DUMITRU DORIN PRUNARIU, SPACE AMBASSADOR - 40 YEARS AFTER THE FIRST ROMANIAN FLIGHT INTO OUTER SPACE
Updated: May 14
Today, we are celebrating 40 years since the flight of the first Romanian into space. The first and so far the only Romanian who has performed a flight into space is Dumitru Dorin Prunariu.
On the 14th of May, 1981, the young Dumitru Prunariu would become the 103rd person to reach space. He spent seven days, 20 hours and 42 minutes on Earth's orbit in the Interkosmos program.
Upon his return, the new cosmonaut became an ambassador of space, an activity he continues to this day.
APECS: Your mission as an astronaut meant more than space flight and related activities. You have inspired generations, giving them hope for the future and the courage to push their limits. What thoughts are you having now after 40 years since your flight into space?
Dumitru Prunariu: I am involved in many international organisations, and I seek to make a positive and substantial contribution to each one, using the experience I gained so far. Inspiring young people is a permanent activity. In order to have successors, to maintain a certain level of space activities, it is necessary to have a continuous activity in instilling an attraction for this field. The task that I have undertaken, to meet with many young people, students, even young children of 7-10 years old, to talk to them about outer space, is destined to awaken their curiosity. This curiosity slowly turns into passion, and passion can later turn into professions. It takes a large pool to have the necessary number of specialists to make this field work properly in every country.
APECS: An astronaut's job is very complex. In addition to technical duties and specific training, it also involves public relations and media, travelling for educational purposes, participating in analogue missions, mission support and much more. What do you think is the critical skill a candidate should prove to be selected?
Dumitru Prunariu: It is difficult to choose only one skill. Of course, professional training is mandatory. Recently, ESA has started the new selection process of cosmonaut candidates, in which Romania also participates. An essential condition is to have a master's degree in a scientific field ( in a broad sense of the word). You must be in good health, which you can prove with a private pilot license certificate. This is the minimum starting point.
Communication is essential for astronauts. Communicating not only with the media but with your colleagues, with the specialists you work with. Clear professional communication is crucial for the efficiency of your activity and in exceptional circumstances which may arise. Very precise and to the point communication is required. As an astronaut, it is better to avoid unnecessary details.
Communication with the media is also essential because an astronaut becomes a messenger of a world people want to know more about.
I believe that every astronaut, starting with the moment of seeing the Earth from space, becomes a citizen of the planet and becomes aware of what our house represents, how vulnerable it is, how thin the atmosphere is and how much it is affected by human activity. That is why the astronauts' thoughts become similar, and they all feel the need to convey the same type of message after flying into outer space. All of us who have flown in space is part of a space exploration association, including 400 cosmonauts from 38 nations.
APECS: The ESA training program comprises several training levels: Basic Training, Pre-Assignment Training, and Increment Training. How was your training in the "InterKosmos" space program? What new skills have you developed there?
Dumitru Prunariu: The training program within the InterKosmos was well designed from the beginning and permanently improved for every new wave of astronauts. It started with the first group represented by Czecho-Slovakia, Poland, East Germany. Russians developed a training plan for foreigners that involved not only knowledge of space, rockets, spacecraft but also the Russian language, which is also being studied at ESA. A course is taught to candidates when they are admitted. You have to learn Russian if you will fly with Russian ships. The final preparation when flying Russian ships is done in the "Cosmonaut Town" in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, held in the Russian language.
When training astronauts from several countries, a new, multicultural element is being developed. Each astronaut comes from a specific country with a particular culture. Because of this, we (the astronauts in training) needed to get to know each other to understand each other. Our friendship developed because we came to learn more about different countries and cultures. All this strengthens a personal relationship with your training partner, and this relationship later turns into a very well-founded professional one.
APECS: You are one of those who, at the risk of your own life, paved the way for the success of space flight and the creation of infrastructure for living on the Earth's orbit. What thoughts inspire you the new permanent settlement projects on the Moon and Mars?
Dumitru Prunariu: I flew to space to perform scientific experiments for Romania, for the community part of the InterKosmos program. About half of the experiments were conducted jointly with other countries or even previously performed by other countries and not completed during spaceflight. We continued them to obtain scientific results. Now scientific research continues at much higher levels. The activity aboard the Earth station will extend further in space to other celestial bodies.
The USA Artemis program is a notable achievement; it is a continuation in another form of the Apollo program, which took place between 1969-1972. Almost 50 years after the Apollo program, the exploration of the Moon is resumed at another level: permanent settlements will be built, the crew will change continuously, the Moon will be permanently inhabited, and this model will give the scientific research of the Moon an exceptional dimension. Living permanently there will provide us time to make extensive investigations on the Moon's surface and prepare the space for the exploitation of resources.
