Home isn’t just Vietnam, it’s Earth: Asia’s 1st astronaut recalls historic journey

By Manh Tung   May 23, 2018 | 04:00 pm PT
Home isn’t just Vietnam, it’s Earth: Asia’s 1st astronaut recalls historic journey
General Pham Tuan (R) with his Russian mentor Viktor Vassilyevich Gorbatko. Photo by AFP
General Pham Tuan sat down with students, inspiring them to reach to the stars.

Blood rushed up his head, swelling the face as gravity dropped to near zero. Three days later, the swelling started to go away, and with it, bits of skin.

That’s just a glimpse into how going to space on Russian flight Soyuz 37 felt like, Lieutenant General of the Air Force Pham Tuan said as he shared his story with hundreds of Vietnamese students at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City last weekend.

On July 23, 1980, Tuan became the first Vietnamese and the first Asian to travel into space. Accompanying him on the mission launched from Baikonur Space Center was his Russian mentor, astronaut Viktor Vassilyevich Gorbatko.

Prior to becoming an astronaut, he was already a national hero, the first Vietnamese pilot to shoot down a U.S. B52-bomber during aerial combat on December 27, 1972.

But an astronaut’s job was a whole lot different from that of a fighter pilot. Tuan recalled stress taking its toll on his sleep, which he had none for many days as the body adapted to the new environment in space.

It took nine minutes for the spaceship to enter the orbit and one day for the two astronauts to dock at Salyut 6, a Soviet orbital space station

But then, the spaceship tried to propel from 300km orbit to 400km altitude above Earth’s surface, it experienced a problem.

“At this rate, we might have to go back to Earth early,” both astronauts thought as they realized the spaceship had stopped spinning.

Luckily, when the spaceship was near Moscow, they received directions from the command center on Earth on how to solve the technical problem. Not long after, the spaceship was back to normal and finished assembling the spaceship.

“That was my first space challenge. I was very worried but felt relieved after solving the problem,” said Tuan who is the graduate of the prestigious Gagarin Air Force Academy in Russia.

As magical as a mission in space sounds, working or simply even moving around was difficult. Meals consisted of toothpaste-like dried food coming out of a tube and two liters of water a day.

Many people excite to see General Pham Tuan. Photo by Manh Tung.

General Pham Tuan smiles as he is asked to autograph a photo by students in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Manh Tung

The journey lasted seven days, 20 hours and 42 minutes in total. He orbited the Earth 142 times and completed many space experiments.

But it wasn't just work. The journey was emotional and gave the Vietnamese war hero a new perspective into who we are as a species.

“At that moment, home wasn’t Vietnam, Russia or any other country. It was Earth.”

He hopes to see more people traveling into space in the name of science and for the benefit of the country.

Asked by a student if he had thought of becoming an astronaut when he was young, the 71-year-old general said: "Everyone wishes to fly to the sky once in their life time.

"When I became a pilot, my wish was to go into space.”

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