|Image: Vladimir Rodionov/Ria Novosti|
Abdul Ahad Momand, 51 and now a resident of Germany, was born in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. He is much like any other Afghan refugee, except that in the summer of 1988 he spent nine days in outer space.
His presence there was political. For the previous eight years, Afghan mujahideen had been bleeding the Soviet military dry, and in mid-1988 the Soviets began moving their tanks back over the Amu Darya River, leaving the government of Mohammad Najibullah to fend for itself. The Soviets sent material support to Najibullah in the form of money and guns, and they showed symbolic support by offering to seal an Afghan into an aluminum capsule and fire him into the sky at 25 times the speed of sound.
Momand, who had distinguished himself killing mujahideen as a pilot in the Afghan air force, was a logical choice. The Soviets trained him at an accelerated pace, and he went into orbit, with two other crew members, on August 29. He brought a small Koran. He spoke briefly to Najibullah by radio while in orbit, and he photographed Afghanistan.
After a week of experiments, the crew started the module’s descent to Earth. Mission Control directed Momand not to touch anything and to let his Russian colleague plot the return. Mid-descent, the ship’s computer malfunctioned. While his partner waited for instructions, Momand noticed that the computer was preparing to jettison their fuel and batteries. He stopped the countdown, and thereby saved himself from spending the rest of his improbable life spinning around the Earth until his air ran out and the capsule burned up in the atmosphere. “He was literally one of half a dozen astronauts who thought their way out of dying,” says James Oberg, a space historian.