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by Lynn Ashby September 2003

From Russia With Love

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." - John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962

We all remember that quotation. What most people don't remember today is that he uttered those words right here in Houston, in a speech at Rice University. And what we tend to forget is that the speech was made in the middle of the space race with the Soviet Union. So JFK used words such as "challenge" and "win" and mentioned the Soviet Union by name in a derogatory fashion. This country was trying to catch up in the contest because the Russians had fired both Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin into space. Americans were playing second fiddle in a back room bar while the Russians were orchestrating the moment.

Could anyone on the Rice campus during that hot September day ever believe that Russia and the United States would join forces in space exploration in the future? Who could foresee cosmonauts and astronauts living together in space for months on end, cooperating in scientific research while down below taxpayers in both countries were sharing the costs? Now we come to yet another link: On Aug. 10, an American citizen, a Houstonian, married a Russian cosmonaut while she was in Houston and he was in space. Who would have thunk? The bride was Ekaterina Dmitriev, 27, known to all as "Kat." The groom was Yuri Malenchenko, 41. Standing in for the groom by proxy was Harry Noe, a family friend. The best man was Ed Lu, who happens to be an American astronaut currently in space with Malenchenko. The maid of honor was Sandra Hammack, and Judge Bill Yeoman officiated.

The bride wore a long white gown, the guests were all seated for the ceremony. There were flowers and music. It was a standard American wedding - except that it was held in a large conference room at NASA, and the groom was there via a drop screen. "The Wedding March" was played by Astronaut Lu on a keyboard, and the groom's family listened to the event on the phone in a conference call. After the ceremony, everyone - except the groom and the best man - adjourned to the Villa Capri restaurant in Clear Lake. In attendance were family friends.

The first space wedding in history had a circuitous route, but one well worth following. Dmitriev was born in St. Petersburg, came to America when she was three and a half years old and became an American citizen. "My parents moved to America for political reasons. My father is a professor at Oklahoma State University," she says. "The first six years we lived in California, where my father received his Ph.D. in Russian literature at UCLA; then we moved to Michigan for two years, where my parents taught at Michigan State. In 1989, the family moved to Stillwater where my parents were teaching at Oklahoma State University.

"When my mother got a job offer in Houston for NASA, we moved to Texas, and my father continues to work for OSU. I went to high school in Stillwater and to San Jacinto College, majoring in communications. I'm still kind of there, but I also work for a company in administration for staffing. So, I work part time and go to school part time."

As for Malenchenko, he was born in Svetlovodsk Kirovograd in the Ukraine, which is now a separate republic. But Malenchenko is a Russian citizen. He attended a military aviation school in Russia and in 1987 was selected for the Russian cosmonaut corps. He served as commander of MIR 16. During that flight, he controlled the first manual docking of Progress. While serving on the crew of STS-106, Malenchenko and Lu performed a six-hour and 14-minute extravehicular activity or spacewalk. He is currently the commander of Expedition 7. His specialties in space are tests related to biomedicine and technical instruments.

"We met in November five years ago at my mother's house," Dmitriev recalls. "It was a Russian holiday. He showed up with another cosmonaut. We talked, it was fun, but we didn't hit if off. I didn't see him again until last year on April 12, 2002, at the Outpost Bar in Clear Lake. It was Yuri Gagarin Day. He was the first person in space on April 12, 1961. Yuri was named for him. Anyway, this date is a huge celebration in the space program. It started on the West Coast and spread to the East Coast."

Dmitriev was tired that night and didn't want to go to the party, but a friend urged her to go anyway. As Dmitriev was ready to return home, a friend approached her and said, "I want to introduce you to someone." Dmitriev turned around. "That moment I saw him I just knew he was the one. I moved in with him two days later."

At the time, Malenchenko was in training for the shuttle flight in Atlantis which was to go to the International Space Station, or ISS. That flight was cancelled after the Columbia disaster. Finally, on April 25 Malenchenko and Lu were sent up as a relief crew. Due to the lack of supplies and the freeze on any new flights, they are the only two people aboard the ISS.

"We've had a very unusual relationship. Mostly long distance phone calls. He would go to Russia. I would be here. Also, I've talked to members of his family on the phone many, many times. Actually, most of our romance has been over the phone, so a space wedding is not that unusual. We converse in Russian, but he speaks excellent English. He proposed in December over the phone. Then he came here. I went to visit him in Moscow a week after he proposed. I stayed there for three weeks. It was the coldest December Moscow had seen in the last 50 years. We're talking freezing.

"While he's in space we get to talk every day. It's a private line by NASA so no one else should be listening. This line was provided to support the crew members." Asked to describe her new husband, Dmitriev gushed, "He is dark haired, 5 foot 10 inches, with strong facial features - a beautiful, handsome man." Malenchenko is due to return to Earth on Oct. 28. In Texas a proxy marriage is legal, but not in Russia, so the couple will return to Moscow and be married in a traditional Russian Orthodox wedding after his return to Earth. She says, "This was a first for NASA, and they were just thrilled. They are giving us all the support they can give." As for reports that the Russian space officials tried to prevent the wedding, Dmitriev disagrees. "The Russian authorities have always been very supportive. I would say it was a media mix-up."

Yep, times have changed. H

About the Author:

Lynn Ashby
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