Each night, the International Space Station can clearly be seen with the naked eye. It is by far the largest satellite ever launched into orbit, the greatest engineering accomplishment ever achieved by humanity and the grandest and most expensive international endeavour in the history of our species. For more than a decade, Americans, Russians, Canadians, Japanese, Italians, French, Spaniards, Dutch, Germans, Swedes and a handful of fare-paying tourists have laboured to build and maintain it, high above the planet. Yet the term ‘International’ is something of a misnomer; for the old Soviet Union’s Salyut 6 space station in the late 1970s provided a temporary home for several international visitors. Unsurprisingly, most of these visitors came from servile Communist nations sympathetic to the Soviet ideal, but the greatest surprise was that the first of them, launched in March 1978, was from the most unlikely of countries: Czechoslovakia.
For almost two decades, ‘human spaceflight’ had been a two-horse race between Russia and America; between them, they had sent the first man and woman into space, performed the first spacewalk, the first flight around the Moon and the first piloted lunar landing. In the late 1970s, with the arrival of the Shuttle imminent, NASA made no secret of the fact that it intended to invite European scientists to work aboard the reusable spacecraft, thereby fostering wider international participation. The Soviet response was to beat them to it by staging the first in a series of missions, known as ‘Intercosmos’, involving pilots from Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, Vietnam, Cuba and Romania. The cynic might doubt the sincerity of these missions, for virtually all of them were one-off exercises in propaganda to reinforce the image of the ‘perfect’ Communist lifestyle. However, ‘perfect’ or not, with Intercosmos the Soviets operated a truly ‘international’ space station for the first time in history.
The first Czech cosmonaut came from the beautiful city of Ceske Budejovice, situated deep within the central valley of the Vltava River – the longest waterway in today’s Czech Republic – which has played a significant role in the country’s politics and commerce for more than seven centuries. Ringed by dramatic mountains, the city is home to dozens of grand Gothic and Renaissance and Baroque buildings…and is also particularly renowned for its breweries. At one stage in its history, it served the Holy Roman Emperor and its Budweiser Bier eventually led to a famous American imitation. Here, in September 1948, was born Vladimir Remek, today a Member of the European Parliament for the Czech Republic. Before his political career, Remek became the first person from a nation other than the United States or the Soviet Union to venture beyond the atmosphere.
Why Remek was chosen to fly first has aroused much debate over the years. His selection is surprising, because Warsaw Pact tanks had rumbled into Prague in August 1968 to crush a short-lived attempt to implement democratic reforms in a country ruled by the iron fist of Soviet-led Communism. In the wake of the failed ‘Prague Spring’, a hardline dictator, Gustav Husak, had achieved rapid economic growth, good living conditions for the people and a widespread availability of material goods. By the late 1970s, however, the reality set in that Czechoslovakia’s economy was beginning to stagnate and it has been suggested that the choice of Vladimir Remek to fly the first Intercosmos mission was an attempt to appease a disgruntled Czech population and soften anti-Soviet sentiment in the country.
Remek himself saw it quite differently. “If the Soviet leaders had any problems at that time,” he told an interviewer, years later, “it wasn’t a sense of guilt for entering Czechoslovakia. It could have been partly political, but what was really important was that we were among the strongest partners in the Intercosmos programme and our people were also on the UN space committee. Maybe we weren’t the worst among those who prepared for the flight!”
Remek was – and still is – a dedicated Communist. He was born only months after the Communists assumed control over Czechoslovakia. Today, he represents the Communist Party of the Czech Republic in the European Parliament and maintains that his experience as a cosmonaut helped him to develop the skills for the job. His family history is fascinating: he is the progeny of a Czech maternal line and a Slovak paternal line and his father had been a lieutenant general in the army and a key figure in Czechoslovakia’s air defence ministry. Not surprisingly, the young Remek gravitated towards a military career, entered the Czechoslovak Air Force and went to Moscow to study for a master’s degree. Late in 1976, he was selected as one of half a dozen Czech candidates for an Intercosmos mission. On 25 November of that year, he and another military engineer, Oldrich Pelczak, were picked, along with two Poles and two East Germans, for the first Intercosmos group.
