02/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Flight School: Teachers and students

To be politically correct, let me state for the record that there are no good or bad teachers, only good or bad students. As for me, there are some classes in which I am a good student, and others in which I am bad.

In the ones where I am best, the teachers are engaged and try to understand what is going on in my mind. (You could say the same for any good marketer; they listen to see if the message got through correctly.) The teachers for whom I am bad simply recite their material, oblivious whether it makes sense to the student.

One of my favorites is Vladimir Trofimov, who is trying earnestly to help me be a better student. He has the challenging task of training me to use the radio system aboard the International Space Station, a complicated web of interconnected links including two UHF links (the second one both duplex and simplex), the S-band system which you can connect to through the American section's network (and thence from Houston to Moscow), the "Regul" data link, etc. etc. I can now parse routing diagrams so complex that I would never have paid attention to them in the past. Now I rely on them to set up comm links. But in practice, the first step is to check whether you're in range of the Russian ground stations. The examiners love to set you a complex task, watch you go through all the right steps, and then fail to get through because you forgot to check whether the "UHF" light was shining.

There are lots of other components: laptops where you can set up the links, and of course control panels where you actually plug in the headphones, turn mics on and off and the like.
For some reason, the panels are numbered 1 to 6, and are located thus along the length of the Russian Service Module:

2 4 6
5 1 3

You'd think it wouldn't matter much, but panels 2 and 3 double as switches, so you need to keep them straight. The S-band goes out through panel... oops, gotta check!... through channel 1 on panel 3 and the ISS intermodule link connects via panel 2 on... uh, channel 2. However, to use the S-band from any other panel you should turn on line 1, and to communicate with other modules, line 3. I keep trying to put it all into some neat logical frame, but in the end, I realize I just have to commit it to memory: Line 3 for channel 2, and so on. It reminds me of those neurological tests where they ask you to read words, and they flash "red" at you, but the letters are blue.

Trofimov also offers practical advice. There are several words for "turn off." The most frequently used one -- vikliuchit' -- happens to sound a lot like the word for "turn on" -- vkliuchit'. He advises me to use "otkliuchit'," which is much harder to confuse. (Of course, if you are trying to persuade an examination commission that you really meant turn on when you said turn off by mistake, perhaps it's good to be confusing. Whatever!) That advice will be useful well beyond radio class!

Trofimov's face crinkles when he laughs, and he's full of stories about space travel and other topics. He has been to the US, and he's surprised at how many rules we have: things you can and cannot say in public, whom you may open doors for (i.e. not women), the police who appear out of nowhere when you make a wrong turn... That rather surprises me, but he's sure of it.

Of course, he acknowledges, there is a saying that "the severity of Russian laws is mitigated by the fact that they are rarely observed." Indeed, from what I have seen, there are more rules in Russia, but there is more variation in their application. The guards who are supposed to keep strangers out of Star City are likely to make an exception for a driver carrying a passenger on a snowy night, for example... and thank goodness they did!

...except in space, where the rules concerning safety are strictly observed and "experimentation" is discouraged.