Let's not forget that the first USA base will be established at the South Pole, where there is water in the form of ice; there are oxides in the form of minerals; there is permanent sunlight on the tops of the mountains. Many new technologies will be tested to create and maintain infrastructure on other celestial body. These technologies will be applied later in the flight to Mars. The Moon is an outpost in the flight to the planet Mars. It is also the natural satellite of Earth. The better we know it, the more we realise how Earth has evolved. It seems that the Moon was formed from a piece of Earth dislocated by the collision with a celestial body. This is one of the most plausible theories in recent years about the creation of the Moon.
APECS: Do you think there may be viable alternative training options, possibly private (in addition to dedicated programs for astronauts, such as NASA, ESA), to prepare future astronauts to work in the growing private industry?
Dumitru Prunariu: Of course, private training systems can also be developed, but for the time being, the private space systems are being developed.
Elon Musk's Dragon is the most significant example. He doesn't possess all the astronaut training methodology, all the back experience, but he turns to NASA, which prepares commercial astronauts for a fee, and Elon Musk sends them into space.
A future crew of four private millionaires is to fly in outer space. The cost for each one is $ 55 million. They are training in private, but the training is done in facilities of an institution doing this for decades.
The private-public partnership becomes very important and effective because you have to be efficient, and concluding a contract with NASA is much more financially efficient than creating your own training centre.
APECS: Many organisations have initiated analog missions for training in remote areas. What role do they play in the training of future astronauts?
Dumitru Prunariu: There are such projects to learn how to explore another planet. Such missions organised by NASA and ESA are organised in the desert or in areas that resemble the lunar or Martian surface. When you apply theoretically learned knowledge in practice, you realise that often the theory does not fit well in the practical situation, and you can make improvements to optimise it. Such missions are always needed as precursors to the real ones. It reveals many things that need to be foreseen in the project of an actual flight to other celestial bodies.
APECS: After your mission aboard the Salyut 6 Orbital Station, you have continued your career in space policy, playing key roles, such as chairman of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (2010-2012), chairman of the Romanian Space Agency (1998-2004), vice-chairman of the ESA Committee on International Relations (2014-2017) etc., you are currently vice-chairman of the Space Agenda 2030 Working Group (UN-COPUOS) and Romania's representative at the COPUOS sessions. Given the vast experience gained, can you tell us a few words about the role of international cooperation in space?
Dumitru Prunariu: Major space projects are so vast and expensive that they cannot be done by a single nation. At the European level, 22 countries come together in the framework of ESA and participate with their financial contributions to a joint European program. However, international cooperation began a long time ago.
Let's not forget that in the middle of the Cold War, in 1975, a Soviet-USA program was carried out, Apollo-Soyuz.
The ship Soyuz left Baikonur, and Apollo flew from Florida; both ships made the junction in outer space, and two Russian cosmonauts worked with three American astronauts for a few days in outer space. After that, each returned to the landing site in his country.
It turned out that even when there is fierce competition, in which each party seeks to dominate, to gain territories, to allocate natural resources, actions that mainly generate wars, there are still possibilities for cooperation.
In 1990, an agreement was signed between the USA and Russia. Suddenly the civilian outer space became approachable together between two great powers. The International Space Station was built based on the collaboration between the two superpowers of the world, which also required the cooperation of other states.
International cooperation is essential in the space field. Although the same powers compete on Earth in different geographical areas and they have divergent interests in outer space, it has been concluded that it is effective for both parties to cooperate.
These forms of cooperation must be transposed into agreements, treaties which are international agreements stipulating how to approach outer space. The Outer Space Treaty( 1967 ) stipulates all the main rules underlying the exploration and utilisation of outer space. It was ratified by almost every state in the world and is binding nearly all over the world. Exploration for peaceful purposes, non-militarisation of outer space, or limiting militarisation, the ban on the use of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, etc., are principles issued by treaties.
APECS: With the new 2021 recruitment campaign, ESA has launched a feasibility project for parastronauts, through which people with disabilities are recruited. NASA also plans to send the first woman to the Moon in 2025. Can you tell us a few words about the role of diversity and the need for inclusion in the space exploration journey?
Dumitru Prunariu: There are different people, cultures, religions, genders on Earth. As long as they are good specialists in this field, everyone should have the opportunity to apply their knowledge.
Outer space has a particular specificity. In addition to professional training, you must have a certain level of health, medical and psychological parameters, psychological stability.
You have to deal with physical demands at launch, landing, weightlessness. The body undergoes a series of changes, adaptations to weightlessness and readjustment to terrestrial conditions.
No matter who you are, what peculiarity you have, you need to face these demands. ESA is offering a place for a disabled person. Still, these disabilities are very limited to disabilities at the bottom to the ankle or knee at most, which does not impede the activity of the cosmonaut in space to perform operations, including if the rescue is needed. It is an excellent initiative of ESA. Disabled people are the same well-trained people as any people but who had a misfortune, a disability. They must have the chance to reach space.
Let's not forget that women are also encouraged to apply, not to be favoured because this means to disadvantage others, but because their number among cosmonauts is small. About 10% of those who have flown into outer space so far are female.
There should be more women in space!
Note: This is a translation from the original Romanian language interview.
Leonid Popov și Dumitru Prunariu/ Wikipedia