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site.btaApril 10, 1979: First Bulgarian in Space

April 10, 1979: First Bulgarian in Space
April 10, 1979: First Bulgarian in Space
The first Bulgarian space traveller Georgi Ivanov (right) and mission commander Nikolay Rukavishnikov before the launch of their Soyuz 33 spacecraft, Baikonur Cosmodrome, USSR, April 10, 1979 (Photo: Bozhidar Todorov/BTA)

Forty-five years ago on Wednesday, Bulgaria became the world's sixth nation to put a person in outer space, after the USSR, the US, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany and ahead of France, India, Japan, Britain and China.

Bulgarian Pilot Cosmonaut Georgi Ivanov - only the 92nd Earthling to leave the planet, was launched into space on board the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 33 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 8:34 p.m. Moscow time (17:34:34 GMT) on April 10, 1979.

The Mission That Failed

The objective of the manned mission was to ferry a crew of two: USSR's Engineer Cosmonaut Nikolay N. Rukavishnikov (commander) and Bulgaria's Ivanov (researcher) and supplies to the Salyut 6 space station for a weeklong stint of 27 joint scientific experiments with its resident crew, Vladimir Lyakhov and Valery Ryumin.

After 31 orbits at a distance ranging from 199 to 280 km, Soyuz 33 prepared to dock with the station. Closing to within 3 km of Salyut, however, the approach-correction power unit of the spacecraft's main engine shut down halfway through a 6-second burn, and the docking system malfunctioned, too. Mission control ordered a last-minute cancellation of the rendezvous with the orbiting space laboratory that had been planned for midnight on April 11. The crew were instructed to return to Earth immediately, using the back-up engine.

The descent module made a steep ballistic re-entry with gravity loads of up to 10Gs that lasted 2.5 minutes. The capsule parachuted to a soft emergency landing some 320 km southeast of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, at 7:34 p.m. Moscow time (16:35:40 GMT) on April 12. The duration of the cut-short space mission thus added up to 1 day, 23 hours, 1 minute and 6 seconds, i.e. slightly less than two full days.

The Associated Press quoted Western space experts as saying that similar problems in the past had appeared to be the result of a Salyut booster rocket inadequacy. That was the fourth such fault in the Soyuz programme and the second unsuccessful docking of nine recent attempts. "It was the first failure in four Intercosmos operations and dampened yesterday's celebrations here of the 18th anniversary of the first manned space flight - that of Russia's Yuri Gagarin," the news agency reported from Moscow, referring to a programme for space exploration cooperation among socialist countries.

Ivanov holds a still unsurpassed world record: throughout the flight he kept his presence of mind, maintaining a regular heartbeat even when the mission was aborted and a dangerous homecoming followed.

A disaster as it was, the mission remains the only one in the whole history of space travel in which a craft has been landed manually by its crew.

Teenage Dream Fulfilled

Georgi Ivanov was born in Lovech (North Central Bulgaria) on July 2, 1940. For him, flying was a teenage dream fulfilled. He graduated from the Georgi Benkovski Higher Air Force School in Dolna Mitropolia in 1964 as a licensed pilot engineer. He served with the Bulgarian Air Force as an instructor pilot and a fighter aircraft pilot, unit commander and squadron commander, mastering several types of combat aircraft and logging approximately 2,000 hours' total flight time. Ivanov rose through the ranks, from lieutenant in 1964 to major in 1979.

In 1977 he was selected for the first Bulgarian-Soviet space mission from among almost 700 candidates after a year of physical and mental aptitude tests. Twenty candidates were shortlisted, and four left for Moscow at the end of 1977: Ivanov, Alexander Alexandrov (who was to be his backup for the flight), Georgi Yovchev and Ivan Nakov. The final order, issued by Bulgarian Defence Minister Dobri Dzhurov on March 1, 1978, sent Ivanov and Alexandrov to the Yuri Gagarin Centre in Star City near the Soviet capital for a year of physical training and study of the spacecraft and the station.

