By Thanassis Vembos
In May 1997, I had the chance to meet cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanivbekov, veteran of 5 space flights, while being in the "West in Space" pre-selection camp, at Grube Luise, Germany. Dzhanibekov was there as representative of the Russian Space Agency, which co-operated with Reemtsma tobacco company for the above programme. Since Dzhanibekov was fluent in English, we could talk to him during a period of two days and ask him several questions concerning the past and the present of Russian space programme.
- How did you become a cosmonaut?
* I was 15 when the first Sputnik was launched. This was the decisive factor for me. From then on, I've been thinking about that moment in my whole life.
- You have travelled in space five times. From all these times, which was the incident that stayed more vivid in your memory?
* Each incident has its own weight and sometimes it is hard to compare. Some of the cosmonauts find the way to accomplish some achievement, to make some repair, they get a chance to do some "loud", big work. But even in much more routine subjects where there are small experments to perform, sometimes not everything goes OK. So, in order to solve the problems, you have to generate some new ideas. There are almost every day situations like that during a spaceflight.
- After your fifth flight, did you want to fly again?
* Of course I did! But I was ordered to work in the field of cosmonaut training as a chief. And that work consumed all my time. I had to learn all the new systems for the Mir space station, because if I was to make a sixth spaceflight, it would have been to Mir. So, simply I had no time for another flight training! But if, hypothetically, they give me an assignment today, after some months I feel I would be ready to fly again!
- You are one of the most popular veteran cosmonauts. Do you have a nickname?
* Yes, they call me "the Old Man"! [laugh]
- After all these trips in space, did you observe any particular change in your point of view?
* Each cosmonaut somwhere deep inside him, is a big philosopher. I doesn't matter from which country he comes from. Everybody who sees Earth from a distance, he can see no borders. He realizes that he must take care of the planet. We have to thing about the future and of life in general.
- How was your personal life affected?
* It was a long process -not visible. I don't think there was a great change. Old friends are still my friends. I have a lot of friends now. The problem is I do not forget old friends. That's really a problem!
- What age do you consider as the best for a cosmonaut?
* It is easier to work with people who are in their early 40s. Psychology in this age is much more stabilized. Physically also, they are healthy. But it is important that the cosmonaut must have a big educational background.
- Let us talk about the past. Your first assignment was in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). How the decision was taken for such a programme, during the Cold War?
* The decision was taken in 1971, so there was no Cold War actually. Rather a situtation close to the Cold War. We believed that this flight might help us to work together and to change the political climate of that particular period. Both Americans and Russians. But we had to wait for two more decades until we had the first shuttle docking with Mir and the subsequent programme of the ISS. But ASTP helped to show, that we, the Russians, were not as "agressive", as some people thought we were.
- Did Russian space technology benefited from ASTP?
- But some analysts say that actually, the whole initiative was proposed in order to "steal" American technology...
* Listen, it was simply impossible to "steal" anything because we were going our own way and we were seeking our own solutions of industrial problems because we had to build our industry with our technology, our know-how. So we did the same as the Americans did and even more. We had a lot of extremely interesting innovations in space technology which the Americans could not achieve 10 years after the ASTP, or even now. For example, in the two crafts, docking was achieved in two absolutely different ways. The geometry of the "touching" was a whole problem which had to be solved together.
- In 1981 you flew with the first cosmonaut from Mongolia. Due to the lack of photos in orbit, it is said that this cosmonaut was severely ill during the flight, even incapacitated...
* This is not true. He was extremely active during the whole flight. Actually, he belongs to the small group of cosmonauts who did much more than it was originally planned. After the flight, he became member of the Mongolian parliament and was engaged in some financial programmes. Now he is ahead of a society of friendhip with foreign countries. I meet him sometimes. He is a scientist and works for distance monitoring.
- Were you involved in the Buran shuttle programe?
* Yes. I was tested, straight after landing, if I could pilot an aeroplane. They wanted to see how I would react after a prolonged stay in orbit. So after the landing I was placed into the cockpit of a Tupolev 134 and I had to fly this aeroplane.
- Was it the same test that cosmonaut Igor Volk was subjected to?
- There are some rumours that Russians launched suborbital manned flights from Kapushtin Yar cosmodrome, in the early 1960s.
* No, we never did that experiment. Besides, we did not have such launching pads in Kapushtin Yar.
- Did you have any involvement in the secret Soviet manned lunar programme?
* No, I hadn't.
- You're a cosmonaut with an excellent artistic talent. Do you still paint?
* I am not the only one. Leonov also paints. But, yes, I still draw, mostly as a hobby.
- How do you consider the Russian space program today compared to what in used to be?
* I think that the time has come to think it all over again and generate some different projects. Not as big as the Mir platform, because the latter is not the best way to build large complexes in space. We must combine what we have achieved till now, all the elaborate programmes in medicine and biology and especially in environmental problems.
- Russia is delaying the module of ISS. Is there a possibility that Russia might be expelled from the programme?
* No, they cannot go without Russia. It is just gossip of some press people, just to create some news. Simply, sometimes we have more problems to solve.
- You mean problems of different mentality between the space programmes?
* No. Some of them are absolutely technical.
- What was your biggest dream as a cosmonaut?
* My biggest dream was flying to Mars. But I could not made it come true. Unfortunately, the trip to Mars will take place only after 15-20 years. We are not ready yet. We may have big rockets, facilities, large complexes, we may have knowledge, but everything depends on money.
- Besides your work in Star City, what are your other activities?
* I am on a pre-pension age and I plan to proceed with my ecological orientation which started 6-7 years ago. With some friends we have organized a special school for ecological engineers. I am also very much interested in the cold fusion subject. There are alternative sources of energy which can change the face of the world and civilization as we know it.
- How do you see the future of human beings in space?
* The human race has so much capacity. We could do everything we dream about. There are no limits. I believe in man. After 100 years it would be possible to combine man and machine, in order to replace some "boring" parts of the body My dream was always to help people to be closer to space and maybe help everybody to go there as tourists. It should be that easy. The flights are not as big problem as it was 20-30 years ago. Only after a small period of preparation, one could be able to get a ticket and go to space. The space shuttle showed the way to make it possible. We must make it as cheap as possible. I am active, I am a dreamer and I want to be effective for 15 more years.