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Ukraine: Astronaut Set To Fly On Space Shuttle

Washington, 18 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The first Ukrainian astronaut to ever fly on an American space shuttle, scheduled for lift-off Wednesday, says the mission will be a tremendous event in the history of Ukraine and the realization of a boyhood dream.

Colonel Leonid Kadenyuk made the comments during a recent interview with officials from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

During the interview -- which was made available to RFE/RL -- Kadenyuk said he is honored to have been chosen as the first Ukrainian cosmonaut in space since Ukraine achieved its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Said Kadenyuk: "I believe that the first flight of any cosmonaut of any government is a very important event in the life of that country. It is a significant historical event, so I am very proud that it has fallen to me to play this role -- to be the first cosmonaut of an independent Ukraine. And I will do everything I can to be worthy of this honor."

Kadenyuk will join a crew of five other astronauts -- four Americans and a Japanese -- for a scientific mission aboard the shuttle which will last nearly 16 days.

While on the shuttle, Kadenyuk will conduct a series of space experiments focusing on the effects of microgravity (a very low level of gravity) on plant growth and pollination.

NASA officials say the primary objectives of the shuttle flight are the deployment and retrieval of a satellite that will take measurements of the solar wind; a spacewalk by two astronauts (not Kadenyuk) who will test the tools, techniques and hardware that will assist in the assembly and maintenance of the international space station; and the testing of a unique, basketball-shaped satellite which will demonstrate the feasibility of remote photography near the shuttle.

Kadenyuk has been a cosmonaut since 1976 and was trained on many space systems, including those for the Soyuz and Mir space station. He has flown 57 different types of aircraft, logged more than 2,400 hours of flying time during his career, and had extensive training as a spacecraft pilot.

But he has never been in space.

Kadenyuk says he waited patiently all his career for such an opportunity.

Said Kadenyuk: "I believe every person has his destiny, and my destiny has been to wait for such a long time."

Kadenyuk's opportunity for space flight came when Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and U.S. President Bill Clinton met in May 1995 and signed an agreement on space cooperation .

A year later, Kadenyuk and an alternate cosmonaut, Yarolslav Pustovyi, were selected by the National Space Agency of Ukraine and NASA to train for the space shuttle mission scheduled to lift-off Wednesday.

The experiments to be conducted on the shuttle by Kadenyuk are called the Collaborative Ukrainian Experiment (CUE). Kadenyuk will examine a small plant named Brassica rapa -- more commonly known as the turnip plant.

The plant was selectively bred over many years by American scientist Paul Williams. Williams told RFE/RL that the plant in its current form is excellent for space study since it has a very short life cycle -- flowering in 14 days and producing a seed in little over a month.

Dr. Thomas Dreschel, NASA's science education coordinator for the Life Sciences Support Center at the Kennedy Space Center, told RFE/RL that Kadenyuk will take up plants that already have flowers on them. He will then use a dead bee glued to a toothpick in order to pollinate the plants and study the effects of plant reproduction in space.

Dreschel says the experiment will be of great interest to thousands of Ukrainian and American school students who will be performing the exact same experiments back on Earth.

Dreschel says the special educational component of CUE was created to spark student interest in science in both the U.S. and Ukraine. He says that teachers were specially trained in both countries and students have been practicing the experiment for months in preparation for the space launch.

Dreschel says special satellite links from the shuttle will permit Kadenyuk to interactively discuss the experiment with students during two educational downlink sessions on December 1.

The first session, says Dreschel, will permit Ukrainian students to talk with Kadenyuk and ask him questions about the experiment. The Ukrainian students will gather in a television station in Kyiv that has been specially equipped with a link to the satellite connection.

The other session will be for American students and will be broadcast live at joint locations at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in the southern state of Florida and NASA's Johnson Space Center in the southwestern state of Texas.

Kadenyuk says he believes the students' participation in the space flight is an important aspect of the mission.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Kadenyuk said: "[Participation] is very important for the students and the younger generation because the future of any country is in the hands of the youth and a new generation. They need to learn and be involved in research and science."

Queried by reporters at a recent press conference about the cost of the mission, NASA officials said the plant experiment, excluding the cost of training, will be about 1.4 million dollars. But the officials also say the joint Ukrainian-U.S. effort will be useful.

Bill Reeves, NASA's lead flight director for the mission, told reporters at the press conference that it is critical for the U.S. to increase space cooperation with a wide variety of countries in order to prepare for the construction of the international space station.

Says Reeves: "[The space station] is truly an international program, and this is another rare opportunity to start establishing relationships with international partners and working with these people. We welcome the opportunity to have varied crews."

Ukraine considers the flight to be a very important event. President Kuchma is scheduled to attend the launch at the Kennedy Space Center along with a special delegation of Ukrainian scientists and researchers involved in the project.

In addition, nine Ukrainian students and their teachers were invited to the U.S. and arrived in Florida on Saturday to view the launch and talk with Kadenyuk before lift-off. The students are staying with American families and will visit one of the schools participating in the CUE educational program.

Nearly 200 U.S. students and teachers participating in the program have also been invited to view the launch. Thousands of other students in both countries will watch the shuttle take off on television.

For Kadenyuk, Wednesday's launch will be the realization of his childhood dream of flying in space.

But Kadenyuk also says he hopes the cooperative effort will have a far-reaching impact on relations between the U.S. and Ukraine.

Said Kadenyuk: "I would wish that [the flight] would be remembered as the start of a great cooperation in manned space flight between Ukraine and the United States. This is a large -- a great event -- that has great significance for both [countries.]"