Space Inspires Us to Protect Earth Jubilant 35th Anniversary of the 1st Romanian Space Flight
On May 14th 1981, two astronauts were rapidly ascending from platform 17 on Baikonur Cosmodrome: Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu, a young lieutenant-major of the Romanian Air Force and an engineer specialized in aeronautics, who had scored the highest results among all the non-Soviet astronauts during his training in Star City, and Leonid Popov, a Soviet cosmonaut, the only one who had matched the record of 185 days spent in space at that time. They flew on a Soyuz-40 spacecraft and docked with the Salyut 6 – Soyuz T-4 orbital space complex, as part of Interkosmos, an inter-governmental space exploration program of the then socialist countries initiated by USSR, which eventually also included 13 non-Soviet astronauts.
Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu, the first and only (up to now) Romanian astronaut, currently holds several high positions such as deputy-president of the International Relations Committee of the European Space Agency, and president of the European chapter of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), the astronauts’ professional organization that includes 400 astronauts from 37 countries. He also held the position of Chairman of the UN Committee for Peaceful Use of the Outer Space and was a member of the ASE Committee on Near Earth Objects.
Bucharest, Romania – a Cosmic Capital
Between May 13-18, 2016, 12 astronauts from 8 countries came to Bucharest to celebrate with Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu, and with us all, the 35th anniversary of the first flight into space of a Romanian. The 13 astronauts have been very busy meeting thousands of people, leaving their palm prints in plaster molds, inaugurating dedicated locations, signing autographs, visiting the European ELI project in Romania, where the most powerful laser in the world will be located, and answering many questions. They also buried a time capsule for the next 100 years, with their messages for future generations.
“My 35th anniversary is special”, says Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu, “because I have managed to bring in Bucharest 12 astronauts and cosmonauts from 8 countries. Their presence and their statements made here during these days prove that Space is an area of international cooperation for peaceful purposes and an area of people with deep understanding of the Planet Earth and the need to protect Earth”.
All lof these astronauts have amazing and inspirational stories to share.
Bulgaria and Hungary, two of Romania’s neighbors, “comrade-countries” in the former socialist camp and now “teammates” in the European Union (space) projects, had their representatives in Bucharest, as well. Georgi Ivanov is the first Bulgarian astronaut and Aleksandr Alexandrov is the second one, while Bertalan Farkas is the first Hungarian space explorer.
From households to spaceships and back
The French Jean-Pierre Haignieré is married to a female astronaut, the well known Claudie Haignieré, thus making one of the world’s 3 couples of astronauts. During his career, he flew 102 types of airplanes and has logged more than 1,800 flight hours as a test pilot. For a long time, he served as an advisor to the Director of the European Space Agency. When asked what the life of a “cosmic couple” is like, Jean-Pierre Haigniére confesses they face the same problems as ordinary people, and being a space traveller does not contribute to conjugal harmony on Earth.
Michel Tognini, also a French astronaut, is the one who, during his second flight in space on the Columbia space shuttle, placed the Chandra-X observatory in orbit. It was the 93rd mission of the Space Shuttle and took place on July 23rd 1999. He is currently working on researching the Red Planet. When asked what impresses him the most from the space, he answers: “The Earth as a whole! There is no border. When you see the Earth, you only see the thin atmospheric layer between Earth and the Universe, which keeps us alive”.
Reinhold Ewald was a member of the second German mission on MIR space station and director of the training and flight centre of the European Space Agency. Reinhold teaches at the University of Stuttgart and possesses an inquisitive attitude. He does not lose any opportunity to gather data and information, and, during visits, he always stays behind to ask and answer questions. The same habit for questioning comes natural to his co-national Gerhard Thiele, a member of the STS-99 mission that performed Shuttle Radar Topography. He is currently the head of the Manned Flights Planning Office of the European Space Agency.
Helen Sharman, the first Briton is space and also the first female astronaut on MIR station, encourages people to follow their dreams. She became an astronaut after answering a contest on the radio and competing with 13,000 candidates. Helen says – “in space, there is no gender difference and women do not face particular biological challenges; on the contrary, the shorter distance between heart and brain makes it easier for women than for men in space. However, radiation affects humans. In the short term, it is easier for women. In the longer term, it is thought to affect the genes and reproduction”.
André Kuipers, the second Dutch astronaut, is the one who sends amazing photos from the space. He is able to capture breathtaking details of Planet Earth and sends them regularly to a passionate audience. The photos betray his love for Earth. So does his drive to encourage strong education for the young generation.
