Bulgarians still dream about space four decades after their first crewed mission

The original Soyuz 33 descent module with its parachute, next to Georgi Ivanov’s Sokol-K space suit and Salyut work suit, at the Krumovo Aviation Museum in Bulgaria. (credit: Vislupus via Wikipedia)

There will be several important anniversaries to celebrated by the space communities all over the world in 2019. It will be the 50th anniversary for several Apollo missions, in particular the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Russians will mark 30 years since the arrival at Mars of Fobos 2, the last interplanetary robotic probe designed by the Soviet Union. As for Bulgarians, we will celebrate 40 years since the launch of our first crewed mission: Soyuz-33, with the Soviet cosmonaut and commander Nikolai Rukavishnikov and Bulgarian research cosmonaut Georgi Ivanov. This article will examine past space activities in Bulgaria, as well as what the current state regarding space exploration is.

One of the first lessons foreign tourists learn about Bulgaria is that the local people are very proud of their history and past accomplishments. It mostly happens when English-speaking visitors make their first trip to the country and see Cyrillic letters on billboards and labels on goods in shops. They naturally ask, “Why is the Russian alphabet still popular in Bulgaria?” This annoys Bulgarians, much to the dismay of the tourists. Indeed, the Bulgarian alphabet, which is not the same as the Russian alphabet, is a symbol of national pride for us and a significant part of our history. Space exploration is also part of our recent history and there are several events we value and honor.

The first is the launch of our first cosmonaut, Georgi Ivanov, during the Soyuz-33 mission, on April 10, 1979. Thus, we celebrate the Day of Bulgarian Cosmonautics two days before the International Day of Human Space Flight, April 12. We also remember the flight of Alexander Alexandrov, the second and, so far, only other Bulgarian cosmonaut, who flew on the Soyuz TM-5 mission, launched on June 7, 1988. The launch of Bulgaria’s first satellite, Bulgaria-1300 (also known as Interkosmos-22), occurred on August 7, 1981 from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, and is also a well-known achievement in the country.

There’s one more event which has gained extreme popularity here that will probably surprise many. Bulgarians really love NASA’s Voyager missions and they remember their launches in 1977. The reason for that is that a locally famous song, “Izlel ye Delyo Haydutin,” is part of the Voyager Golden Record on the spacecraft, now in interstellar space.

Beside these milestones, there are many other lesser known but equally important achievements. Bulgarian space research activities began mainly thanks to Interkosmos, a Soviet space program that was designed to help the Soviet Union’s allies with both robotic and human space missions. The program began in late 1968 with the launch the first DS-U2-GK satellite, a scientific mission to study the upper atmosphere and auroras. Researchers from Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia worked on the mission. One year later, on Christmas Day 1969, the satellite Interkosmos-2 launched, carrying experiments developed by scientists from different Eastern Bloc countries, including Bulgaria.

Most of the Bulgarian space enthusiasts consider November 30, 1972, to be the day Bulgaria truly became a space country. This was the day when the Interkosmos-8 satellite lifted off. It was the first satellite that had an instrument developed entirely by Bulgarian scientists. That instrument, called P-2, studied the plasma environment in orbit. With its launch, Bulgaria became the 18th country in the world to have conducted its own experiment in space.

Bulgaria got its chance to send its first cosmonaut Georgi Ivanov into space in 1979 after Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany, becoming the sixth country in the world to have a citizen in orbit. Unfortunately, his Soyuz-33 mission suffered a docking failure due to an engine anomaly and Ivanov was never able to board the Salyut 6 space station. He and his Soviet crewmember Rukavishnikov were able to return home successfully after a steep ballistic re-entry, but the scientific program was never fulfilled.

Bulgaria got its second chance almost a decade later, when the Soyuz TM-5 spacecraft with Bulgarian crewmember Alexander Alexandrov launched in 1988. Alexandrov successfully reached the Mir space station and conducted many research experiments within a scientific program called Shipka. But, three decades later, no one else from Bulgaria has flown to space, and Alexandrov’s flight is considered to be the pinnacle of our crewed space program.

Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria also participated in several interplanetary missions. Bulgarian researchers were part of the team working on the two Vega probes that launched in 1984 to study Venus and Comet Halley. Bulgarians also helped with the development of the Fobos-2 mission, and our specialists worked on the camera system which took the first detailed images of the Martian moon Phobos in 1989.

The revolutions of 1989, which led to the end of the communist rule in Eastern Europe, had a great impact on Bulgaria’s space ambitions. The fall of communism in our country happened on November 10, 1989, when the long-ruling leader Todor Zhivkov was expelled from his post by the Politburo. Bulgaria’s transition to democracy and market economy officially began.

Unfortunately, most of the people who participated in politics during the late 1980s and early 1990s came from the social sciences and not from the natural sciences. As a result, natural sciences and technological development did not have enough political representation. A common myth that arose was that Bulgaria should rely mainly on agriculture and tourism. As for research, we could only fund applied sciences. Fundamental research, while valuable and important for the advancement of humanity, was a luxury. And Bulgaria was a small, economically unstable country, that couldn’t afford luxury.

