::: When you see MIR re-enter :::

Amsterdam - March 22, 2001



When you see images of MIR re-entering Earth's atmosphere, I propose that the world think about a single man; Russian Cosmonaut Colonel Ivan Istochnikov. He piloted the Soyuz 2, the capsule that went up after the ill-fated re-entry of Soyuz 1 that crashed after a parachute malfunction killing cosmonaut Komarov. The loss of the Soyuz 1 pilot was headline news and Komarov was mourned as a national hero. The Soviet government, however, refused to admit a second failure making his successor's story much different.

Istochnikov went into orbit October 25, 1968 to dock with Soyuz 3. After a failed attempt at docking, his module drifted off and contact with him was lost. When they found the module adrift the next day, his hatchet door was open and he was gone. Istochnikov was the first man lost in space.

The Soviet space authorities were committed to erasing Istochnikov from history. Official photos showing him with other cosmonauts in front of the Kremlin and other situations were altered. He was airbrushed out. His friends were blackmailed to keep quiet about the incident. The flight of Soyuz 2 was declared an unmanned flight and, to add insult to injury, his immediate family was sent away to Siberia.

I learned about this story at an exhibit of the Sputnik Foundation at the National Museum of Catalan Art while on vacation in Barcelona last year. I first walked through the exhibit thinking it was some Russian space agency memorabilia exhibit (I'm such a browser at museums). But then I started to notice pairs of picture and there was always one guy who was airbrushed out of one of the images. The exhibit's text was in Catalan and I thought to myself as I just casually walked out of the exhibit… go back… something really strange is going on in there. I went back and deciphered the Catalan (not too difficult since I know Spanish, Portuguese and some French). Then it came as such a blow when I figured out what had happened. I think I even gasped. One of my most poignant memories of that vacation is walking out of the museum onto Mount Juic and seeing the clear blue Mediterranean skies and the mountains of Tibidabo far off serving as a backdrop to a deep sadness that took over for a few days.

Few know this but a small sculpture of an astronaut called "The Fallen Astronaut" was placed on the moon's surface during the last Apollo mission in 1972. Next to the small figurine is a plaque bearing the names of all the astronauts and cosmonauts who, up to that date, had lost their lives in the name of space exploration. Istochnikov's name is not on it.

No, I'm not suggesting we go back to the moon just to etch his name on the plaque. (Although I would find that to be an appropriate gesture the day we do go back to the moon.) I prefer to suggest that we all think about him when we watch images of MIR re-entering the atmosphere on the 22nd. For Istochnikov was the first man to have a similar fate. Someone back in 1968, one starry night, may have even "wished upon him" as he shot across the sky… re-entering…

How odd… Someone may have made a wish for themselves… without knowing…

So this time let's get it right… and simply say a prayer.


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Richard Seabra