As a child, Abdul Ahad Mohmand says he dreamed of flying, but he never imagined he would one day visit outer space.
He was born in 1959 in Sardeh, a remote village south of Kabul. In 1988, he would become the first and only Afghan cosmonaut on Russia’s Mir space station.
Now a German citizen, 62-year-old Mohmand spoke with DW via teleconference from his home in the southern city of Stuttgart where he has lived for almost 30 years.
Mohmand said he first saw footage of space when he entered high school and was able to access television and newspapers. While he was attending the Kabul Polytechnic Institute in 1978, Soviet-aligned Communists took over Afghanistan.
Mohmand was sent to the USSR for military education at the Krasnodar and Kyiv military aviation schools.
Upon his return, Mohammed joined the Afghan Air Force before being accepted to the prestigious Yuri Gagarin Air Force Academy in Moscow.
Three years later, he became one of eight of 400 volunteers selected to participate in Interkosmos, a USSR program that sent men from non-Soviet countries to space.
Mohmand (r) was joined by Russian and Ukrainian cosmonauts
“I met colleagues from all over, even from countries such as Syria, Mongolia or Vietnam. I have great memories from those times,” recalls Mohmand. He ended up being chosen as the Afghan recruit to join a Soyuz crew for a nine-day mission to the Mir space station.
“Despite many years of study and preparation, it is not until you are about to enter the spacecraft that you know that your dream of going to space will finally become true,” he said.
At dawn on August 29, 1988, at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan along with the Ukrainian Vladimir Lyakhov and the Russian Valery Polyakov, Mohmand blasted off into orbit.
Their mission seems simple: dock to the Mir space station, conduct “some astrophysical, biological and medical experiments” and return home safely.
Mohmand took an Afghan flag and two copies of the Koran with him. The honor of being the “first Muslim in space,” however, had already been taken three years before by Sultan bin Salman al Saud, a Saudi who traveled to space with an American crew.
Mohamed Faris, a Syrian, was the second and the third was an Azerbaijani called Musa Manarov who was aboard the Mir when Mohmand arrived.
Yuri Gagrin’s status rocketed him to major status even beyond the grave. A statue of him stands on display at the Museum of Cosmonautics.
The day has been celebrated every year as Cosmonautics Day since the spaceflight took place in 1961. It is even celebrated underwater at the aquarium at the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy.
Students at a school named after Gagarin took part in the day’s celebrations outside the Volgograd Planetarium, dressed like the beloved cosmonaut.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made a visit to the Park of Space Explorers and vowed Russia would remain a space power. “Russia must properly maintain its status as one of the leading nuclear and space powers, because the space sector is directly linked to defense,” said Putin during a speech.
Celerations took place all over Russia. Students of the Far Eastern Federal University demonstrated launched a training space rocket in observance.
Competitors take part in a 1,480m (0.92 miles) long course on Cosmonautics Day. All competitors had 1 hour 48 minutes to complete the course, the time Gagarin spent aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft and traveled around the earth.
“From space you see things from a very different perspective. You look at the planet and your mind is flooded with new feelings: you see no countries or borders, you only see the Earth, and the whole of it is your home,” explains Mohmand.
While in orbit, he spoke on the phone with Mohammad Najibullah, the then Afghan president.
“Take your neighbor by the hand, lay down your arms. Let’s solve our problems through dialogue,” was message of the first Afghan in space to the people back home.
But chaos is rife in Afghanistan, as the Afghan resistance movement, backed by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, among other countries, is gaining momentum against the Soviet occupation of the country. The Cold War is being fought fiercely 400 kilometers below Mohmand’s feet.
A mission into space is never completed until the crew is safe back home, and that doesn’t always happen.
Shortly after disengaging from Mir, the three men in the Soyuz capsule discover that the auxiliary engines cannot provide enough power to reach the Earth’s atmosphere. It is Mohmand who suggests switching to manual control.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union decided to build the first permanently inhabited space station. For Moscow, this meant winning back ground that was lost in the space race with the US. From 1986 on, Mir circled the Earth for 15 years. On January 5, 2001, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov signed the order to let the space station drop into the Pacific.
After the end of the Cold War, the future belonged to the International Space Station (ISS). But cross-country collaboration in space had its start on the Mir. The first western astronaut to visit was the French Jean-Loup Chretien in 1988. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, even US Space shuttles like Atlantis (pictured here) began traveling to the station. Four Germans spent time on Mir as well.
More than 100 astronauts and cosmonauts from all over the world spent time on the Soviet space station. One of the Germans was the astronaut Reinhold Ewald (above, top row, second from the right). A Soyuz space ship took him to the Mir in 1997. A fire broke out during his stay, but fortunately the crew managed to put it out quickly.
The crews on space station Mir had to cope with numerous technical failures and accidents. Once, liquids came out of a cooling system. Another time the board computer suffered a black out. A progress supply ship even crashed into the solar panels. Ewald took the accidents with an astronaut’s spirit: “A space station is not a business lounge with cozy armchairs,” he once said.
The US, which contributed to maintaining the space station after the collapse of the Soviet Union, pushed for a new International Space Station (ISS). Construction of the successor started in 1998. At the same time, Mir was gradually taken apart. After 15 years in orbit and 86,000 flights around the globe, the project came to an end.
Mir was a milestone in human space travel and international cooperation in space. “Without the experience of Mir, we would still be just at the beginning,” German astronaut Thomas Reiter said. In March 2001, the last fragments of the space station burned up in the atmosphere above the South Pacific, the last intact pieces crashing into the ocean.
“We lost contact with ground control so we couldn’t land. We decided to wait for another 24 hours until they found another place for us. The main problem was oxygen: there wasn’t enough for the three of us,” recalls the Afghan.
More than three decades later, Mohmand remembers that the men were “exactly two seconds away” from disaster.
“If we hadn’t deactivated the autopilot, the engines would have come off on schedule and we wouldn’t have never reached the atmosphere,” he said.
They landed in the Kazakh steppe shortly before midnight from September 6 to 7, and after almost nine days of flight.
Once in Kabul, a reception began at the airport, from where the cosmonauts would be escorted across the city and greeted by cheering crowds of Afghans. However, an artillery storm over the Afghan capital reminded everyone that a war was still raging.
When Soviet president Mihail Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, fighting between government forces and rival Afghan factions gained momentum.
Mohmand was appointed deputy minister of civil aviation, but he didn’t spend more than six months in the post. In 1992, a civil war between different Mujahideen factions began.
The former cosmonaut had been on a business trip to India and did not return to Afghanistan. His next stop was Germany, where he requested political asylum.
“The country was divided: a province for each warlord, all fighting each other, following the orders from their respective foreign backers who, like today, interfered in the affairs of Afghanistan. They ruined the country and many people died,” he said.
On the verge of retirement, Mohmand works as an accountant for a company in Stuttgart, where he lives with his wife and his three children.
From time to time, he is invited to a conference. That, he says, is his only connection with his past life.
He set foot back in Afghanistan again in April 2013, at the invitation of former President Hamid Karzai to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his space adventure. During the reception, he again read the message of peace that he had sent to the Afghan people from space in 1988. It is just as important today as it was then.