This had a devastating effect on how Bulgarians perceived space exploration. There was no political incentive to join the European Space Agency (ESA). This was in a stark contrast to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. For example, Romania signed a cooperation agreement in the field of the peaceful use of outer space with ESA in 1992, followed by a cooperating state agreement in 2006. The Czech Republic signed a cooperating state agreement in 2003. Both of these countries became member states of ESA: the Czech Republic in 2008 and Romania in 2011.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria successfully finished its transition to a market economy and became a full member of the European Union, alongside Romania, in 2007. However, efforts to join ESA were hindered by the lack of public and political will. And even though we were the sixth country to send a citizen into space, Bulgaria became the only country that has joined the European Union but has not even initiated the procedures to join ESA.

It took a lot of time to raise awareness about the importance to join ESA. Several public intellectuals spoke frequently on radio and national TV. I was extremely happy to be able to help them, being the founder of the biggest website in Bulgaria dedicated to covering space news. In 2013, an online petition to join ESA was launched on my website. Eventually, our efforts started to bear fruit: a lot of people realized that Bulgaria could no longer afford to stand aside from European space activities. At long last, in 2015 Bulgaria signed a Cooperating State Agreement and became the tenth ESA cooperating state.

Even though the lack of cooperation with ESA hindered Bulgarian space activities during this transition period, there have been several very important milestones in the years since 1989. The first was the launch of SVET space greenhouse, which became part of the Mir space station in 1990 and operated until 2001. Many important plant growth experiments were conducted in this greenhouse, and the success of the project is well recognized among plant researchers.

Another area that continued to advance is the field of radiation dosimetry. Several dosimeters were deployed on the International Space Station. Another one, called RADOM-7, was sent to the Moon in 2008 aboard the Indian lunar mission Chandrayaan-1. In 2013, the dosimeter RDZ-BZ flew aboard the Russian uncrewed biological research mission Bion-M1. In 2016, ExoMars-Trace Gas Orbiter with the Lulin-MO dosimeter launched, and it is currently operating in Mars orbit. We are looking forward to the launch of the surface platform of ExoMars in 2020. If the landing of this mission is successful, the Lulin-ML instrument will become the first device built in Bulgaria to reach the surface of Mars.

In the last few years there has been a surge of interest among young people in space exploration. Several outreach programs started, and one of the most successful of these is the Space Challenges Program, which has organized many events all over the country. The program also launched the online platform Spaceport, which is currently the biggest free educational platform in Europe about space studies.

Another positive sign is the beginning of private space activities. On June 23, 2017, a Falcon 9 rocket launched the geostationary communications satellite BulgariaSat-1. This was the first Bulgarian satellite to lift off after a 36-year hiatus, since the days of Bulgaria-1300. Then in 2018 we saw the launch of another satellite, EnduroSat One. This was the first Bulgarian cubesat mission and its main purpose was to popularize amateur radio activities.

EnduroSat is one of the most innovative cubesat companies. Its website offers an online configurator that allows you to make your own satellites within minutes. A delivery within five days after payment is also promised. This basically means that EnduroSat is turning satellites from complex devices which historically took months, even years, to be built into ready-to-use customer products. Because of companies such as EnduroSat I personally have great faith that the cubesat industry will continue to grow exponentially for the next years. The demand to launch cubesats will be high, and this is the main reason I don’t share the pessimism of other space commenters who think that there are too many smallsat rockets in development and not enough satellites for all of them.

This is the current state of space activities in Bulgaria. Now, when we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Georgi Ivanov’s launch, we can conclude that many things have changed since the day he soared into orbit. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Interkosmos program, we lost certain capabilities to explore space. But with the development of the private space industry, new opportunities have arisen. We can lament over the past or dream about what is to come, but there is one question many space enthusiasts in my country ask: when are we going to see a third Bulgarian citizen go into space?

This question, however, is rarely discussed in the local media. Occasionally certain space researchers and our cosmonauts raise the topic in the public space and express hope that this may happen again in the not-so-distant future. But so far we don’t have an active crewed spaceflight program. Nobody is preparing to go into orbit any time soon. Indeed, there are more pressing issues, like strengthening our cooperation with ESA and developing satellite capabilities. There’s no doubt that, once we become a full member state of ESA, our chances to see another Bulgarian citizen in space will increase. Another opportunity may arrive with the development of suborbital crewed vehicles. Who knows, perhaps the next Bulgarian astronaut will be a paying tourist?

I personally prefer the next crewed Bulgarian spaceflight to happen sooner rather than later. A lot of children and teenagers in my country dream to go to space, and many of them have visited the international Space Camps or attended other outreach activities. It would be tragic if these young dreamers have no realistic option to become true astronauts. The sad fact is that most of the countries that participated in the Interkosmos program have only one space traveler, thanks to this very same program. Romania was only able to send Dumitru Prunariu, Poland Mirosław Hermaszewski, Czechoslovakia Vladimír Remek, Mongolia Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa. Bulgarians can consider themselves to be lucky, with two cosmonauts sent to space via the Interkosmos program. As for Hungary, they have one Interkosmos cosmonaut, Bertalan Farkas, although Charles Simonyi, the two-time space tourist, is Hungarian-born.

The political and social situation has changed drastically in these countries since the end of the socialist era. Most of them have already joined ESA, or are in the process of negotiating with the agency. But in the area of crewed spaceflight it does appear that we’re all in the same boat, because the European Astronaut Corps has no active members from these countries in Central and Eastern Europe which were part of the Eastern Bloc, excluding East Germany. I hope this will change in the next years and citizens from Central and Eastern Europe will once again soar to the stars.