As soon as he entered the Intercosmos programme (or, according to other sources, several hours prior to the launch), the Soviet and Bulgarian communist parties' leaderships decided jointly to change the Bulgarian's surname from Kakalov (which sounds embarrassingly similar to the Russian word for 'poop') to his patronymic Ivanov.

Hero's Welcome

On April 14, 1979, the Soyuz 33 crew (call sign Saturn) received a hero's welcome in Sofia. Ivanov was showered with honours. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was decorated with his country's and the USSR's highest state distinctions: the Gold Star of a Hero of the People's Republic of Bulgaria and the Order of Georgi Dimitrov, and the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin. He was the first holder of the expressly instituted honorary title Pilot Cosmonaut of the People's Republic of Bulgaria, plus Merited Pilot of the People's Republic of Bulgaria, Merited Master of Sport, honorary badges and medals of organizations in Bulgaria, the USSR, Mongolia, France and Czechoslovakia, and honorary citizenships of six Bulgarian cities.

Ivanov rose to the rank of major general in 1989, and the highest Bulgarian state honour, the Order of the Balkan Range, First Class, was conferred on him along with a promotion to lieutenant general in 2004, on the 25th anniversary of his flight.

Having left space service in 1979, Ivanov was elected to three successive parliaments between 1981 and 1991. He earned a master's degree in physics in 1984. In 1985, he was one of the 25 founding members of the non-profit Association of Space Explorers.

After the democratic changes in Bulgaria, Georgi Ivanov went into business, co-founding the Air Sofia private air carrier in 1991, which branched out into building golf courses in Ihtiman and Sliven in 1999.

He has published two books and loves skiing, fishing, beekeeping and golfing.

Aged 83 now, the space explorer has a daughter, a granddaughter and a great granddaughter from his first marriage and a son and two grandchildren from his second.

Successful Second

Nine years after Ivanov, another Bulgarian, Alexander Alexandrov, joined mission commander Anatoly Solovyov and flight engineer Viktor Savinykh for another space mission, launched on June 7, 1988. After 34 orbits of the Earth, their Soyuz TM5 craft successfully docked with the Mir orbital station, where in the course of seven days the three performed 40 joint experiments and research in space technologies, space medicine and biology, space physics and astrophysics, and remote sensing of the Earth, using nine original Bulgarian instruments, together with the station's crew members Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov. The 10-day flight came to a successful end with a soft landing in Kazakhstan on June 17, 1988.

Early Edition

The 1979 space mission made media history, as the Bulgarski Voin monthly magazine came out on April 11 with upbeat coverage of Lyakhov's and Ryumin's heartfelt welcome of Ivanov and Rukavishnikov after Soyuz 33's docking with Salyut 6. According to the report (complete with pictures), the Bulgarian treated his crew mates to flat sausages from his country, and the four toasted the triumph with glasses of Bulgarian red wine.

As nothing of the kind had happened in reality, there was a rush to withdraw the magazine from sale, but some copies nevertheless survived and are now precious collector items.

The person who was to blame for the gaffe was the late Tsvetan Tsakov, Deputy Editor in Chief of Bulgarski Voin, who over-enthused about the fail-safe Soviet space equipment. Defying express orders from his bosses, he did not wait for a phone call confirming that the story was true and yielded to the temptation to break the news even before the dailies. Later on, Tsakov admitted his responsibility but still argued that, under communism, propaganda took the upper hand over science.


Ivanov presented the lander by which he and Rukavishnikov returned to Earth to the museum in his native town, but after the building was converted to a disco in the 1990s the new owners dumped it at a construction site. It was found by a photographer and recovered and was later exhibited in the Aviation Museum at the Krumovo Air Base near Plovdiv (South Central Bulgaria).

The Bulgarian cosmonaut's flight space suit, an immersion suit with a floating device, an anti-gravity suit, and a five-piece thermal protection suit are part of the Space Collection of Sofia's National Museum of History, which also keeps the parachute system of the Soyuz 33 descent module, a Kolos drinking water canteen, and the spacecraft's portable emergency kit with essential supplies needed by the crew to survive for 72 hours after landing.









By 04:37 on 23.06.2024 Today`s news

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