As a venture, Intercosmos encompassed far more than just putting Soviet allies into space. It had been in existence for more than a decade and included unmanned scientific missions, too, and it was not until July 1976 that Vladimir Shatalov, commander of the Soviet cosmonaut team, announced that each Intercosmos pilot would require at least two years of specialised training, even if there were no language difficulties. The choice of Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany as the source of the first candidates was because they were “the three most advanced East European countries”, according to a US Congressional report, published in 1982, and their contributions to Intercosmos had already been significant.
After the selection, though, matters move rapidly. By May 1977, the pilots’ basic training was complete and they were paired with Soviet cosmonauts: Remek with Alexei Gubarev, Pelczak with Yuri Isaulov. (A subsequent rule that there must be at least one veteran cosmonaut on each crew later saw Isaulov replaced by Nikolai Rukavishnikov.) Yet the two Czechoslovaks were never considered much more than passengers. In a June 1986 article in Flight International, space analyst Tim Furniss reported that Remek returned from orbit with sore knuckles. “He said it was because every time he went to touch something,” Furniss wrote, “he was smacked on the hand by the commander!”
Soyuz 28, with Gubarev and Remek aboard, was launched on the evening of 2 March 1978. Czechoslovak Radio’s Ilja Jenca described the two cosmonauts – their faces projected onto a gigantic monitor screen in the control centre – as “two brothers, or even twins, representing two brother socialist countries…the symbolism mingles with reality”. There was no doubting with such words that the scientific importance of the mission paled in comparison to its political importance. A day later, Gubarev guided his ship to dock with the Salyut 6 space station, then occupied by two other Soviet cosmonauts, Yuri Romanenko and Georgi Grechko. Very little has been published, other than an anecdote, here and there, about what Remek did during his few days aboard the station. Each Intercosmos nation sponsored its own programme of scientific research and Remek performed medical and materials science investigations and observed his homeland from orbit.
After an eight-day flight, Gubarev and Remek landed back in the Soviet Union. Each of the early Intercosmos missions would run for about the same duration, give or take an hour or two, in order to ensure that no Eastern Bloc nation could take offence or speculate that the Soviets were favouring one above another. Back on Earth, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev exploited the political impact of the flight to the full. He had lauded “the schooling and courage of the cosmonauts”, whilst they were in space, and now praised “the selfless labour of those who prepared the flights”. In the weeks that followed, the solid gold stars of Hero of the Soviet Union and Hero of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic flowed aplenty, with Gustav Husak honouring them in a lavish ceremony at Prague Castle.
It is easy to look back on Remek’s flight, 34 years ago this week, with an eye of scepticism, for it was a mission of its time…a time at which the space age was so young that political goals often prevailed above scientific ones. It is also true that many of the other Intercosmos participants, with a couple of exceptions, only saw one of their countrymen ever fly into space. Yet across the span of the Soviet and post-Soviet era, a wide range of international cosmonauts – French and Indians, Syrians and Bulgarians, Afghans and Japanese, British and Austrians, Germans and Americans – flew aboard the Salyut and Mir space stations. As the political climate between East and West steadily warmed in the late 1980s, many of these cosmonauts were increasingly drawn from non-Communist or Western-aligned nations. Even today, it is difficult to foresee a time when politics will not be at the forefront of the space programme; for the sheer financial and technical cost of getting beyond the atmosphere and beyond low-Earth orbit renders it impossible for the grand goals of the future to be attempted without international participation.
Ben Evans is the author of “A History of Human Space Exploration”, a six-volume series to commemorate the first half-century of humanity’s adventure in space. The series is published by Springer-Praxis. Copies of the first three volumes in the series - “Escaping the Bonds of Earth” (1961-68), “Foothold in the Heavens” (1969-74) and “At Home in Space” (1974-82) – are available for purchase from the author. Individual books may be purchased for 22 GBP + 4 GBP postage or 58 GBP + 8 GBP postage for all three books. Requests can be made through Paypal to email@example.com.