Endurance Cartel Podcast

Endurance Cartel

#013 From Childhood Dream To Astronaut! Dumitru Dorin Prunariu’s Journey Into Space

The world we create in our childhood dreams makes us believe that everything is possible. Although most of us outgrow them, sometimes dreams have the power to shape and influence our future. And for those who are passionate enough to hold on to them, dreams can truly become reality.

Dumitru Dorin Prunariu, today’s guest on the Endurance Cartel is one of those people whose dreams guided their path in life. After being selected to participate in the Russian Intercosmos Program, on the 14th of May, 1981, Dorin started his journey into space. He became the first Romanian astronaut to fly into space and lived aboard the Salyut 6 space station for 7 days, 20 hours, and 42 minutes.

A Childhood Dream

Dumitru Dorin Prunariu was born on 27 September 1952 in Brasov, a beautiful city situated in the heart of Romania, and surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. Dorin grew up dreaming about flying, a dream that in the end transformed into a burning passion.

After graduating from the Physics and Mathematics high school in Brașov, Dorin went on to the Politehnica University of Bucharest. There, he obtained a degree in Aerospace Engineering.

In 1978, while working in the Romanian Aeronautic Industry, he was selected for spaceflight training in the Russian Intercosmos Program. Romania joined the program a decade earlier as one of the partner countries in the Soviet Union (USSR). 

“I was in the right place at the right time to find out about the selections and to raise my hand and say, yes, I would like to take part in the selections. I never thought at that time that I could be the first one, but I just wanted to do it.”

Training As An Astronaut

Being an astronaut may seem exciting, but it is not an easy job. There are many things an astronaut must learn to do before going into space for the first time.

Dorin trained for three years in Star City, a region in Moscow, home of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. The program was aiming to prepare the astronauts to overcome any challenges they had to face on their flight into space or during their stay on board the Salyut 6 space station. 

Astronauts were trained to operate the spacecraft and the support systems on board. They also had to learn to use the equipment in the laboratory of the space station, conduct various scientific experiments, and perform basic medical skills like first aid.

“We worked eight hours per day. During those eight hours, we had a lot of theoretical courses. We had to learn a lot about outer space itself, and about the space environment and its action on the human body. We also learned about the design and construction and exploitation of the Soyuz spacecraft and the Salyut 6 space station. Then, we had a lot of practical training in simulators.”

The practical training was testing astronauts’ reaction speed, and their ability to apply all the theoretical knowledge they possessed.

Physical Endurance- a Top Requirement For An Astronaut

The physical training astronauts were involved in was meant to test and increase their endurance, not their strength.

“We did sports three times a week. A lot of games and resistance training. We ran, we cycled and we were also in the gym doing a lot of exercises. From time to time we were tested by a special team and received qualifications. I could say I had very good qualifications at that time, very good marks.”

Another important aspect of their physical training was referring to astronauts’ resistance to high levels of acceleration (high-g training). This type of training was designed to prevent the astronaut from losing consciousness while exiting and reentering Earth’s atmosphere. The human body has different tolerances for g-forces depending on the acceleration direction. It can withstand a positive acceleration forward at higher g-forces than it can withstand a positive acceleration upwards. When the body accelerates up at such high rates, the blood rushes from the brain which causes loss of vision. A further increase in g-forces can cause g-LOC which leads to loss of consciousness.

“Every month we had training in the centrifuge. We were trained to face 8 g’s from chest to back and 5 ‘g’s for the head. But only for 30 seconds. We were in a way protected, and were given this training, but with some limits. We were under medical supervision all the time. If something happened and the doctor saw any signs, he would stop the training. Russian pilots were training in Star City to face smaller g’s, 1,5 or 2 g’s but for hours. Some of them lost their consciousness because they tested them to the limit.”

Launching Day- Becoming The First Romanian Astronaut To Fly Into Space

During the training program, Dorin obtained the highest marks of all the candidates. On May 12th, 1981, he received an official confirmation that he was nominated for the space flight. He was going to join his crew commander, soviet colonel Leonid Popov and fly toward the Salyut 6 space station.

Popov was just seven years older than I was. I was 28, he was 35 when we flew into space.” One year before they flew together, Popov spent 6 months on board the Salyute 6 space station. “He was not only very skilled, but he also knew by heart all the equipment, and how to do everything on board the space station.”

