On March 2, 1978, Czech cosmonaut Vladimír Remek became the first and only Czech to fly to space, and the first non-Soviet and non-American astronaut to make the trip to outer space.
Born in the Czech city of České Budějovice in 1948, Remek studied mathematics and physics in Čáslav. He started getting an itching for the stars from a young age, a passion fuelled by the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin’s historic spaceflight four years later.
He went on to an aviation school in Košice, modern-day Slovakia, graduated in 1970 and joined the Czechoslovak Air Force with the grade of lieutenant.
From 1972 to 1976, he pursued his training at the Gagarin Air Force Academy, one of Russia’s top military aviation centers near Moscow.
Now a captain, he returned to Russia to take part in the Interkosmos program, a Soviet-led space program designed to involve Soviet satellites and allies in space missions and symbolize the unity of the communist world in the space race.
Founded in 1967 and initially focused on unmanned research satellite missions, Interkosmos would launch its first crewed mission in 1978 with Vladimír Remek and Soviet cosmonaut Aleksey Gubarev on board. Later on, the program would also be responsible for sending the first black and Latin American person in space (Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez of Cuba in 1980) and the first southeast Asian (Phạm Tuân of Vietnam also in 1980).
After a three-day delay, Soyuz 28 took off from Kazakhstan on March 2, 1978, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the 1948 Prague coup. The two-man crew docked by the orbiting Salyut 6 space station and was greeted by its occupants Georgi Grechko and Yuri Romanenko, sent there the previous December aboard Soyuz 26. After spending nearly eight days conducting research and experiments in space, Remek and Gubarev returned to earth on March 10.
The first person from a country other than the USSR and the United States to go to space, Vladimír Remek was celebrated as a hero upon his return to Czechoslovakia.
“Before me there was the same number of Soviet and US cosmonauts, 43. So I became the 87th earthling to see our planet from outer space,” he later said. “I was doing something for my country. It was, to use sporting terminology, a place on the podium, third spot. I was proud of the opportunity and that I’d fulfilled a boyhood dream. I saw in many ways that it had boosted the visibility of Czechoslovakia around the world.”
Gustáv Husák, secretary general of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, hosted a reception in his honour at the Prague Castle, and Remek was awarded the medal Hero of the Soviet Union – the highest distinction in the USSR – one week after his return.
Czech astronomer Antonín Mrkos discovered an asteroid in September 1978 and named it 2552 Remek after the Czech cosmonaut.
Following his return from space in 1978, Remek held several positions in the Czechoslovak People’s Army. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, he was named Director of the Museum for Aviation and Astronautics in Prague. He retired from the air force in 1995.
He became a member of the European Parliament for the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia from 2004 to 2013, before being appointed by President Miloš Zeman as the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Russia, a position he held from 2014 to 2018.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.