Interview with Mark - April 10
Questions by Beverley Pender
Has it been a difficult transition to learn the Russian way of life and the Russian language whilst in training?
Having to learn some Russian has been one of the more difficult aspects of the training, but also one of the more rewarding. It's a very rich and complex language, very old, and quite different from English or Afrikaans. But the more I learn to speak it, the more I'm able to get to know my hosts here at Star City. Their view of life is in many ways tied to the language, they open up quickly once one can speak a little of it. Four hours of Russian a day used to feel like brain surgery without anaesthetics, but now that we are in hectic pre-flight preparations, I miss the language lessons.
Question:What experiments will you conduct while in space, and what do they aim to achieve?
Answer: Check out www.africaninspace.com for the papers and detailed writings of the scientists. In short, we are flying some very exciting biotechnology experiements that are cutting edge - this will be the first time that stem cells have flown to space, and we hope to be the first to learn how they adapt and grow in a weightless environment. We'll be trying to grow large crystals of some of the proteins that make up the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, as well as some other proteins from cells in the human immune system, and if we are successful we will help scientists better understand the virus and the way it attacks people. We will also study the muscles and heart during flight, and try to extend some South African research that has been done on the ground, in the field of space.
Why space? Why not, say, a Ferrari? Buy your own film company/music
Answer:Space technology and the exploration of space have captured my imagination as long as I can remember. We are only just scratching the surface of the universe out there, and while we have plenty of work to do to get our affairs on earth into order, we can't lose sight of the need to keep exploring the whole of the universe in which we live.
How did you get so rich? How can I earn a lot of money when I'm older?
Answer: I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and to be willing to work on an obscure piece of technology when everyone else was pursuing normal careers. Why do you want to earn a lot? It's worth being able to answer that question clearly before devoting your life to it. But if you do want to make that your life goal, then I would say be willing to sacrifice a tremendous amount to achieve it. I was lucky, I simply pursued the ideas that I found most interesting in life, and that worked out better financially than I could every have dreamed, even if I'd set out to do well. I do believe that people who are willing to risk criticism and to get on with things they find inspiring, even when it means sacrificing many of the comforts of life, will ultimately reap the rewards.
What's your favourite food?
Answer: Roast vegetable pasta.
What was The Vomit Chair like? (Saw it on your web site.) What happens if you vomit in space?
Answer: The vomit chair is one of the testing and training tools used by the Russians. They make their cosmonauts very sick by spinning them and making them move their heads side to side, or back and forwards, until they are so dizzy that they feel nauseous. The cosmonauts have to be able to do this for a certain amount of time to pass their medical certification. And before the flight, they put us in there several times a week, and push us further and further till we feel very ill. This is designed to reduce the impact of space motion sickness (like seasickness). NASA doesn't do anything like this, but the Russians say that more NASA astronauts get ill in space. I don't know which is true, I just know that I dislike that chair intensely!
Do they let girls become cosmonauts?
Answer: Absolutely! There are several Russian women in the cosmonaut team, and several American and Canadian women in the NASA astronaut team too. You just have to be the best in your field - either as a medical specialist, or physicist, or chemist, or fighter pilot, or aerospace engineer.
What is your favourite band? Will you take any CDs into space with you? If so, which ones?
Answer: Thanks to the wonders of MP3, I carry my CD collection around with me on my computer, and will take that to space. The groups I listen to most are Dave Matthews Band, Cesaria Evora, U2.
Which actor would you choose to play your role if they made a film about you?
Answer: Life is a bit like a movie... I'm rather enjoying writing the script, and think the cast is fantastic, it's just that I've no idea what the plot is.
What has been the most difficult part of your training? Were you fit before you started?
Answer: Being alone in Russia for several months, negotiating a tough contract, and some of the physical tests such as ocean survival training in case we accidentally land at sea, were very tough. I'm a lot fitter now than I've been in years... thanks to the UCT sports science folks. They have to have some muscles to test!
What sports do you play?
Answer: Not much. I'm pretty much treadmill-bound. I've enjoyed some of the indoor sports here during the cosmonaut training, like soccer and badminton, but I'm a total hack.
Which Super 12 rugby team do you support?
Question: Which country do you think will win the Soccer World Cup?
Answer: The best one on the day!
Question: What are your plans on your return?
Answer: A holiday, some sunshine, time with family, somewhere quiet where I can let the dust settle.
Which South African do you admire most?
Answer: There are several. South Africa produces great people. Madiba. Smuts. Gandhi.
Some people say that the money you have spent on this trip would have been better spent buying medicine for HIV sufferers, that the experiments you are doing in space are a waste of time and money. What do you say to such criticism?
Answer: It's a fair point. I hope that he would do that if he was in my position. I think this space flight might have an equally positive impact though - reminding kids in SA what amazing opportunities there are out there that are worth living for, worth embracing mathematics and science at school for. If we can motivate and inspire South African people to reach for the stars, it will be easier to carry the burden of HIV / AIDS in South Africa. We can make a similar argument in education - perhaps this money could have been used to buy textbooks for schoolchildren who don't have them. But I think it's important to remember that we need to put the textbook in the hands of the learner, and then we have to INSPIRE the learner to actually read it. And not just to read it, but to pore over it, to be fascinated by it, and to dream about being at the front of the effort to develop new science, new mathematics, new technology, for the next generation. I think that the SA government can deliver textbooks if it chooses to do so, but it's difficult for a government to inspire learners to use them. That has to be done by other individuals.
When are you coming back to South Africa?
Answer: When my work brings me back!
Do you think you are a hero? If not, who is your hero?
Answer: No. Except maybe to my Mom, but that's true for everybody! I'm very normal, with plenty of normal flaws. My hero's are people who take risks for beautiful ideas that they believe in strongly, even if others around them don't yet see what they see.
Do you believe in aliens?
Answer: Yes. As seen in New York, London and Harare. Seriously, it's one of humanity's greatest failings that it always thinks it's the most important thing around. We thought we were the center of the solar system, and the universe, and none of that was true. I'm sure we will find that life is as common in the universe as it is varied... we are just taking baby steps from our cradle, Earth, into this beautiful cosmos.
Can you take any books into space? If you could, which one would you take?
Answer: I could, but I have a feeling that this trip will be so busy that every minute will be spent working or enjoying being up there. If I had a longer flight, I might take up a good sci-fi book, from Iain Banks or Arthur Clarke.