BULGARIA'S FORGOTTEN RACE INTO SPACE

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

How two Bulgarians visited outer space and what happened next

Monument to the Soviet space programme in Dryanovo

The mission of NASA's Space Launch System that aims to bring back humans to the Moon in 2024 is just the latest piece of space exploration news. The USA, China and Elon Musk are trying to figure out how to colonise Mars, Korea has developed its own rocket, and besides producing stunning photos of distant galaxies the brand new James Webb Space Telescope is searching for inhabitable exoplanets.

When reading such news, many Bulgarians do not feel excited about the future. Instead, they feel nostalgic for the past. In the 1970s and 1980s, Communist Bulgaria was an active player in space exploration and even sent to outer space two men – an achievement few other countries have accomplished.

The 5-metre "cosmonaut" monument in Omurtag is dedicated to Bulgaria's second man in space, Aleksandar Aleksandrov, a native of the town

Most people nowadays are unaware that the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, a defining element of the Cold War, was not just about the two superpowers. Many Western countries and some Soviet satellites were involved as well. Bulgaria was included.

In the 1960s and the 1970s the USSR expanded its space programme. The Interkosmos initiative entailed Soviet-trained and managed specialists from Warsaw Pact and Comecon states to fly and develop manned and unmanned space missions. Obviously, the programme was heavily imbued with ideology. It sent to outer space the first non-Russian and non-American (from Czechoslovakia) and the first Black and Latino (from Cuba).

Statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, in Gabrovo. The astronaut visited the city and planted two birch trees by a local school. Gagarin visited Bulgaria twice, in 1961, shortly after his celebrated flight into space, and in 1966

Bulgaria's space programme started in the 1970s, with the creation of a research institute at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. In 1972, a Bulgarian device was sent into space, and in 1981 two Bulgarian satellites were sent into orbit to mark the 1,300th anniversary of Bulgaria's foundation. Bulgarian scientists also specialised in space food production and pioneered a way to grow plants in space, which would be crucial for future space colonisation.

The most impressive part of Bulgaria's space programme was that it was the first non-Soviet Interkosmos participant to send two men into outer space as a part of Soviet-led missions. Georgi Ivanov flew for almost 2 days on the Soyuz-33 in 1979. Aleksandar Aleksandrov went on the Soyuz TM-5 in 1988; he spent almost 10 days there. Both were Air Force pilots.

The achievements of the Bulgarian space programme were widely broadcast in Communist Bulgaria. The portraits of the two "cosmonauts," as astronauts were called in the East bloc, especially of Georgi Ivanov, were circulated in the media, in textbooks, on posters and even on the façades of public buildings.

Communist-era mosaic depicts Bulgaria as a nation of old and modern achievements – from the development of the Cyrillic alphabet in the Middle Ages to space exploration in modernity

The propaganda campaign did not go without a glitch, however. In 1979, a popular military magazine called Bulgarian Warrior ran a cover and a report about how Soyuz-33, manned by Soviet commander Nikolai Rukavishnikov and Bulgarian Georgi Ivanov, made contact with the Salut-6 orbital station. The Bulgarian shook hands with his Soviet peers and treated them to some red wine and lukanka dried sausage to mark the event. The report included many photographs. A few hours later it emerged that the planned docking never happened owing to a technical failure. The whole print run of the magazine had already been distributed to retailers, libraries, military detachments and schools. In a massive and very efficient operation the government ordered the withdrawal of the whole print run which was later incinerated. Not a single copy remained – not even in the National Library. After the collapse of Communism the incident has been widely publicised and is even taught in the Faculty of Journalism as a classic example of Communist-era media manipulation.

Far from official propaganda, a myth spread among Bulgarians to highlight Ivanov's – and by association Bulgarian, strength and stamina. According to the story that still circulates on the Internet, during the failed attempt to dock the Soyuz-33 commander, Nikolai Rukavishnikov, lost consciousness for a couple of seconds. Bulgarian Georgi Ivanov did not waver.

Warsaw Pact military hardware at the open-air museum in Omurtag

Ivanov has debunked the story. What is true is that the crew had to return to Earth with a barely functional engine and had to reenter the atmosphere in a risky ballistic trajectory. The Soviets revealed the gravity of the cosmonauts' situation as late as 1983.

After 1989, Ivanov became an MP for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the heir of the Communist Party, and in 1991 co-founded a cargo air carrier. Few people are aware that Ivanov was not his actual family name. The real one, Kakalov, was deemed inappropriate as it resembled the Russian verb kakat, to poop.

Today, the Soyuz-33 descent module and Ivanov's space and work suits are exhibited in the Museum of Aviation near Plovdiv.

The first tree in the Alley of Cosmonauts in Lovech was planted in 1988, by Georgi Ivanov, the first Bulgarian in outer space. Currently, there are 38 trees there, planted by Bulgarian, Soviet, Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, Kazakh, Polish, Czech and American astronauts

The flight of the second Bulgarian astronaut, Aleksandar Aleksandrov, was less eventful. Everything went according to plan, including experiments with Bulgarian space food and a live TV chat with Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's Communist dictator.

Aleksandar Aleksandrov is commemorated in a grand fashion by his hometown, Omurtag in northeastern Bulgaria. In 2013, a monument dedicated to him was placed in the town's centre on a square bearing his name. Aleksandrov's space suit is the star exhibit of the local museum.

There is more. On the Sofia-Varna road stand erect, pointing at the sky, three fighter jets – MiG-19, MiG-21bis, and a Su-22, plus an M-11 missile. They are the most spectacular exhibits of the Aviation and Spacecraft Museum, created in 2008. The openair museum brings together the three types of aircraft that Aleksandrov has flown, but the reason for the missile is somewhat unclear. It was an M-11 that downed an American U2 aircraft in 1960, leading to a new phase of confrontation between the great powers of the Cold War.

The space race propaganda in Communist Bulgaria included various activities such as getting Bulgarian, Soviet and in some cases international, including US, astronauts to participate in public events and plant trees in parks. Some of those "cosmonaut alleys" remain: in the schoolyard of the 138th School in Sofia, previously known as the Yuri Gagarin School, in the village of Kovachevtsi, in Plovdiv and in Lovech, Georgi Ivanov's hometown.

Bulgaria continues with its space programme in the 21st century, though its scope is now more limited. The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Institute for Space Research and Technologies, in existence under that name since 2010, conducts research in outer space physics, simulated Earth research from space, solar radiation probes and aerospace technologies. Some of its developments have been used internationally, including in the International Space Station. Some of its achievements have been the successful cultivation of wheat and vegetables in space, development of astronaut food and some of the technologies used for high resolution images of Phobos, Mars's satellite.

In 2022, Bulgaria announced that it is going to apply for membership in the European Space Agency in a bid to allow Bulgarian developers, scientists and entrepreneurs bigger access to space related projects.

All of these are interesting and important but, alas, cannot compete in the public consciousness with Ivanov and Aleksandrov flights into outer space during Communism.

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You missed the events of 1986: the creation of a new institute that is militarized. The former laboratory is closed, and they scattered its managers among other BAS institutes.

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