an ideal health to pass that medical test. All these procedures can take from several weeks to several months. And, if you are lucky and manage to go through the last stage, you will meet the central exam commission, who decides whether or not to enroll you, taking into account on all your results and life biography.
The scientific department of Cosmonaut Training Center interviewed me on the third day for my future possible scientific work there, and that interview I passed quite well. This exam’s experience in general was useful for me: before I didn’t know what to expect from the exams, being like a blind kitten, but now I know how to prepare for the next cosmonaut selection, just as in a usual professional scientific sphere.
What are your next steps after this selection process?
To be involved in the detachment of cosmonauts is already a big opportunity. Their lives are quite complicated but rich and full. They have to study all these years very intensively and pass hundreds of exams that give the great opportunity to improve yourself each day. Sports and extreme situations make a person strong physically and psychologically. They do skydiving and simultaneously they solve logical tasks during free-falling; scuba diving on the level of professional deep-sea diver; they learn how to fly the L-39 fighter; and they test themselves of how well they can survive in a cold winter forest or a hot desert, on the water and in the mountains, and sleep in a cave. All these activities make a person strong and ready for different life situations.
Also, they have some mission of cosmonautics popularization: they take part in different events to inspire the young generation to connect their lives with the space exploration. So, as you see, there is plenty of work on the Earth; no time to get bored. What I like most is to study, and to learn something new each day, and to do sport. Also, one of my activities for now is the popularization of science. I like to share my knowledge and to help others grow mentally. So, life in the cosmonaut’s detachment, even with all the difficulties and deprivations, would be is the perfect life for me even on Earth. And the space flight after that will be a reward.
And this gave me a lot of energy and high motivation. Even now, when the next selection will only happen in several years, this thought, that the dreams that were so unreachable in my childhood and could become real one day for me, has become a rocket engine for my life.
During the exams in the Cosmonaut Training Centre I met one candidate, Konstantin Borisov, who was on his last steps of selection, and felt sure he would be in the new cosmonaut detachment. This person started his preparation in 2012 and altered his life just to reach his space dream, so I will follow his example and try to do my best.
A cosmonaut who is a friend told me the secret: that it took many cosmonauts from the cosmonaut detachment several attempts before they managed to get the desired position. I am not giving up my dream. I already have a plan in my head what skills I have to improve within the following years to become the perfect candidate for the cosmonaut detachment, and I have already started its realization.
During exams in the Centre, I made friends with cosmonauts and their trainers, and I am so grateful to this acquaintance. I hope to participate with them in a different sport activity; it will give the extra motivation to keep me in physical shape to catch up with them. Besides, they have amazing personalities, and the time spent with them is a huge inspiration. We already participated together in a skiing competition, “Russian Ski Run 2018”; it was a great fun and my result was quite close to theirs.
Of course, there are many others plans. And I will do my best to reach the goal!