What are your tasks on board the Soyuz spacecraft? What will you do on the ISS?
In the Soyuz I am Flight Engineer, which means I am responsible for the control and function of all systems. I also have to execute the commands for these systems. My task on board the ISS is totally different. There I will be working as an 'extension' of the scientists on Earth. In the ISS an extensive scientific programme is waiting for me.
Which language will you speak on board the Soyuz?
The operational language in the Soyuz is Russian. All manuals and instructions are in Russian. I had all my lessons and exams in Russian. On board the ISS, Russian as well as English is used. In fact a mixture of both languages is often spoken. For example, when I speak to my Commander I often use Russian and he replies in English. That's a good way to understand each other.
Can you give a short summary of the experiments to be carried out during your mission?
A number of the experiments concern life sciences. How does a human being function in space, physiologically and mentally? How does the brain work? Some biological experiments will look at how bone growth functions in weightlessness. Osteoporosis for instance is an important problem for an aging population. It affects astronauts in space more rapidly than on Earth. These experiments try to establish which elements are important, at a cellular level. This will help in the development of new medicines. There will also be experiments in the field of the natural sciences, especially crystallography.
Will your flight be a Belgian mission?
I think you can best describe it as an international flight with a Belgian accent. It is international because I will fly aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as Flight Engineer. It is also an international mission because we will do experiments in the Russian as well as in the American part of the Space Station. And not only Belgian investigators are involved - but also scientists from all over Europe and the rest of the world. I will also conduct experiments for the Americans and the Russians.
You are now acquainted with both Russian and Western space technology. What are the main differences? Would you have preferred to fly with the American Space Shuttle?
Not at all! The most important thing for me is to be able to fly into space. I'm very happy to fly with the Russians since I have an important function as Flight Engineer on board their Soyuz spaceship. Since I have a background as a test pilot this is important for me. I will be flying on board a new version of the Soyuz spaceship - the Soyuz TMA - and this is unique. For the first time a European will participate in a test flight of a new spaceship. With my background I can perform more operational functions in the Soyuz than I would in the Space Shuttle. There the Pilot and the Commander execute the most important functions, Europeans cannot do this at this moment in time. So for me it's not a bad thing to fly with the Russians. Furthermore, technology has its advantages and disadvantages. The Shuttle is piloted by a lot of computers, and as a consequence it is very difficult to see which computer does what and how everything is working. In the Soyuz I can occupy myself with the different systems of the spacecraft and because of this as a Flight Engineer it's interesting to fly on board this spaceship. The Russians also have a different approach to things than the Americans. The Americans like state-of-the-art technology. The Russians prefer a more tactical approach. They make use of what they already have, a working concept, and step-by-step they improve a number of things. The Soyuz TMA is still equipped with a number of old computers and it can still be controlled manually. Another example of this approach is the Russian living module of the ISS, which is in fact an improved version of the former Russian Mir space station.
In what way is the Soyuz TMA a new spacecraft?
The control panels are new, as are a number of computers, which have new software. The procedures have also been changed.