Bulgaria in space: One disaster mission, one success and one satellite

Written by on May 21, 2017 in Bulgaria - Comments Off on Bulgaria in space: One disaster mission, one success and one satellite

Now that Bulgaria is about to shoot a satellite into space, it is time to remember that it actually won’t. BulgariaSat-1, which is scheduled to blast off on aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in mid-June, is not a state-owned, but a private satellite. Its owner is BulgariaSat, a division of Bulsatcom, the country’s largest cable-TV provider.

Even while BulgariaSat-1 is still on Earth, its owner BulgariaSat just announced they might send a second satellite into space within five years, “if the launch (of the first one) goes well”. The company says the Romanians, the Greek, the Israelis, the Germans and others were interested. They presumably mean cable-TV and communication companies in those countries, which want their TV programmes spread from space too.

Privately owned or not: This is not the first time the words Bulgaria and space met in one and the same sentence. This kind of talk started more than half a century ago in Moscow. On a warm evening in August of 1964, the commander-in-chief of the Bulgarian Air Force, Lt. Gen. Zahari Zahariev, was invited to a reception at the residence of Soviet Defence Minister Marshal Rodion Malinovskiy.

The conversation which followed was described in the book “Interkosmos – The Eastern Bloc’s Early Space Program” by Colin Burgess and Bert Vis: General Zahariev asked Marshal Malinovskiy what he thought of the idea of sending Bulgarians into space, on a Soviet spacecraft. He proposed to send the four Stamenkov brothers. Not only were all of them pilots, but they were also present at that same reception.

According to the book, Marshal Malinovskiy did not regard that request as serious, even though Krum, Stamenka, Karamfil and Eugene Stamenkov were seen on a photo printed in the Red Star publication the next day. First of all, the kind of fame which went along with flying into space was mainly reserved for Soviet cosmonauts. Secondly, at that point, the Soviet Union did not even have a spacecraft which would have been capable of taking that many people to the final frontier.

Sure, this happened three years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. On April 12th, 1961, Gagarin, who was only 1.57 metres tall, had squeezed himself into a fish can officially known as Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft. That flying saucer was not exactly a Space Shuttle.

Two Bulgarian space heroes: Aleksandar Aleksandrov (left) was lucky during his mission. Georgi Kakalov (right) blew an engine.

But, 21 years before Gagagrin gave the Americans a pretty strong headache by leading the space race at that moment, a boy by the name of Georgi Kakalov was born in the Bulgarian village of Mikre, located close to Lovech. Later in life, when he was a grown man, and after his name was changed to Georgi Ivanov, he would become the first Bulgarian to fly into space.

After completing his studies and training at the Bulgarian Air Force School in Dolna Mitropolia, he was an Air Force pilot and later became an instructor. In 1978, nine years after the Americans had put the first men on a cheese ball called the Moon, and six years after Eugene Cernan, the last person ever to step off the lunar surface, had enough and went back to Earth, Kakalov became part of Intercosmos, the Soviet space programme. Since his name sounded like a dirty word in Russian, he became Georgi Ivanov at that moment.

Along with his Soviet colleague Nikolai Rukavishnikov, Ivanov blasted off into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on April 10th, 1979. That trip was Soyuz 33. And, until today, it was the highlight of Bulgarian space exploration. Well, it could have been, had everything worked according to plan. That is because Kakalov, or Ivanov, was part of it, but also because the entire scientific programme for this mission was prepared by Bulgarian scientists, which applied to part of the equipment as well.

Soyuz 33 completed 31 orbits. The two-man crew was in space for exactly one day, 23 hours and 1 minute only, since the mission was not exactly successful. Because of a blown engine, Soyuz 33 did not dock to the orbital station “Salyut 6”. And because the Bulgarian space traveller and his Soviet friend had another technical problem, they were in for a pretty hard touchdown on Earth. They had to endure 9 Gs, which is hell.

Ivanov, who is 76 years old today, was part of Bulgaria’s National Assembly much later.

The Soyuz TM-5 mission patch.

The other big name in Bulgarian space exploration is Aleksandar Aleksandrov, another Air Force soldier turned cosmonaut. He is 65 years old today and works as Deputy Director of the Institute of Space Research for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

In early 1978, more than a year before Kakalov blasted off, Aleksandrov was selected as a research cosmonaut, out of six Bulgarian semifinalists, two of whom were killed in 1977. Chavdar Dyurov and Ventsislav Yotov died during a trial flight, when their L-29 training aircraft crashed.

Aleksandrov had been Kakalov’s (or Ivanov’s) backup for Soyuz 33. But he would not experience the final frontier until 1988. On June 7th of that year, only months before communism collapsed, he took off as part of the three-man crew on Soyuz TM-5. They actually managed to dock to MIR and stayed in space for a total of 10 days. Aleksandrov had a room with a view up there.

Other than that, Bulgaria dealt with radiation monitoring experiments aboard the International Space Station and space greenhouses on MIR.

Is Bulgaria a space nation? Yes, if we consider the country’s contributions, but no, in the sense that Bulgaria does not have rockets or spacecraft of its own, and never did. Neither did or does Bulgaria have a space agency or satellites.

But that commercial satellite project is interesting, because it shows what the industry is capable of today. It also highlights what privately owned space flight companies such as SpaceX can do. That one was founded by Elon Musik of Tesla, and they are the ones who are providing the used Falcon 9 rocket, which will take BulgariaSat-1 to space.

Once (and if) it arrives, the commercial, Bulgarian satellite will use its own thrusters, in order to reach its orbit, located some 36,000 kilometers from Cape Canaveral, from Sofia, from Earth. BulgariaSat-1 will deliver lots of TV channels in HD quality, and in living colour.

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About the Author

Imanuel Marcus is Associate Editor of The Sofia Globe. He is German and lives in Sofia. Contact: imanuelmarcus (at) gmail.com