Two days later, a special pressurized bus was taking Prunariu and Popov toward the Baikonur cosmodrome. There, on Platform 17, the Soyuz 40 spacecraft was prepared for departure.

“On the bus taking us to the cosmodrome, there was only the crew and our medical doctor. We knew him very well from Star City, he took part in our training measuring our medical parameters and so on. And, on the way to the rocket, Ivan was his name, said guys, “I have a mission for you”. We asked what kind of mission. “So, you know, Vladimir Kovalyonok was the commander of the space station. His wife Mina gave me some fresh onions to give to him. He wants to eat fresh onions, in outer space” remembers Dorin laughing.

Living In Imponderability

Although each astronaut has a special job on the team, each of them has to learn how to work where there is no gravity. After a flight that took 8 minutes and 50 seconds, Prunariu and Popov’s spacecraft entered Earth’s orbit and Dorin experienced his first time in imponderability.

“Everything started to float around. Our documentation, our pens. I was amazed. I had my belts, I was fixed in the chair and Popov said, “don’t look on the ground because the altitude is very high, and maybe you are not used to this. You have to adapt to this.” I didn’t listen to anything, I instantly looked out the window on my right and I was amazed, I was in love with the image I saw up there.

The Salyut 6 station was a moving station, similar to one module of the International space station. It had a length of about 15 meters and a maximum diameter of 4 meters. But inside, things were a lot more crowded because of all the equipment they brought from Earth.

“If I stretched my hands I could touch both walls from left and right. Inside the space station lived 4 people, for one week. Each of us had his own private space. I slept on the ceiling of the space station. My colleagues said that was the place for honorary guests like me.”

And despite the difficulties of living in confinement, they never complained.

“We were very well trained to accomplish our program. We trained together to know exactly what to do, each of us. At the same time, we were friends. We lived in the same Star City, we met for different parties and we spent time together, so we didn’t have disagreements.”

Returning To Earth & Re-adjusting To Life With Gravity

Understanding the effects of spaceflight on humans is essential as astronauts move from the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit, to deep space destinations on and around the Moon, and beyond. Today, space agencies are particularly interested in investigating how the body reacts to long-duration spaceflight as they plan extended missions on the Moon and Mars.

After finishing their mission, the Soyuz 40, returned to Earth. Even if they lived on the space station for only eight days, Prunariu and Popov were experiencing the inevitable effects of living without gravity. Among the symptoms they experienced were disorientation and loss of balance.

“You are very perturbed in the very beginning when you land,” remembers Dorin. “Everything in the spacecraft was falling down, but I didn’t realize that was the direction of the Earth. So when I unbelted, I fell down over Popov, who asked me what I was doing, as I was trying to get out and feel the Earth under my feet.”

But that wasn’t the only funny side-effect that he experienced. After two hours of sitting down, Dorin attempted his first steps.

“After about two hours, I could walk by myself, but walking straight. If I wanted to turn to the left or to the right, I just felt that my legs turned but my body was going straight, and I fell down. The balance in my body was established after maybe one day.”

Life After Becoming a Space Hero

After his flight into space, Dorin’s life changed forever, He had to adjust to living in the spotlight and accept his role as a hero astronaut. For different periods of time, he was detached within different ministries to perform civil functions, including the position of Deputy Minister to the Ministry of Transportation and Chief of the Romanian Civil Aviation Department, exercising this position for 1.5 years.

He was also one of the founders of the Association of Space Explorers, a non-profit organization with a membership composed of people who have completed at least one Earth orbit in space. In 2007 he completely retired from the Air Force with the military rank of major general, continuing his professional activity as a civil servant. At the end of 2015, by a decree of the President of Romania, Dorin received the 3rd star, becoming a lieutenant-general (ret.).

Today, through his Foundation, Cosmonaut Dumitru Dorin Prunariu’s Foundation, Dorin is actively supporting the next generations of aeronautics enthusiasts and still believes in the importance of dreaming for a brighter future.

“All people who want to do something in life should have a vision. We try to inspire people, young people especially, to have a vision. To dream of something, and to try to realize their dreams. Maybe with the help of Elon Musk, maybe with the help of Jeff Bezos, or any other company that develops space activities, much more people will fly into outer space in the future, and space tourism would develop.”

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