Abdul Ahad Momand says he has made two flights into outer space – the first as the unlikely Afghan cosmonaut in 1988, and the second a few years later when he sought political asylum in Germany.
“My second trip to outer space has been the more difficult one – the language, the laws, the culture, everything was new,” the sleek and sporty 52-year-old father of three says, sitting in an armchair in his meticulous terraced house on the outskirts of Stuttgart. “The flight to the orbit was something I could prepare myself for, but I was not able to do the same thing for my voyage to Germany.”
All he had with him on arriving here in 1992 was his family and one suitcase, after hastily escaping the mujahideen, who had swept the government out of power, murdering some of his confidants.
Momand’s space trip was a propaganda mission. In 1987, the USSR withdrew its tanks from Afghanistan. The Soviet-backed government that remained needed a symbolic gesture, so they decided to fire an Afghan citizen into outer space. The Soviets selected Momand, who had fought against the mujahideen, out of 20 jet pilots. “I did not have any acquaintances in the government or the politburo – I was a simple army officer,” he says.
As a kid growing up in Sardah, south of Kabul, he had always dreamt of becoming a conductor – he thought they would be necessary – in one of the aircraft he saw flying high over his tiny village.
Momand still believes his space trip has a deeper meaning. He points to a map of Afghanistan, which was pieced together with the help of the pictures he had taken during his mission. He also remembers the peace message he broadcast from space, in the hope that it would make a difference to his war-torn country.
Compared with his previous life, his existence in Germany seems one of eternal calmness. The former cosmonaut and pilot never managed to get back into his old profession; he now does a job that does not excite him, one he even refuses to talk about. In his tidy house, only a painted picture depicting the cosmos, a poster about a conference in the early 1990s on outer space in Norway and a small metal model of a Soyuz TM aluminium capsule act as a reminder of a long-gone life.
Momand still nurtures the hope that his former glory will one day take him back to Afghanistan, where he has not set foot since he left almost 20 years ago. “I would very much like to help my country, but without a job offer this is not possible,” he says. And then he adds: “Maybe Hamid Karzai [Afghanistan’s president] will read this article.”