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Interview with Mark Shuttleworth - 3 April 2002

Question: What has been the most gruelling part of the training and what do you anticipate will be the most gruelling part of the trip?

Answer: The toughest intellectual part has been the sheer volume of work required to become an active part of the crew. I've no previous pilot training or flight experience, and no previous Russian, so it's been a long hill to climb.

Question: How fluent is your Russian? Can you hold a conversation?

Answer: Sure, as long as we stick to the weather, and Soyuz procedures! It's a very rich language. Each time I feel like I'm getting a handle on it I turn the corner and stumble across whole new linguistic concepts. I'm not reading Tolstoy. But I can now participate fully in the cockpit dialogue, which is the critical part.

Question: Who are Dale Cupido and these other "crack Capetonians" you refer to every now and then?

Answer: Dale Cupido (from Cape-based marketing and media company, Interactive Africa) is "our man in Moscow". He lives here at Star City and, with the earlier help of Karl Prince, has been co-ordinating the scientists' efforts to get equipment certified for our scientific programme, as well as the media and mission programme. It's a huge job, and he has risen to the challenge. It's his a first "out of Africa" experience, and he has done brilliantly. In addition to Dale and Karl, we have four Russians working for us here, and more often than not there are a few scientists visiting. Karen Sharwood from the University of Cape Town has become a major asset and semi-permanent member of the Moscow team too.

In Houston, we have Freddy Khan (also from Interactive Africa), who will probably work out of Mission Control to co-ordinate all in-flight activities with NASA. He will be a "payload activities officer", planning each day of the flight, trying to get the most out of every day while still being flexible to fit in with the ISS crew schedule. Freddy has also done a wonderful job helping us build a working relationship with NASA. In particular, NASA has been fantastic about providing us with ideas and content for the education programme, and that's largely thanks to Freddy.

In Cape Town, at the offices of Interactive Africa, the core project team is working flat out to pull together the education programme and overall project management. They have figured out that we have a unique opportunity to take the department of education's national strategy for science and technology to great heights ... literally.

Question: Which of the scientific experiments that you will be carrying out in space do you regard as the most important for the future of mankind? Why?

Answer: It would be out of turn to think that this will be important for the future of mankind. Nobody has to go to space to learn tolerance - and I think a little tolerance spread around would be the best thing for the future of mankind right now. But all of the experiments are very good science nonetheless.

Personally, I like the stem-cell experiment, because it is a big step forward in a very exciting field. The protein crystallisation experiment won't find a magic-bullet cure for HIV, but I hope it will advance our understanding of the human immune system that HIV attacks. And the two experiments from UCT Sports Science Institute build on their experience in performance medicine, but take them into a whole new field.

I'm not a scientist, but I've every reason to believe this is all world-class stuff. I also like the two Russian experiments that I'll try to perform. The genetic one is a first step towards the world of Gattaca (for better or worse), and the Earth observation experiment will help us manage ocean resources more constructively, as well as giving me an excuse to look out of the window for a while.

Question: How do you plan to measure the impact of the project on the youth of South Africa, and the way it will have changed their way of looking at science?

Answer: We have a cunning plan ;-). One of the proposals we had from the scientific community was to do exactly what you describe: measure the impact, if any, this has on attitudes to science and technology in SA. I'm an optimist, I hope even my grandma gets a thrill out of this and looks at science and engineering in a new light. Hopefully the results will live up to those expectations.

Question: What are the odds of your safe return? Are you afraid? Do you sometimes wake at night wondering why the hell you're doing this? Did your mother try and talk you out of the whole thing?

Answer: Good, yes, yes, and not directly.

Of course I'll be scared on the day... there have been some scary experiences during the training too. But my desire to be part of this pushes through every time. There have been some rocky days, but I don't dwell on morbid thoughts. None of us has a licence to potter around on Earth indefinitely. Avoiding every risk won't alter the inevitable. Whatever happens, at least I know that I'm choosing to be ALIVE, which is I think more interesting than trying to choose not to get dead at all costs. As for Mom, she's been supportive despite her reservations, for which I love her more than ever.

Question: How many of your friends and family members will be there to watch the launch at Baikonur? And the return?

Answer: I hope that a few friends will be able to get to Baikonur for the launch, and my family will be there too. It should be quite a surreal and hopefully thrilling experience.

Question: Is there a definite date for launch yet?

Answer: Late April/early May is the best we can do. There is a lot of work going on at the ISS right now, and we have to fit our mission between two shuttle flights, an EVA and an unmanned cargo ship docking. April 25th is the current hot favourite.

Question: Where on the website can one find the practical details? The recycled urine that the astronauts wash in and the dehydrated soup they eat? How do they keep awake? And sleep?

Answer: Those are great ideas for things we can add! The site is still limited to the things we can add in our spare moments ... I haven't had a chance to write a log all week. We'll try get some of those things up asap.

Question: Do you plan to write a book afterwards?

Answer: Hmmm... but how will the story end?

Question: What is your response to the criticism back home, that the $20-million could've been better spent on upliftment of the people?

Answer: Those are all good questions, and I don't mind them being asked of me. I hope everyone thinks them through as much as I've had to. We may still come to different conclusions. Here are some more questions the same folks could ask of themselves. Is a dream as powerful as a textbook, or more so? Why labour if one can't savour the fruits? What would I do in the same situation? Really? What do I do for the upliftment of the people myself? Don't rocket scientists earning R1500 per month count as "the people", don't they deserve some upliftment too? At the end of the day, I've learned to go with my instincts and to expect some criticism. How would it be possible to push the envelope and still have everybody agree or have good insight into one's decisions?

And I'd urge anybody who has a dream but isn't sure if they want to stand out from the crowd just to follow that dream irrespective of where it leads them. The toughest part isn't the work, it's standing firm when someone sniggers at the back of the crowd. If we all waited for everyone to agree, nobody would DO anything interesting, or bold, or adventurous, or courageous, or beautiful. Life by committee is no life at all. What gets me excited about this project is that for every one person who sniggers at the back of the crowd, I think there are a hundred dynamic people who are saying to themselves, "if HE can do it, why can't I?". And that's powerful medicine in a place like South Africa.

Question: When you have recovered, what's the next project?

Answer: Life has a way of deciding that for itself. Each time I make plans it seems a better idea comes along. So this time I'm just focusing on each day as it comes. I don't have any firm plans for the next project. It might be something personal, or something public, who knows what life has in store for each of us?

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The Team
Mark Shuttleworth
Dale Cupido
Karen Sharwood
Lara Keytel
Danie Barry
Freddy Khan
Vaughan Oosthuizen
Ravi Naidoo
Vuyo Dwane
Richard Mills
Nicolette Cronje
Wayne Derman
Peter Ribton
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