Soyuz Training - Russia
September 3 -- 7, 2007


I had a pretty good day on Monday. Even though I am still far too acquainted with 3:00 a.m., I had a decent night's sleep. I am finally getting close to the Moscow time zone. My first class of the day was what is termed a "practice session" in the Soyuz simulator. This means some hands-on time in a simulator. This simulator session was on the life support systems. We went through and operated all the hardware that we had talked about in class - turned on and off the air systems, the water system, the toilet and even worked through some depressurization scenarios. It was fun to be actually pushing some buttons and turning valves to make things happen.

But, then the fun ended and I had another two hour lecture - more details on how and when some of the valves in said life support system operate.

After lunch it was an afternoon of the docking system. It was long, but at least the instructor is entertaining. It could definitely have been a lot worse. Although, during the last period of the day we did not take a break. So that was two straight hours of going through schematics on how the automatic portion of a docking works. Urgh! I think I may have only one more true lecture on this subject and then the rest of the classes are either a practice session in the simulator or preparation sessions for my exam on Friday. This system makes a whole lot of sense to me, but I saw a list of potential exam questions today. Wow! It is a lot of stuff. Most of the questions seem to be very general in nature - along the lines of describe all the parts, tell how everything works, name every command along with its feedback to the crew. And, then tell the same kinds of things if something does not go right. So, of course, I spent my evening studying.

Tuesday was a hard day - not because the classes were particularly hard, but because I had yet another difficult-to-sleep night. I got on a roll studying Monday night and by the time I quit, it was probably about 12:30 a.m. But, by then, my brain was swimming with all the things I am trying to learn and I could not shut it off. I tossed and turned far too long before going to sleep. So, I felt sluggish in my classes. I had a life support class first and the instructor started off by asking me questions about what we had covered yesterday and I could not dredge up the information. That was not fun. Usually I can call on something I know from my past experience to at least get going in the right direction.

Afterwards it was two lectures on the docking system. Well, one lecture and one "study session." But, it was really two lectures. Because my schedule is compressed, we do not have as many lectures to go through what we are expected to go through as one normally does. As such, we had not quite gone over all the material that we needed to go through by the time my study sessions were scheduled. The expectation in the study sessions is that you will have studied a lot already and will use the time to ask questions of the instructor to clarify your knowledge. I had studied a lot and I did have questions, but it was clear to me that I still have a long way to go. Good thing I had Russian homework and life support stuff I need to learn Tuesday night as well. My last period of the day was scheduled gym time. It felt good to get some exercise before hitting the books.    
      Pavlov, Shannon and Docking System

My first period Wednesday morning was interesting. It was another preparation session for my exam on Friday. Most of the class involved the instructor asking me question as if we were doing an exam. For just about every one, I could come up with something close to the answer, but for every one, he would say to me, "Shannon, you are right, but here is the pretty way to say it." And, then he would tell me his phraseology. It was interesting because in some ways you are expected to know every minute detail, but in other ways, they just want a very high level answer to the question. This was a very instructive session not on technical matters (though, there was some of that), but on how the Russians give tests and how they expect answers.

Following my prep class, I had a Russian lesson. It is interesting; the instructors really seem to be concerned about me overdoing things. They are always talking about taking care of my health - making sure I rest during our breaks, make sure I get up and walk around, telling me not to study too much at night, etc. It is a very Russian approach to life. After my first Russian class, my instructor and I were heading in the same direction for lunch - me to my cottage and she to a cafeteria somewhere. I was going to wait for one of the other Russian teachers since I knew that they would be eating together, but my teacher suddenly pushed me (gently) and said that I should go ahead. She said that we had been talking a lot and I needed to take a break and think in English. Of course, this is coming from the woman that never takes a break in class. "Are you tired?" "A little." "OK, so letŐs move on to some grammar drills. . . " You just have to laugh.

After lunch it was another two hours of Russian and then I had a practice session in the Soyuz simulator on the docking system. We first looked at some of the hardware and then we ran a few scenarios - automatic docking, manual undocking, and the like. The entire time the instructor would have me execute a command and then ask me a whole bunch of questions along the lines of why do we get this indication or why do we not get that indication. Hard, but also another good opportunity to get everything fixed in my brain.

Naturally my evening was spent with my training manuals. And, it was a very long evening. Though, I did take a break and go to the gym for awhile. I think all the docking system subtleties are finally coming together for me so that I may actually remember them.

Thursday I discovered that maybe I had a bit more studying to do for my exam. We had another question and answer session and there were plenty of times that my answers either were not pretty enough or just not to my instructor's liking. Oh well.

My two other classes for the day were on the life support system, but this time I had a different instructor. Today we talked about the launch and entry suit that we wear that protects us in case of a sudden depressurization of the spacecraft - four hours of going over all its parts and pieces and how all the valves and associated equipment worked. It was a fun class because he had all the hardware there so when we were talking about how all the air would flow through the suit to keep you cool we could actually look at the lines on a real suit. I also got to practice the proper way to close the helmet and attach the gloves to ensure that you have good seals. It is always good when you get to work with the actual hardware. And, the neat thing was that I probably understood at least 80% of the class in Russian. It was a pretty straightforward topic, but it was nice that I was able to follow it. I still cannot cough up a simple sentence to say quickly enough for my liking because I still do not seem to think on my feet fast enough. But, I know that will come in time.

My last period of the day was gym time. I, however, did not go to the gym. I was pretty tired, so I figured the best use of my time was a short nap to recharge my batteries before I hit the books on the docking system for the last time before my test. So, that is exactly what I did. After my nap, I made myself dinner and reviewed the docking system one last time.

