Allen Tarlan oglu Mirkadyrov. He has lived in the United State for more than 30 years. These days, he works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and dreams of going into space. More on this and other things in his interview with Caliber.Az.
When did you leave Azerbaijan?
We left Azerbaijan and moved to the USA in 1991. We were sent to Phoenix (Arizona), and five years later our entire family moved to Hawaii. In 1997, I graduated from high school and enlisted in the US Air Force. At the same time, I was admitted to the Air Force Academy, where I studied for four years and graduated in the rank of second lieutenant.
In what year did you leave the US Air Force?
I became a civilian in 2007. In the same year, I enrolled in the Master’s degree program at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at San Diego State University. After graduating in 2009, I had many opportunities to get a high-paying job in the private sector, but my dream was to work at NASA. I submitted several applications, and they finally hired me in 2010. Admittedly, the salary offer was much lower than what I would have been paid in the private sector, but I didn’t care. I was following my dream!
Are there other Azerbaijanis besides you at NASA?
There are. I was friends with one, but he left the organization a while ago. Occasionally, I come across familiar names in the work documents, but I haven’t met them in person yet. The thing is, our Center employs about 13,000 people and not all of us get the chance to cross paths.
You mentioned following your dream…
Yes, going into space is a big dream of mine, and I will never give it up. Becoming an astronaut is very difficult, they even joke about it here in America, saying it’s easier to become a senator or the President. Still, I keep submitting my application, every four years.
When was the last time you did that?
Last year, and I have yet to hear from them. Nobody has gone to Mars so far, and as for lunar mission candidates, NASA already has put a team together. I can only go as a volunteer, if my application is approved. This won’t happen until 2024. The US has plans to build a lunar base, and I’m not going to miss my chance when it happens.
Is there a possibility of you being part of the crew that will go to the Moon in 2024?
Yes, of course. My experience of simulated lunar and Mars flyby experiments will only improve my chances. Today, being a telecommunications engineer, my team and I are in charge of the communications between satellites, ground stations and antennae. It’s NASA who is responsible for telecommunications and the stability of data transmission from space to Earth and vice versa.
You said you were part of the simulated lunar and Mars flyby experiments. Where and how long was that happening?
Experiments of this kind have been known since the Soviet cosmonautics era. The simulated Mars flyby experiment was conducted on the island of Hawaii and lasted eight months (from October 2014 to June 2015). There were six of us in isolation: three men and three women. We lived in a small, confined space together more than 240 days.
Is it hard to stay in isolation for so long?
It’s not easy. I had a tough time because of the lack of normal food. I got some digestive issues and had to exclude some foods, so I lost a little weight because of that.
Did you get the kind of food astronauts eat in space?
Not exactly, but something like it. But if I had nutrition issues, then the issues other crew members experienced were of a more psychological nature. This study is normally aimed at determining an optimal crew that can go into space. After all, those people will have to co-exist in tight quarters for a long time, therefore, we must study in advance what kind of issues it might cause. These are the things the outcome of the entire mission depends on.
You don't have to be an astronaut to have a long-duration mission experience. This week's #MondayMotivation took part in an 8-month @HI_SEAS mission. Get inspired by Allen Mirkadyrov's story! https://t.co/rrjv8WlZOg pic.twitter.com/bMbBHsX8tj
— NASA STEM – Inspiring the #Artemis Generation (@NASASTEM) November 20, 2017
Can a person pull out of the experiment?
Of course, it’s all on strictly volunteer basis.
Has it happened during your time in the program?
It has never happened in my time, but I know of cases when people couldn’t take it and withdrew from the experiment. One person sustained a serious electric shock, they even lost consciousness for a few seconds. Then they came round but the other crew members decided to stop the simulation, fearing for the shocked member’s health, and that “flyby” lasted only a couple of weeks instead of a whole year.
What about your lunar flyby simulation?
It took place at the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and lasted four months. I participated in the experiment together with Russian colleagues. Such simulations are not rare and involve representatives of many countries. Unfortunately, next to no applications come from Azerbaijan, even though anyone from anywhere in the world can participate. All it takes is a degree in science, medicine or engineering, but in fact all applications are considered and exceptions can be made.
What conclusions did you make for yourself, after your “stay” on the Moon and Mars?
