A Space Oddity

How an Afghan pilot became a cosmonaut—and a fugitive

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.

The crew later revived the system and landed without incident. Photos from the days after their return show a generously mustachioed, medal-bedecked Momand standing in the back of a parade car. For his trouble he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union, and back in Afghanistan he became deputy minister of aviation and tourism.

This was the high point in the life of Abdul Ahad Momand. Soon after, his boss, Najibullah, was deposed by mujahideen. They ultimately castrated, shot, and hanged him, along with key associates. Momand, a member of Najibullah’s cabinet, fled to Germany and has never gone back.

I recently went to meet him in Ostfildern, the tidy Stuttgart suburb where he lives and works. The only hint of the disordered world beyond was a Wanted poster I saw in a police station that pictured a Muslim man, his face angry and grainy in the photocopied flyer, who supposedly wanted to blow something up. But there among the dental offices and family bakeries, he seemed a preposterously distant threat.

When Momand arrived in Germany, he found a job in a space-research institute, but soon the need for better pay led him to other work, several rungs down the ladder from adventure to crushing banality. Now he works in a small trading company whose precise activities seem to bore him. “It is not in space,” he says.

His ground-floor apartment opens onto a yard as trim as Astroturf, strewn with the toys of his young son. His wife, an Afghan journalist, served me black tea of the same type Momand brewed in space 20 years ago. On top of the television, Momand keeps a scale model of a Soyuz capsule. The day I visited, he and his wife were absentmindedly watching a bearded bigwig from Jalalabad give an interview on a Pashto cable channel. I asked who the man was. Momand hissed that he didn’t know who the man was, but he knew his type: a political class that was incurably degenerate and corrupt.

“They speak very nicely, but in truth they do nothing,” Momand said. “They take money, they do nothing for the people, they are worse than thieves. They have the blood of children on their hands.”

I asked if he would ever return to Afghanistan to rebuild the country—perhaps overseeing Ariana, the national airline. His reply was bitterly negative. He said he had already overseen Ariana, and had no interest in doing so again. “They don’t want people like me,” he said. And then he smiled a little, showing his teeth mischievously under a now-bare upper lip: “Since everything’s working so swimmingly.”