Friday morning brought my long awaited test. I think it went very well. The test was given in the same room as I had been taking the classes so I could point to and or touch the hardware as needed. There was a lady there from the company who builds the hardware (presumably she is considered the hardware designer now, although, the original designer probably retired years ago - at any rate, she is the "owner"). And, there was some guy in a military uniform. To be honest, I do not know his role/place in things. But, he got to ask questions as well. For the test, I sat in the seat where my instructor normally sat, the examiners (those two plus my instructor) sat across from me (a desk/table between us). The interpreter sat to my left. One of our Russian training integrators sat in the back of the room. She was there to write down the questions, so that we have a continuing history of the types of questions that are asked.

For the next 40 minutes or so, they asked questions and I answered them. I only got slightly confused one time when I could not remember how a command to fire the back away jets upon a missed docking is issued. But, my instructor asked a clarifying question and I quickly got back on track. When they had run out of questions, the test was over. One of the examiners said that I had done well. They liked the fact that my answers were short and to the point and that did not leave them any room to ask more questions (i.e., I did not dig myself a hole). I guess my answers were "pretty." So, it seems I did learn at least one lesson from my prep sessions - the point of the test is not to wow them with all the minutiae that you know, but to hit the high points. Basically give simple rote answers when being asked, say, what is the function of X. . . X does the following three things. . . No need to go into that the box has these inputs or those output or works only every other Thursday. If they want to know that level of detail, they will ask. By and large, I was not asked too much detail and the detail I was asked was simple.

At one point, I could tell that the interpreter helped me out a little bit. To answer one question I needed to go through a procedure and explain all the ins and outs of what it does. I got to a point where a bunch of indication lights come on. I listed all of them but one because I was going to add some detail about the last light since it was of a slightly different nature than the other lights. However when the interpreter interpreted my statements, he added in that last light for me. He probably just figured I forgot to mention it. So, since he mentioned it, I did not say anything else about the light and the examiners seemed to accept the answer as it was interpreted. Works for me.

I don't know what score they gave me. Russian tests are normally graded on a 1 - 5 scale with 5 being the best/equivalent of an A. But, I do not know if I was graded in this manner or just on a pass/fail basis. There was some paperwork signed by the examiners at the end, so I am sure there was some sort of score recorded.

After a break of about an hour (during which I went back to my cottage and read some of the material for my next class), I had a class on the survival kit that is in the Soyuz should you have to do an emergency landing and/or you do not land at the expected landing location for some reason. It contains the standard stuff that seems to be in all survival kits - water, food, signal flares, radio, etc. They also have some pretty warm clothes to put on should you come down in a cold, snowy area. And, there are some waterproof clothes should you come down in the water. The only new and interesting item in this survival kit is that they actually have a gun. It is a specially made gun specifically for this survival kit. It has three barrels - one will fire signal cartridges, one will fire shotgun cartridges, and the third will fire rifle bullets. And, it folds up for storage - pretty nifty. Why a gun, you ask? Well, the signal cartridge part is obvious. The shotgun and rifle are for hunting food and protecting yourself against predators. Apparently in the early days of the Soyuz program, there was one landing that was pretty far from the regular landing site (not sure why). The crew landed far in the north and it took until the next day before the rescue team could get there. The crew ended up spending the night in a tree trapped by wolves. So, a gun was added to the survival kit.

I only had one more class for the day and it was a dandy one. I had interpreted my schedule incorrectly. I thought I was going to have another class on the launch and entry suit. I did. . . but I ended up in one. As I was walking back to the training territory after lunch, I met up with the flight doctor that is here. There is always a doctor here to not only take care of any health needs, but to be on hand when the American crewmembers do things such as spacewalk training or getting into a pressure chamber or something that might be dangerous (just like we have doctors on hand for similar training in the U.S.). At any rate, when I saw her, I asked where she was headed and she replied that I was her afternoon. Huh? Turns out that my class was a practical class on getting into the space suit as well as a practical class on suit operations - doing a leak check of the suit, seeing how it operates in the case of a depressurization and things like that. Doing a simulated depressurization means that the suit pressurizes and holds an environment for you, which can be hard on the ears due to the changing pressures. So, the doctor was there to make sure I did not have any problems. I did not. I, in fact, had a lot of fun. It was just pretty darn nifty - in the morning I am having an exam and in the afternoon I am in a pressurized space suit. You cannot ask for a better way to end the week. My last period was admin time. So, I went to the gym, having missed it the day before. Then the current gang in town got together for dinner. Afterwards, we relaxed in "Shep's Bar." Shep's Bar is also in one of the basements of one of the cottages. It is right next to the gym. It the result of a lot of hard work from the first American on the International Space Station, Bill Shepherd. He spent many years over in Russia training and he decided that the folks over here needed a place to congregate socially. So, he built the bar. Over the years, donations from the astronauts and other visitors over here have paid for a lot of the "toys" that we now have here - a ping pong table, a pool table, a nice TV and stereo system where we can watch movies. It is really nice to have a place like this because there is nothing else to do in Star City. And, folks do need a place to relax.

On the weekend, we arranged for vans to take us into Moscow so we can eat out at a restaurant and go grocery shopping. It was the first trip to Russia of one for the folks here, so we took one of the vans and went by Red Square and did a little sightseeing. You just cannot come to Russia and not see Red Square. We made it back to Star City in the middle of the afternoon (the traffic was horrible and it probably took us at least an hour and a half to get back). And then it was nap time for me. In the evening we had another group dinner and then watched a movie.

Sunday was a nap and study day.

Weather report: for most of the week, the weather was actually quite nice. It was probably in the upper sixties in the middle of the day and was quite sunny. But, that was probably the last of it. Friday night it got quite a bit colder. Saturday was in the upper fifties and Sunday was in the lower fifties and raining - definitely a study and nap kind of day.


© Shannon Walker   2009

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