Personally, I realized that I was ready for space flights both psychologically and physiologically. Sure, I did lose some weight but I recovered quickly. That’s why I hope I will get the chance in my career to go into space.
But you must agree that space travel is rather dangerous. What do your loved ones think of your dream?
They support me, although space travel is a very dangerous venture indeed. Of course, we have had these conversations in the family. But, fortunately, my parents, my wife and kids support me one hundred percent. The former are very proud of me.
You must miss your family…
Of course, I do, but before going into isolation, I prepare for it psychologically. My second child was born right before the Mars flyby experiment, and I missed the first eight months of the baby’s life. I distracted myself in isolation watching various sports news, making phone calls to my family, talking to the other crew members.
What did you talk about during those “flights” to the Moon and Mars?
You won’t believe it, but I usually tell them about my homeland. I brag that we have the most delicious national cuisine in the world, explain the nuances of our culture and traditions. I generally do my best to promote Azerbaijan: people everywhere should know what a great place it is.
What are your favorite Azerbaijani dishes?
I love giyme hingel, also eggplant dolma and sabzi pilaf. I can’t live without those.
Let’s get back to the fears and apprehensions about space flights…
I don’t have fears, but I do have certain misgivings, just like any other man. I worry that something might happen to my family while I’m away, and there would be nothing I could do. Of course, I do get these unwelcome thoughts from time to time. But I try to think then that there have always been people in history who had to understand and accept these risks. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have anyone to advance our civilization.
How long does a lunar mission last, on average?
About three to six months. In the simulated lunar flyby in Moscow, our crew commander was Evgeny Tarelkin. He went into space in 2013 and spend a little over six months in that expedition. He told us a lot of secrets.
Can you share some of those?
You know, he busted many myths for us. Some astronauts say they saw some sort of green glow or green lights in space. Some of them say it’s UFO. By the way, Evgeny saw that glow well and got scared at first. But he realized later that it had nothing to do with aliens and everything to do with cosmic dust that floats around and glows when catching light.
So, he refuted the existence of alien life?
Not quite. He admitted that in space, one still feels the presence of some power: someone or something. He is a Hero of the Russian Federation, a pilot-cosmonaut, an absolutely rational person, who would never make this up for quick fame. These are the things that make me want to experience outer space.
Do you believe in the existence of aliens?
Yes, I have always believed we are not alone in the universe. I think there are other civilizations. Of course, I don’t have any proof of that but I believe in it in my heart. Who knows what and whom we will see when we land on Mars. After all, it is very far away from Earth: while a flight to the Moon takes three days, a flight to Mars takes six to nine months.
Speaking of Mars, do you believe the conjectures of a number of scientists saying there used to be life on Mars?
NASA’s current position is that, in all likelihood, there used to be life on Mars before. There isn’t at the moment but it doesn’t mean there are no traces of it left. Some places on Mars have ice—and, therefore, water under it. It is possible that some microorganisms live there. We won’t be able to find out until we go there. Machines and devices cannot find out what a person can learn and see.
When you say “before”, you mean before civilization emerged on planet Earth?
Yes, perhaps billions of years ago. I’ll reiterate: NASA supports this theory. First of all, the Martian climate and gravity are similar to those on Earth. So, one can assume that creatures like us could live on Mars if it had an atmosphere and living conditions. There is a theory that life existing on Earth actually came from Mars, maybe with an asteroid or in some other way… Scientists may find answers to these questions in the future.
Shall we talk about your homeland a little? You left Baku when you were still a child. Do you get to visit Azerbaijan often?
I do try to visit as often as I can. The last time was in 2018. I remember it being terribly hot in July. For now, unfortunately, I can’t plan my visit because of the pandemic, but I definitely want to go. All the more so that I have an uncle and an aunt in Baku, as well as many friends, classmates…
Do you have favorite spots in Baku?
Nizami District, of course. I was born there and lived next to School 145, near Gara Garayev metro station. I love that area so much, and I sometimes dream of walking there again. Of course, I love the Seaside Boulevard. I love and miss my Baku very much.
Finally, I have to ask: why Allen?
My father gave me this name, and it’s not an Americanized version of my real name, as many people tend to think. Family and friends call me Alik.
Translated from caliber.az