‘I was always in control’
Pham Tuan was the ideal candidate to become the first Asian in space, as far as Vietnam’s hard-line communist leaders were concerned. From humble beginnings in a poor village, he had already risen to the rank of national hero. Defending his homeland from sustained US attacks during the Christmas Bombings of 1972, Tuan was credited with becoming the first Vietnamese fighter pilot to shoot down a B52 in air-to-air combat – a feat many US aviators still insist was impossible.
In 1980, the year that Tuan rocketed into the annals of history aboard the Soviet Union’s Soyuz 37 spacecraft, Vietnam’s leaders were desperate for some positive news to lift their embattled population. Thirty years of intense combat against the French and Americans, amid a civil war, had been followed by brief but bloody battles with Cambodia and China. A huge push to collectivise farming was spreading hunger and destitution rather than Marxist ideals. That Vietnam should provide the first Asian into space, as part of the USSR’s Intercosmos programme, was something of a propaganda coup.
During his eight-day sojourn at the Salyut 6 space station, Tuan beamed back messages hailing Vietnam’s long struggle for independence and thanking the Communist party “for having trained me and given me wings to fly into space”.
Back on planet Earth, the hungry Vietnamese people were not so easily taken in. A popular rhyme at the time pondered: “We have no rice, we have no noodles, so why are you going into space Mr Tuan?”
Now 64 and a rugged, retired lieutenant-general, he stands by the importance of the mission. “The Intercosmos programme had a role to show that socialist countries were working together,” he says, sipping green tea in the living room of his smart house in Hanoi. “To achieve independence, we needed solidarity.”
His career as an aviator was unexpected. Although initially assigned by the state to train as a pilot, because he was one of the few young men with a high-school education, he failed his medical because of a heart complaint and eyesight problems caused by drinking polluted water.
So Tuan was sent to the USSR to train as a radar engineer. In 1966, however, he was pressed into flight training because of a severe shortage of pilots. “I had a fire in my heart to fight the US enemy,” he tells me later, while fondly looking over his old MiG-21 fighter at the air force museum. “Once you have got past the escorts, it’s very easy to shoot down a B52. It’s like shooting down a Boeing 777. I just fired two missiles and it fell out of the sky.”
Compared with the brutalities of war, going into space was a breeze, he says. “I was much more worried when sitting in a bunker being bombed by B52s all night. I still [have a] record of my health data from the space flight, and my blood pressure and heart rate didn’t change much, as I was always in control.”
Tuan is still an important national figure and his living room is lined with the bouquets beloved by Vietnamese officials. During our interview, a veteran writer of military history, two journalists from the People’s Army Newspaper and a former air force general pop in to greet him.
Despite his hero status, Tuan says he is happy with his quiet life these days, playing tennis, travelling, tending to his birds and plants and, best of all, reminiscing with old comrades.
“Various journalists and authors want to write my biography, but my life is so simple that I’m not too sure what they could say,” he notes as I leave.