Archive for September 1999

Diary of a Cosmonaut: 211 Days in Space by Valentin Vitalievich Lebedev

28 September 1999
Categories: From the armchair

coverA fascinating, if flawed, first-person account of life aboard the Soviet space station Salyut 7. Flight engineer V. V. Lebedev and his commander, Anatoly N. Berezovoy, broke all long-duration spaceflight records during their 1982 mission. To do so, they survived equipment failures, long and tedious work days that brought frequent bouts of panic, and lousy handling by ground controllers. Lebedev’s diary captures the wonder and uniqueness of living in space, expresses quite poetically the beauty of Earth, and explains the difficulties involved in working with equipment designed by those who had never experienced zero gravity.

His writing reminds me a lot of the memoir of Andrei Sakharov in the way it expresses an immense desire to succeed for his country, tempered by a deep sense of personal inadequacy and fear of failure. (I had begun to think this a facet of the Russian psyche until I started to read Eugene Cernan’s wonderfully entertaining and candid autobiography.) At the same time, I found myself wishing I could read Russian; the frequent grammatical errors (likely the result of translation), such as dropped articles and odd verb tenses, even make it read like a Russian speaking English. (Of course, the many spelling errors are inexcusable, but that’s just par for the course for today’s publishing industry, which no longer employs copy editors.)

The part I found most interesting was the explanation of a rearrangement of modules that the crew performed. They had arrived in Soyuz T-5 and docked at the “forward” port. Months later a visiting crew docked at the “aft” port in Soyuz T-7. (Obviously, there’s no “fore” and “aft” in space. For convenience, crews maintained the reference frame of the Salyut as it had been oriented at launch.) After a week, the visiting crew left in the nearly spent T-5, leaving the fresh T-7 for Berezovoy and Lebedev to use. However, a soon-to-arrive Progress resupply bus required the use of the aft port to refuel Salyut, so the T-7 had to be moved to the fore. Trouble is, the bizarre vagaries of orbital mechanics, coupled with the limited handling characteristics of the Soyuz T model, meant that the crew could not easily drive around the station and dock at the other end. A fly-around was tricky yet possible, and was routinely done in later years by the Shuttle during Mir docking missions, but with the small, single-module Salyut there was an easier way that requires only a mental shift in perspective.

The solution: they boarded the Soyuz and undocked, backing straight away from Salyut along the “r-bar.” (The r-bar is the imaginary line passing through the centres of gravity of the Earth and Salyut; I could explain its significance, but not here.) Then, rather than move the Soyuz, the Salyut was ordered by ground control to slowly spin around its centre of gravity by 180 degrees. The crew then moved the Soyuz forward to redock at the forward port. It’s as if they had a house with two garages at opposite ends, pulled the car out of one garage and left it idling in the driveway as the entire house spun around to present the other garage, then pulled straight back in again. Neat and elegant.

After nearly 300 pages, a translator’s note interrupts to explain that the remainder of the book has been edited to remove much of the repetition and tedium of Lebedev’s diary. The last 3 months of the flight are thus stuffed into a mere 50 pages. I considered this a disappointment. I admit that the book, up to that point, gets pretty tedious at times. But my feeling was that if Valentin could survive the actual experience, I could easily make it through his description of same. After all, at any time I could put the book down and take a walk outside, a luxury the Salyut crew did not have.

There are other drawbacks to the book. One was that the copy I read had occasional double-struck pages, so every letter had a faint, offset ghost—not so bad as to cause one to think they had double vision, but certainly enough to make the words fuzzy.

Another problem is a total lack of technical documentation. The book contains: 2 reproductions of technical notes with Lebedev’s handwriting, so splotchy I doubt I could read them even if I understood Russian; a two-page glossary of terms and acronyms that is missing several of the terms used in the diary and which usually gives such terse explanations (such as “Kristall: Electric furnace”) that no real information is given; and a brief list of cosmonauts mentioned by the author that omits their patronymics, oft-used nicknames, and biographical data of any sort. A diagram of the layout of Salyut 7 would have been very helpful, as would more verbose explanations of the various experiments, to better understand the procedures Lebedev describes in detail. Perhaps a re-issue of this out-of-print book could solve these problems.

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone studying space history. It provides an interesting insight into long-term space living, but is not necessarily an indispensable entry in an armchair astronaut’s space library.

(Note: this book is out of print.)