Two Russian cosmonauts, a spaceflight veteran and a first-time flyer, are just one day away from rocketing into orbit to begin a six-month mission at the International Space Station (ISS).
ISS Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Oleg Kotov, both of Russia's Federal Space Agency, are set to lift off aboard their Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft at 1:31 p.m. EDT (1731 GMT) on April 7.
"We're old men, but we're a very young crew," Yurchikhin, a 48-year-old spaceflight veteran, said in a preflight interview. "It's important to do our job well, and we are ready."
Riding into orbit with Yurchikhin and Kotov will be American space tourist Charles Simonyi, who is reportedly paying about $25 million for his 13-day trek to the ISS under an agreement between the Federal Space Agency and the Virginia-based firm Space Adventures.
The two professional cosmonauts will replace Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin, who are completing their own six-month mission aboard the ISS and will return to Earth with Simonyi on April 20. NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, also aboard the space station, will remain onboard to join the Expedition 15 crew.
NASA officials said Expedition 15 is the first long-duration ISS crew to include two Russian cosmonauts since the Expedition 5 mission of 2002.
A native of the Black Sea port city of Batumi, Georgia, Yurchikhin heeded the call of spaceflight early in life, and lists reading science fiction, collecting space logos, studying cosmonautics history and promoting space interest among his hobbies.
"John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gagarin, [Valentina] Tereshkova, those were my heroes, the heroes of my time," Yurchikhin said of his youth in a NASA interview. "I remember the time and I know I wanted to be a cosmonaut since I was very little...so for me it was not a question to debate whether I wanted to be a cosmonaut or not."
The allure of the cosmonaut and astronaut profession lies in its variety, Yurchikhin told SPACE.com, adding that all spaceflyers must be part pilot, doctor, scientist, diver, engineer and photographer.
Launching in April is fortuitous, he added, because the station crew change period crosses April 12, a space holiday in Russia that commemorates the first human spaceflight in 1961.
"It's a good fate for us, because we hope that on our greatest holy day in space, the Cosmonautics Day ...when Yuri Gagarin had his historic first flight human's first flight in space, we will be on ISS," Yurchikhin said, adding that NASA's first shuttle flight also occurred on April 12 in 1981. "It's like, now, a twice holiday for us."
A mechanical engineer with a Ph.D in economics, Yurchikhin joined the Russian Space Corporation (RSC) Energia's cosmonaut corps in 1997 after holding a series of flight controller and engineering positions that culminated in his role of lead engineer for the joint Shuttle-Mir Space Station and NASA-Mir programs. He first flew aboard NASA's space shuttle Atlantis during the 11-day STS-112 mission in October 2002, and is well versed in joint crew operations aboard the orbital laboratory.
"I very well understand, when shuttle comes to us, how I work with the shuttle because I have this experience," said Yurchikhin, who has two daughters with his wife Larisa. "New for me will be when we close the hatch and continue our flight like three people, like an expedition. It will be new for everybody."
The space doctor
For Kotov, the path to space has been a long one. The 41-year-old Simferopol, Ukraine native is making his first spaceflight with Expedition 15 despite more than a decade of cosmonaut training.
"Waiting is the more challenging part of training," Kotov in a preflight interview.
A colonel in the Russian Air Force, Kotov was first selected as a cosmonaut candidate by the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in 1996, eight years after joining the facility as a test-doctor to study the effects of spaceflight on the human body. He and his wife Svetlana have two children.
"When I started going to medical school, the question arose of what my specialization would be," Kotov, a certified SCUBA diver, said in a NASA interview. "And I wanted to become a specialist in space medicine."
Kotov has filled a number of roles since his cosmonaut selection, including stints as a Gagarin Center representative at NASA's Johnson Space Center astronaut training facility in Houston and as chief of the CAPCOM (spacecraft communicator) Branch in the Cosmonaut Office. He has also served as a backup crewmember for the Expedition 6 and Expedition 13 space station missions.
During Expedition 15, Kotov will serve as Soyuz commander and sit it the center seat of his crew's TMA-10 spacecraft during launch and ISS rendezvous. But it is science, including some 50 Russian experiments, and a robust educational program that he hopes to be a hallmark of the six-month spaceflight.
"I believe that to fly this [mission] is like the frontier of Earth science," Kotov told SPACE.com, adding that he hopes the flight piques student interest in space and spurs their thoughts towards future Moon or Mars flights. "Mankind always has to have an idea or a goal for the general imagination to move forward."
But first Kotov must reach space, and he has sought a few pointers from his more experienced cosmonaut colleagues.
"Each of the flown cosmonauts I've asked about what to expect [has] said every flight is different," Kotov said. "As for me, I'm just looking forward to it. I'm ready to fly."
- IMAGES: Space Tourist, Expedition 15 Crew Train for Launch
- VIDEO: Space Tourist Charles Simonyi in Zero G!
- Complete International Space Station Mission Coverage