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Commemorating 30 years of European human space flight

Thirty years ago, a Czech citizen, Vladimir Remek, made history when he became the first man from a country other than the US or former Soviet Union to go into space. On 2 March 1978, he took off aboard the Soyuz 28 spacecraft for an eight-day mission to the Salyut 6 space sta...
Commemorating 30 years of European human space flight
Thirty years ago, a Czech citizen, Vladimir Remek, made history when he became the first man from a country other than the US or former Soviet Union to go into space. On 2 March 1978, he took off aboard the Soyuz 28 spacecraft for an eight-day mission to the Salyut 6 space station.

CORDIS News recently caught up with Mr Remek in Brussels, where he works as a Member of the European Parliament, to find out more about this historic flight and how it feels to be considered the first European to go into space.

Growing up in the 1950s, Mr Remek, like many other children at that time, dreamed of only one thing; becoming an astronaut. In 1957, at the age of nine, he watched in awe as the first earth orbiter, Sputnik 1, was launched into space by the Soviet Union.

Mr Remek was equally impressed when the Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first man to go to space. 'All the boys who wanted to be cosmonauts suddenly had a new hero,' he told CORDIS News.

When he realised that all the Soviet cosmonauts and US astronauts were former military pilots, Mr Remek knew what he had to do. The MEP was not unfamiliar with world of aeronautics; his father was a military pilot, and as a child, Mr Remek would spend a lot of time at air bases and around aeroplanes.

When he enrolled in the air force academy in Moscow, Mr Remek discovered, much to his delight, that the academy was right by Star City, the specialised training centre for cosmonauts. Another important turn of events was the launch in 1976 of Interkosmos space programme for cooperation between the Soviet Union and other partner countries.

In 1976, Mr Remek graduated from the academy and decided to follow his dream and apply for a place on the Interkosmos programme. Competition was tough, with over 100 candidates setting their sights on a place on the programme. In the end, only two were chosen; the 28 year old Remek was one of those candidates.

The MEP only had to wait two more years for his first and only mission into space aboard the Soyuz 28 spacecraft. The training for the mission was intensive. 'In those days I felt very prepared and had no doubts whatsoever,' said Mr Remek. But 30 years on, the 60-year old says he would think twice before letting such a young person pilot a supersonic aircraft.

As Mr Remek prepared for take off on that day in 1978, he recalls how he felt. 'I was understandably very excited but I also had a great feeling of responsibility,' he told CORDIS News. 'I saw my life flash before my eyes and I wondered what my old school teacher would think about it.' However, he managed to keep calm, and after take-off 'my mind emptied and I concentrated on my work'.

Over the next eight days, the crew of the Soyuz 28 spacecraft conducted a variety of medical and scientific experiments and captured some multispectral images of their respective home countries. The 190 hours spent in orbit were very momentous for Mr Remek, not least because he was the first citizen from his country and the first non-US, non-Soviet citizen to go to space. During the flight, he proudly listened to various short wave radio stations and heard his name and his country repeated in countless languages.

Thirty years on, the significance of Mr Remek's flight continues to be felt. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), it represents Europe's entry into human space flight. 'I am very pleased to hear that,' says the MEP. 'It is a great honour to be regarded as the first European astronaut.'

Mr Remek's first flight was also recently commemorated by an event at the European Parliament, involving European Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen and Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Vladimir Spidla.

Coming back to Earth took a little getting used to. 'It took a couple days before my muscle coordination was back to normal,' explained Mr Remek. He also had to get used to his new found fame and the expectations that went with it.

One expectation was that Mr Remek should use his fame in a political sphere and help people sort their problems out. 'But I resisted for a very long time,' he said. It was not until the European elections in 2004 that Mr Remek decided to stand. As an astronaut, 'I had achieved quite a lot for the Czech Republic through space flight,' he noted. Now, as a MEP, he feels he can also contribute to the country's future prosperity.

Mr Remek is not the only former astronaut to have embraced politics. Claudie Haigneré, France's first woman in space was for a time deputy research minister, while Umberto Guidoni, the first European to visit the International Space Station (ISS), now works as an MEP belonging to the Party of Italian Communists.

'These people were given the chance to see the problems on Earth from a different perspective, giving them a broader understanding of these problems. They soon realised that if they wanted to somehow influence life on Earth, the most effective way was through politics,' claims Mr Remek.

Although he may be dealing with more-down-to earth matters at the Parliament, Mr Remek continues to take an interest in all things space. Through his work on the Parliament's committees, such as Transport (TRAN) and Industry, Research and Energy Committee (ITRE), he has been actively involved in developing space policy. 'Space has proved to be an area for good cooperation. Even the smaller Member States have a chance to be part of European space activities,' he said, with Belgium's achievements in space playing testament to this.

Space systems and space-based technologies are becoming a critical part of the daily life of all European citizens and businesses. From telecommunications to television, weather forecasting to global financial systems, most of the key services that we all take for granted in the modern world depend on space to function correctly.

It is therefore important for our economic and social prosperity that Europe maintains its position in space, believes Mr Remek. 'Other countries, such as China, Brazil and India are aware of the economic importance of space. Europe cannot afford to lose the position it has reached so far. Recent successes include the Columbus laboratory on the ISS and the launch and docking of the Jules Verne freight space craft.'

To ensure Europe's place in space, 'people's mentalities have to change', believes Mr Remek, towards projects like Galileo, the European satellite navigation system. Reaching an agreement on Galileo has been more difficult than going into space, says the MEP. Nevertheless, he is optimistic about the future of Galileo and its ability to generate new jobs and greater prosperity for Europe.

Now, after months of negotiations, EU transport ministers have given the project the go-ahead. On 7 April, they agreed to the release some €3.4 billion in public funds to finance the construction of the 30-satellite navigation system, which is designed to rival the US global positioning system (GPS).

The agreement reached foresees giving the European Parliament more of a say in how the project will be run. A speedy adoption of the project is expected by the Parliament at its next plenary.

In 1998, the 77-year-old former US astronaut, Senator John Glenn decided to don his space suit one more time and return into orbit. Asked whether he would ever consider doing the same, Mr Remek says that although he would like to, he thinks it is very unlikely; after all 'the Czech Republic is not the US. Anyway, 'I have a very busy schedule here,' he says chuckling.

Source: CORDIS News interview with MEP Vladimír Remek

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