Leonids Long Wait

When STS-87 Commander Kevin Kregel arrived at KSC with his five crewmates in their T-38 jets on 15 November 1997, his words to the assembled journalists proved prophetic. ''The crew is looking forward to launching on the fourth United States Microgravity Payload mission,'' he told them. ''It's going to be a real exciting one, we're doing a lot of great science. Winston and Takao are going to do a spacewalk; Takao is going to be the first Japanese to do a spacewalk. Leonid will be the first Ukrainian to fly on the Shuttle. It's really going to be a super mission.''

Kregel's third flight into space, and his first time in the Commander's seat, would indeed be exciting and would accomplish all of the tasks he mentioned, but the STS-87 crew would return to Earth with mixed emotions: elation at having safely and successfully conducted two weeks of orbital research, tempered with disappointment at the botched deployment of an important scientific satellite. The crew, which included two veteran astronauts and four rookies, was international in nature, with representatives of four different nations on board.

One of the rookies, Payload Specialist Leonid Kadenyuk, was named in May as the first representative of independent Ukraine to fly into space. Although he blended seamlessly into Kregel's crew, other STS-87 astronauts commented on the language barrier early in their training. ''[Leonid] took English lessons and improved, so it wasn't a problem,'' said Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla. ''Plus, we [took] 80-hour Russian courses so we could speak a little bit of Russian. Not much, but enough that if a word was too big for him, you could open up your dictionary and show him what you were saying.''

Interestingly, the 46-year-old Kadenyuk had been an astronaut - or, rather, cosmonaut - for much longer than any of his STS-87 crewmates. Born in Chemivtsi, he graduated from the Chemihiv Higher Aviation School, the State Scientific Research Institute of the Russian Air Forces and the famed Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, earning a master's degree from the Moscow Aviation Institute. A test pilot, he flew 57 different types of aircraft, and from 1976 trained to command both the Soyuz spacecraft and the ill-fated Buran Shuttle. With such an impressive resume, it is surprising that Kadenyuk's wait to get into space was so long.

''I believe that every person has his destiny,'' he wryly told journalists before lifting off on STS-87, ''and my destiny has been to wait for a long time.'' In fact, it was not until after Ukraine gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 that the first hint of a chance to fly would arise. In the winter of 1994, during a state visit by the newly elected President Leonid Kuchma to the United States, a Bilateral Civil Space Agreement was signed, one of the provisions of which was an option to fly a Ukrainian cosmonaut on the Shuttle.

Two years later, Kadenyuk and another trainee, Yaroslav Pustovyi, were chosen by the National Space Agency of Ukraine (NSAU) to train for the position. Despite the historic significance of the venture for his nation, Kadenyuk felt he was not, technically, the 'first' Ukrainian in space. ''I think that the first Ukrainian in space was our legendary Pavel Romanovich Popovich, who was Cosmonaut Number Four in the Soviet Union [on board Vostok 4 in August 1962],'' he told a NASA interviewer. ''But now, of course, since Ukraine has become independent, this will be the first flight of a Ukrainian. I believe the first flight of any cosmonaut, of any government, is a very important event in the life of that country. I am very proud that it has fallen to me to play this role and I will do everything I can to be worthy of this honour.'' Kadenyuk also added that he saw his mission on Columbia not as a 'one-off publicity stunt, but as the start of a vigorous programme of international cooperation in space for Ukraine. He pointed out that his country was already responsible for building several important modern launch vehicles, including the Zenit.

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