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Do You Know Which Country Was First To Have Its Own Astronaut After USSR, USA?
The Space Age
12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and sealed his place in history. Alan Sheppard followed him 23 days later with his ballistic-curve suborbital flight. Humankind entered the space age while USSR and the United States entered the space race. During the sixties, the Moon was the ultimate goal of both superpowers. After Neil Armstrong´s legendary "one small step", the situation changed and Soviets lost their interest in the Moon. Their new focus was in the orbital station and long-term stays in space.
In November 1965, another important event took place in Moscow - representatives of mainly the Eastern Bloc countries (but also countries like India, France or Austria) agreed to create a program of the International Cooperation in Space (of course, under the leadership of the USSR). It was the beginning of the "Interkosmos" organization. At first, experiments within the "Intercosmos" were realized either by unmanned satellites or by Soviet cosmonauts during their journeys.
But in 1976, the situation has changed and the Soviet Union gave its partners an irresistible offer...
International Co-operation in Space
When US astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov had their historical handshake during the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, it seemed as the dawn of a new era in the space exploration. Era, in which both superpowers will closely co-operate. However, the continuation of the program was stopped by the US Congress because of fears of the Soviet technological espionage. Also, the Soviet signature on the protocol of Helsinki conference (signatories undertook to abide the human rights and other points of the international law) was only formal and soon it was clear that they will not act in accordance with this protocol. New round of the Cold War was about to begin.
Therefore, Soviet Union had to show its hospitable face and because of that, they offered its allies common spaceflights. In the first round, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia were invited. All three countries wanted to be the first but the choice was on the Soviet side. The decision was made and the country which will became the third in the world to have its own astronaut was chosen.
All three countries had to choose four candidates and Soviets finalized the process by picking the final two for each country and send them to the Star City. These are those who made it to the actual training for the missions:
- Vladimir Remek and Oldrich Pelcak (Czechoslovakia)
- Miroslaw Hermaszewski and Zenon Jankowski (Poland)
- Sigmund Jahn and Eberhard Kollner (East Germany)
Future cosmonauts started with their training in December 1976 and in 1977, they were paired with their Soviet colleagues. As the title of this section says, the Czechoslovakia was chosen for the first Intercosmos piloted flight. To name all the reason why is difficult. It was the combination of several factors. Some of them are in the following list but we will probably never know what was the precise key for the final choice...
- The readiness of the crews was definitely a major factor
- Czechoslovakia was very active in previous Intercosmos activities
- 30 years after the war, German cosmonaut as the first one was still politically delicate thing
- There is also an opinion that Soviets offered this to Czechoslovakia as a "compensation" for the 1968 invasion of Soviet-led forces into the country...
So, Vladimir Remek and his partner, Soviet veteran cosmonaut Aleksei Gubarev could count the days until the start of their mission...
Vladimir Remek and Aleksei Gubarev
Vladimir Remek was born in 1948. Since 1970, he served as a fighter pilot in the Czechoslovak Air Force, flying especially with Mig-21 fighters. His father, Josef Remek, was a general in the Czechoslovak Army and in 1976, he became the commander of the entire Czechoslovak Air Force. However, the relationship between both men was not ideal and Vladimir was always strictly refusing any comments on the possible favoritism because of his father.
Remek´s partner for the upcoming spaceflight was Aleksei Gubarev. He was born in 1931 and remembered the harsh fighting in his village near Moscow in 1941 during the German offensive against the Soviet capital. The house of Gubarev´s family was destroyed during the battle. He was the member of the naval air force and later picked for the Soviet lunar program. His first mission was Soyuz 17 in 1975.
Soyuz 28 Mission
Soyuz 28 mission started on 2 March 1978 at 15:28 UTC. Soyuz 7K-T spacecraft with Remek and Gubarev on board headed for Salyut 6 orbital station where Georgi Grechko and Yuri Romanenko were fulfilling their duties.
In line with the official Soviet rules, the mission was considered secret until it was clear that the start was successful. Only after the successful launch, Soviet and then Czechoslovak media were informed that the spaceship with one Soviet and one Czechoslovak cosmonaut is on its way to Salyut 6. Especially for the people in Czechoslovakia, this information was quite shocking.
When on the orbital station, cosmonauts worked on several scientific experiments from the areas of physiology, psychology, chemistry, and biology prepared mainly by researchers in Czechoslovakia.
There is also one funny story connected to this mission. Before the start of Soyuz 28, Salyut 6 cosmonauts reported that they have problems with teeth. Remek and Gubarev, therefore, trained with dentist's drill, however, when they arrived at Salyut and informed that Grechko and Romanenko that they are ready to take care of their teeth after the two weeks of dentist training, they were politely refused. From that time, problems with teeth were never reported again by Grechko and Romanenko.
Vladimir Remek After the Mission
Soyuz 28 mission landed 190 miles west of Tselinongrad on 10 March 1978 at 13:44 UTC. Vladimir Remek became a well-known person in Czechoslovakia and was probably the only one in his country who gained popularity for something done officially in co-operation with the Soviet Union.
After the revolution and the fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, Remek remained in the army and for some time, he was the director of the Army Prague Aviation Museum. Later, he was elected as a member of European Parliament as an independent candidate with the support of Communist party. Today, he serves as an ambassador of the Czech Republic in Moscow, Russia. Despite the remaining and controversial affinity to the Communist party, he is considered to be quite popular in the country.
From 1978 to the fall of the Eastern bloc and the end of the Intercosmos, 14 non-Soviet cosmonauts were sent to space via this program. But thanks to Vladimir Remek, only Czechoslovakia could say that it has the first non-Soviet or non-US astronaut/cosmonaut.