In the early 1990s, economic and political crises prevailed in Ukraine. Hyperinflation and minersʼ strikes in 1993 led to early presidential elections the following summer. Leonid Kuchma, the former director of the two main centers of Soviet (and later Ukrainian) rocket engineering in Dnipro — the Pivdenmash plant and the Pivdenne Design Bureau — became the new head of the Ukrainian state. In order to strengthen his authority in domestic politics and increase Ukraineʼs international prestige, Kuchma was betting on space.
In 1994, he agreed with his American colleague Bill Clinton on cooperation in the space sphere and the flight of a Ukrainian astronaut on an American spaceship. "The USA made us a favor, saying, yes, we should support Ukraine in this regard as well, since it is considered that Ukraine is a space state, so letʼs take a Ukrainian cosmonaut into the team in front of the whole world," Kuchma recalled.
In 1995, the State Space Agency of Ukrain e announced recruitment for the flight detachment. However, the main contender out of 28 candidates was known practically from the beginning. At that time, only Leonid Kadeniuk had the necessary knowledge and training. A military personnel and test pilot, in the mid-1970s he passed a tough selection for the Soviet cosmonaut squad. He flew more than 2,400 hours on 54 types and modifications of aircraft. He was trained as the commander of the reusable space system "Buran" and the transport ship "Soyuz-TM". He was familiar with the construction of American space shuttles.
He was also perfectly suited for an ideological mission — he was born in a village in the Chernivtsi region in a family of village teachers and was fluent in Ukrainian. And in this regard, he was advantageously different from his understudy, Yaroslav Pustovyi, a native of Russian Kostroma.
In the summer of 1996, Kadenyuk went to the USA, where he was trained at the NASA center until the fall of the following year. Finally, on November 19, 1997, Kadenyuk and an international group of astronauts flew into space on the shuttle Columbia mission STS-87. "I have been waiting for this moment for 36 years, since I was ten years old. I flew at the age of 46. I sat calmly, which even struck me," the Ukrainian recalled.
The flight lasted 15 days, 16 hours and 35 minutes. Each member of the mission had his own task. Kadenyuk worked in space as a biologist, studying the effect of weightlessness on the growth of turnips, soybeans and moss. He was prepared for this at the Institute of Botany named after M. H. Kholodny of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
Kadenyuk also successfully completed an ideological mission. On board the shuttle he took the flag and coat of arms of Ukraine, the coat of arms of Kyiv, "Kobzar" poetry book by Taras Shevchenko and his portrait, as well as portraits of rocket builders Serhii Korolyov and Mykhailo Yangel, recordings of songs by Anatoly Solovyanenko, Dmytro Hnatyuk and "VV" rock band. Each of the astronauts could choose two melodies for the signal used to wake up the crew. And by choice of Kadenyuk, the Ukrainian national anthem was broadcast twice on board Columbia from the Flight Control Center in Houston. "I was the first to fly into space with the Ukrainian flag and fulfilled the task of the Ukrainian government. In 1997, the Ukrainian national anthem was played in outer space for the first time." Also, during the mission, Kadenyuk conducted a "space lesson" for 40,000 Ukrainian and American schoolchildren.
After returning to Earth, Kadenyuk spent almost all of December 1997 touring the largest American cities. And in January 1998, he returned to Ukraine, where he was greeted as a national hero.
Kadenyuk was awarded the title of Major General of Aviation, the title of Hero of Ukraine and was awarded the Order "For Courage". In July 1999, he became an assistant to the president on aviation and cosmonautics. From 2002 to 2006, he was a member of the Ukrainian parliament. There, he became the deputy chairman of the committee on national security and defense. In 2011, he was an adviser to the Prime Minister on aviation and cosmonautics and an adviser to the head of the State Space Agency of Ukraine.
Kadenyuk defended his thesis, became an honorary professor at several universities, wrote a book about his flight "Mission — Space", participated in international conferences and actively worked with young people.
The first cosmonaut of Ukraine constantly worried about the financing of state space programs, convinced the countryʼs leadership to support its status as a space state. "All of us know how to work, only the state itself hardly allocates money for space. The industry works not thanks to, but against the existing circumstances and practically in an autonomous mode, making money by fulfilling commercial orders.
On January 31, 2018, Leonid Kadenyuk died of a heart attack during a morning run in a Kyiv park. In recent years, he was mainly engaged in public activities and science, advocated for the preservation of the environment. "I would launch all politicians into space so they could see what they are trying to destroy," said Kadenyuk in one of his interviews.
Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.