August 5, 2012

Syrian astronaut defects - who knew?

Syria's first and only man to go into space, General Muhammad Ahmad Faris, fled Syria and defected to the Syrian opposition in Turkey. Faris was an air force pilot and one of only two Syrians involved in the space program. He was the second Arab to fly in space - a Saudi astronaut flew on the American space shuttle two years prior to Faris's trip.

A Syrian space program - who knew? Well, actually, I did. I had the pleasure to meet with then-Colonel Faris in 1994 at the Syrian Air Force academy at Rasn al-'Abud air base outside Aleppo. I was attending the graduation exercise at the academy and he asked to meet with the U.S. Air Attache. He was charming; we had a good conversation about his experiences in the international effort of the Soviet space program.

Colonel Faris and I are the same age, so we had that in common. He and another air force pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Munir Habib, had been selected in September of 1985 to begin training for a space flight on a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft to visit the Salyut space station. Both Faris and Habib were 1973 graduates of the Syrian air force academy.

The two pilots trained for almost two years until Colonel Faris was selected to be a research cosmonaut on a eight-day spaceflight from July 22 to July 30, 1987; Colonel Habib was assigned as the research cosmonaut on the the backup crew. Habib never made a spaceflight. Faris's flight was more of a propaganda mission than serious scientific research, but Syria now had someone who had gone into space. Upon Faris's return to earth, the Syria space program was disbanded, having achieved the goal of acquiring bragging rights.

Only 528 or 534 people have made the journey into space, depending on whose definition you use. The U.S. Air Force considers anything above 80 kilometers (50 miles) to be space, while the International Sports Federation uses 100 kilometers as the benchmark.

Colonel Faris is a member of that small club; he is a celebrity in Syria, especially among the military, and in particular the air force. Will his defection change anything? Probably not, but it is a symbolic blow to the regime.