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Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Memoirs of a candid cosmonaut

Lebedev autographs copies of his book 'Diary of a Cosmonaut' at a Florida bookstore in April 1989  

August 18, 1999
Web posted at: 9:31 a.m. EDT (1331 GMT)


LAKEMONT, Georgia (CNN) -- The more I read about Russians in space, the more I am impressed, and often amazed, with all they have accomplished and how much we can learn from their experiences.

I am in the middle of a fascinating, astonishingly candid, account of life in space from the Russian perspective. "Diary of a Cosmonaut: 211 Days in Space" is the first-person account of a mission to the Salyut-7 space station between May and December of 1982.

In his preface, cosmonaut-diarist Valentin Lebedev explains what worried him as he set out to commit his feelings to ink: "Should I write down everything? Wouldn't that risk being misunderstood? What if something happened and my notes fell into some stranger's hands? What would they think about me? Then, too, I was worried about how the doctors would accept my frankness about my physical condition and mood. I am an active cosmonaut, and such frankness could count against me later."

These were no small concerns for any spacefarer who covets another chance to
Lebedev (left) and Berezovoy aboard Salyut-7  
fly, but in the days when Russian spacesuits were emblazoned with hammers and sickles and the initials "C.C.C.P.," the consequences of frankness could be a lot more serious than a grounding.

But, says Lebedev, "I quickly realized ... that as soon as I began to select what to write and what not to write, the whole diary would become useless, to me and others. Any reservation, any twisting or polishing, would be misrepresentation and would destroy my idea ... so I decided to write everything just as it happened, as I saw it, as I felt it and understood it." Wow. Lenin would not approve.

But if you can lay your hands on this hard-to-find, out-of-print book (I finally got mine through, you will approve of Lebedev's day-to-day account of life inside an aluminum can not much larger than a Winnebago.

He comments on the difficulties getting along with crewmate Anatoliy Berezovoy (Tolia):

"July 11: Today was difficult. I don't think we understand what is going on with us. We silently pass each other, feeling offended. We have to find some way to make things better."

He admits how difficult it is to be away from his family:

"October 3: Lusia (his wife) told me yesterday, 'Valia I miss you so much.' I said, 'We miss each other so much that this separation should be enough for the rest of our lives.'"

He bemoans his space rations:

"October 11: All night I dreamed of a bowl of steaming borscht with two scoops of sour cream."

He speaks often of strained relations between ground controllers and cosmonauts:

"September 12: They always want to know what our mood is and look inside of us. We sense this, and the constant questions such as, 'How do you feel?' 'What are you doing now?' or 'How did you sleep' are very irritating. Future programs for space settlement and long-term flights should pay attention to scientific or technical problems but to social-psychological problems, such as communications between people on Earth and those working in space."

He clearly becomes weary of the tedium:

"October 13: Five months of flight. I cannot believe that we have flown for so long. We don't feel time anymore. It's getting more difficult now. I begin to count the days. I've never done it before. I think our fatigue grows because our interest in work is fading. I don't even want to look out the porthole anymore."

And he offers a frank account of his return to Earth:

"December 10: It was dark outside. The air smelled fresh. The snow fell lightly on my face. But all I felt was sick to my stomach ... I asked for a napkin and threw up into it. After I threw up a few more times, I felt better."

The view out the window of the Salyut-7 space station  

There are some light moments as well. Among them: the tale of the constipated French visitor to the station, the sunbathing sessions at the porthole, the laborious bathing procedure and the admission that extended weightlessness left the cosmonauts much "furrier." (Don't ask, because no hypothesis is proffered.)

It is ironic that perhaps the most candid first-person account of spaceflight would come from a Soviet cosmonaut. But as Mir enters its final days as a human outpost, it is worth remembering the Russians have now accumulated nearly 20 uninterrupted years of experience living in low-Earth orbit, and they have an amazing story to tell.

While Russian technology may not impress you, their ability to cope -- and persevere -- is indisputable. Read Lebedev's diary and you will understand the success of the International Space Station cannot be measured by technological accomplishments alone.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears weekly.

Downlinks archive

Boeing names cosmonaut as Moscow space chief
June 15, 1999
Russia says relations with NATO 'frozen'
June 11, 1999
Cosmonauts head home from Mir space station
February 27, 1999

Russian Space Agency
'Zarya' - Soviet and Russian Space Programmes
   • Diary of the Salyut 7 Mission
NASA Human Spaceflight - International Space Station
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