Author: Eduard Steiner
Published: REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, 2006


Eduard Steiner (born in1968) is stationed in Moscow for the Austrian daily newspaper "Der Standard". As a correspondent he covers the CIS and the Baltic countries

“I had no thoughts; there was no time for fear”

Eduard Steiner in an interview with Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov

Do you still occasionally dream about when you stepped out into the open cosmos?
Often images from the time when I was a fighter pilot surface in my dreams. When on duty we always had to be prepared to intercept any aircraft. This was during the period 1958-60, the time of the greatest confrontation, when both the Americans and the Soviets began to exclude each other. It was enough to drive one crazy. When I started to work with the Americans later on, it turned out that they were people just like us. The “imperialist brats” were not brats at all. They didn't know anything about us either; they just believed what they had been told at home. “When those at the top fight, the ones below suffer”, as the saying goes. Thank God we all managed to survive. Naturally, nowadays I still often dream about hovering above the globe way back then. I can still feel, like in a dream, the way the earth revolved below me. This is the strongest impression that I brought with me from outer space. I was the first human being ever to see that.

What did think about when you stepped out of your spacecraft?
What was I supposed to think about? You see, when you fly with a passenger plane the pilot has to go through an entire checklist. He knows it off by heart but he still has to do it. With cosmonauts all operations are divided up according to seconds. Although I was very experienced it would have been extremely risky to neglect anything. When stepping out of the spacecraft I had no documents, I had to have everything in my head. I had no thoughts; there was no time for fear. Seeing the earth, a planet with a radius of 2750 km, below me gave me an amazing feeling of joy: you see the Black Sea, turn your head and you see Italy, and a little further up Poland and Sweden. It really looks like a map, like a globe. I kept on checking whether our maps on earth were really correct. It was unbelievably quiet; I could hear my own heartbeat and my breathing. In Stanley Kubrick's film “2001 A Space Odyssey”, where cosmonauts work in the open cosmos, he used my acoustic description in the way you can hear the laboured breathing.

How has your view of the world changed?
After their return all cosmonauts unconsciously say the same thing. "The earth is really round". On the ground we just learnt that as theory, but in outer space you see it for real.

Let's go back 40 years. How did the conquest of the cosmos change the Soviet Union?
Travel in outer space was truly what one calls a national idea. In the country itself a great feeling of self-confidence developed, of pride in being a citizen of such a great country. Since we launched our first sputnik nothing connected the world so much as space travel. The entire world understood that we earth dwellers are only at the beginning of research into the life in the cosmos.

But the competition was what dominated. How did you experience this?
Werner von Braun told me that the Americans originally did not even consider the idea of mankind conquering the cosmos. Our head design engineer, Sergej Koroljow, a scientist and, I believe, a philosopher, dared to think this idea and to carry it out. Originally we were technically ahead of the Americans, it was only after Gagarin's flight that Kennedy declared that the national goal of the Americans was to be the first to land on the moon. And they achieved this brilliantly, but using all the achievements of technology and huge sums of money. The US moon programme cost 25 thousand million dollars, ours only 2.5 thousand million dollars.

Whereas Chinese TV did not show Armstrong and Aldrin's moon landing, it was broadcast to the people in the Soviet Union…
I should say here that neither in the Soviet Union nor in China was it broadcast live for the general public. From a current viewpoint that was stupid. Only we specialists were able to see it live. We watched the landing in a building on Komolski Prospect in Moscow. The broadcast and the quality of the images were wonderful.

Do you still think that this competition between East and West was worthwhile, even though it devoured huge sums of money?
Huge sums of money – don't make me laugh! Joining forces now for the Mars programme would cost 55 thousand million. How much have the Americans recently spent in Iraq? And, by the way, I am in favour of combining forces internationally for space programmes. Many different countries should take part in the highly complex area of Mars research. I am convinced that the Mars programme will be carried out. The equipage for the flight to Mars should come from different countries. The whole thing can only work if we combine forces.

Are there cultural differences in the cosmos? When you docked the spaceship “Sojus-19” onto an American spaceship in July 1975 you were the first to have contact with the Americans in outer space. Did you discover any differences in the way America and the Soviet Union perceives the cosmos?
I took four labels of different Russian vodkas with me into outer space and stuck them onto our drink supply tubes, which contained borscht. At the table I suggested that we toast each other in the Russian fashion. The Americans did not really want to but finally, out of politeness, they did drink and then noticed that it was just borscht. I have been co-chairman of the international organisation for cosmonauts and astronauts for 21 years without interruption. There are two chairpersons – one American and one Russian. I know most of the cosmonauts personally; I am close friends with many of them and know that all of them have the same perception of the cosmos. Just like Gagarin when he flew around the earth in the sputnik Vostok and was amazed how wonderful our blue earth is. Completely unexpectedly he sent a message to ground control. “People, let us protect this earth, enhance its beauty and preserve it from destruction.”

You have often thought out loud about moving people to the moon?
I was scientific director of a moon station. The whole idea seems very real to me. We need the means to set up a system that would provide conditions in which life could survive and that would allow us to spend two years there. We would have to solve a few other problems also, such as how to protect ourselves from gigantic meteorites. Moreover, the moon has interesting materials such as a kind of helium that would be suitable as a clean fuel for nuclear power plants. The opening up of the moon will certainly happen. I believe firmly in technical progress.

Moscow, January 2006