Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Loneliest Cosmonaut

I've been thinking about Abdul Ahad Momand today. I hadn't heard of him before I read this article.

Shortly after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, the Soviet government, as a token show of support to the government of Mohammad Najibullah, offered to send an Afghan into space. Momand was a pilot in the Afghan Air Force and was chosen by Najibullah.

Abdul Ahad Momand went into space in 1988.

Near the end of the mission, in mid-descent back to Earth, the module's computer malfunctioned. Momand, who had basically been given the "don't touch anything" warning, noticed that the computer was about to jettison both fuel and batteries, and his intervention (while the trained Soviet pilot waited for instructions from ground control) saved the capsule.

Momand was named both a Hero of the Soviet Union and deputy minister of Aviation and Tourism in Afghanistan. And everyone lived happily ever after, right?

Here's where it gets strange.

Najibullah was overthrown in 1992. Afghanistan descended into even greater chaos. Momand fled the country, escaping to Germany.


He still lives there. At first, he worked in a space-research institute, but it didn't pay well enough, and after some intermediate stops, he wound up working for a "small trading company."

His comment on his job is one of the most poignant lines I've ever heard: "It is not in space."

I'm aware of the corruption of Najibullah's regime, and the political consequences of identifying yourself with a politician who is then overthrown in the wildly shifting Afghani landscape.

Still, though: a man who has been in space.

Somehow I thought that being an astronaut or a cosmonaut bestowed some kind of diplomatic immunity, some kind of lasting and preferred status. Instead, Momand lives in an apartment in a foreign country, and likely will for the rest of his life, working at a meaningless job, when once, he was in space, looking down on the Earth.

That must be the fundamental definition of despair.

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