The highest literal command
Valeri Korzun is the commander of the Cosmonaut Corps in Star City in Russia and a veteran of space, with 381 days spent up there. He confesses: “It is not easy to be the commander of the Cosmonaut Corps in Star City – now I have 36 cosmonauts under my leadership, half of them Heroes of Russia! It is difficult to control such a group!”, says Valeri and then bursts into laughter. “Before, we used to be military, it was easier to control them, now we are civilian and they are spread, not so many remain in Star City when they don’t train. I control every step they take, from selection to launch, their training, their personal problems, in a direct relation, no intermediate level. I am their father, I know everything. Once a week we have a meeting with all, otherwise, on one-to-one basis, for exams, training in simulator”.
Korzun confesses that Russia has a new space strategy for 2023 – “to build a new cosmodrome, a new rocket, a new spacecraft, a new generation of cosmonauts, and to open new perspectives”.
One question that is often addressed to astronauts is: What fears does an astronaut have? For Korzun it is “the fear of not being accepted in a crew”.
Richard (Dick) Richards was a commander on 3 out of 4 space missions he undertook on the Columbia and Discovery Space Shuttles. He is very modest. He says that he was in command so many times because “NASA was very good to me. My first flight was in March in 1986, right after the loss of Challenger we had in January. NASA made a lot of flight safety changes regarding the engines and the rocket motors, to ensure the next flights. We, the astronauts, participated in all that, I tried to help, and NASA appreciated, so they put me in command. The biggest challenge as a commander is to assign the crew tasks where their strengths are maximized but, since I had wonderful crew, my people were extremely talented, I didn’t have to work so hard, they were all motivated. We collectively reached the answers to questions during the flights”.
Space is “apprehensive”, not “difficult”
Richard says that every flight is different, it does not become routine even if you fly several times: “I was fortunate to fly in the Golden Age of space exploration in America. We had different experiments for each flight, it is not at all boring. Astronauts enjoy the floating. We enjoy hanging upside down and having lunch on the ceiling”.
When asked what was the most challenging moment in his career, Richard uses a word which proves that he is a real leader who knows how to keep situations under control and manage his crew: “Of course, launching is always more apprehensive. I’ve been asked this question a lot, and I will always use the word apprehensive, not difficult. The only time when I was really nervous on orbit, a special situation I encountered was on my 3rd flight when I had to land on Edwards Air Force base and there was a cyclone in Southern California, with 400 thunderstorms embedded in it, and I started thinking how we were on the top of it and wondering if the lightning could possibly go up to us, so the Mission Control Centre in Houston said at the last minute: The weather is so bad! Let’s land in Florida! That was an apprehensive situation!”, says Richard laughing.
Astronauts may look like ordinary people
But they are not. I detected that first when astronauts aged between 63-67 climbed 6 floors in a building within 30 seconds. I then witnessed their special personality in the way they get informed, corroborate data and react to the unexpected.
There are several indications in the astronauts suggesting that they transcend the political and cultural borders of the world.
Firstly, many of them (British, French, East European) speak Russian, the working language on board of many host space shuttles and space stations where several nationalities worked together irrespective of their political regime, their culture or their religion. In the future, many young astronauts will most probably speak Chinese. Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu says that China has invited the other nations to experiment onboard its national space station, currently being built, to be assembled in orbit by 2022, and the young European astronauts are currently learning Chinese.
Secondly, all the astronauts say that they see no borders on Earth but a unified world, fragile, covered only by a thin layer of atmosphere, with lots of threats posed by the Universe, and urge people and leaders to look after it and protect it.
Looking for Prunariu’s space epigone
Prunariu is thrilled that so many astronauts took part in his event: “By bringing them here now, I wanted to symbolize what is going on in Space – cooperation among all nations! Of course, Space is also an area of competition because you can control the whole world from Space. For mankind, Space is the last frontier. We have exceeded our earthly limits, we have reached the Moon, and we are preparing the mission for Mars to take place in 15 years, hopefully. In 100 years, we shall reach other planets where we now suspect there is life”.
Asked whether Romania stands a chance to have a second astronaut, Prunariu explains that: “Romania can send candidates as part of the European Space Agency. The last selection took place in 2009, 6 candidates were selected and 5 already flew in Space, the 6th one will fly in autumn. Since it is not efficient to use them only once, we expect them to fly again, so the next selection will not take place very soon. Currently, only Soyuz rockets are used to send international crews to outer space, and they accomplish an average of 4 flights per year. Europe has usually two seats per year within these flights, which is much below the requirements and possibilities of research and development of space activities done by Europeans on board the space station. Theoretically, we need diversification of the means of transportation to and from outer space. Currently, we have to continue and develop cooperation in space with Russia and USA, waiting for their new spacecrafts, and also to build new partnerships for the future”.