The Solitude of a Cosmonaut / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Peter Deel

Lately, in correspondence with the new travel and immigration law passed, much emphasis was placed on protecting national brains and talent for the sake of development. The story below continues this interesting narrative.

In the years of the Cold War, the conquest of the cosmos was a major scene of clashes between the Soviet Union and the United States. With objectives more about political propaganda, than truly scientific, the former planned manned space travel with a cosmonaut from each socialist or friendly country, always accompanied by a Soviet, who commanded the ship and was the chief.

Two Cubans were designated for this: the main one and the second as a double or substitute, whose identities constituted state secrets during their training in the Cosmonaut City, near Moscow. Both Air Force pilots, they studied, prepared and trained for over three years until their turn came. The principal, of humble origin and black, was the officially preferred. The double, more capable but white, had to lose out, unless a mishap occurred at the last minute.

To ensure the flight met its propaganda goals, posters were prepared separately with each image, just in case, and properly sealed packets were distributed to the appropriate bodies, to post when official notice was given that the manned spacecraft was underway. The one not used should then be destroyed. To ensure that the first Cuban and also first Latin American cosmonaut was also humble and black, a high-level delegation from the Cuban government traveled to Baikonur, where the spacecraft was leaving from: they were not fully confident that the Soviets would ensure it, perhaps more concerned the success of the journey than with its propaganda value.

Once the mission was completed, in October 1980, there was an intense propaganda campaign, praising socialism as the only system where a humble black Latin American citizen could fly into space. There were plenty of receptions, public events and tours of towns and cities. After a few months of glory, the cosmonaut who flew and the one who didn’t fly, instead of going on to become a part of the cosmonaut detachment, for which they had prepared and trained, and on which valuable material and financial resources had been spent, were designated for different tasks.

The first was made president of the SEPMI (Society of Patriotic-Military Education), created to prepare and train children and adolescents in sports with profiles for possible military use (shooting, parachuting, etc.). The second, went to work at the Academy of Sciences in the field of studies of the cosmos. Both, in fact, have lost the time and effort spent to prepare as cosmonauts, thinking that this would be their profession, as their missions were just one-time political propaganda.

Neither the Soviet Union nor Cuba had seriously thought of them as cosmonauts, as had happened in other countries (and even in the Soviet Union itself), which had become a profession with many trips into space, taking into account the human cost and material preparation, plus the experience with each trip.

Cuban Cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez on the 30th anniversary of his spaceflight. From Tumblr.

I do not know what the cosmonaut who actually flew currently thinks (the one who didn’t fly has since died), but I guess in his inner self must feel frustrated and used, remembering how his talent and time were wasted. He was a cosmonaut for a single trip, dedicated afterwards to telling and retelling, on each new anniversary, what happened that day. Today the journey does not interest anyone, and as a historical fact, it has faded over time, as happened in the Soviet Union itself.

Now trips are undertaken by crews from different countries, in the spaceships of this or that country. No Cuban cosmonauts participate in any of them. They’ve left off making political tasks into scientific tasks. Congratulations!

November 1 2012