Saturday, October 09, 2010


Some years ago, I was asked to present a talk at a conference on the topic: "Who are the Pontians?" I thought to facilitate a closer understanding of the Greek persons who hail from the Black Sea region by illustrating the talk with slides of famous Pontians that a non-Greek audience could relate to. Having rejected such august and renown personages as Stelios ('Stelaras') Kazantzidis and his equally melodious compatriot, Panayiotis Psomiadis, the iconic mayor of Thessaloniki as being too specific in their appeal, and decided against commencing with pictures of the famous but nonetheless obscure to a modern audience kings Mithradates (who was more Persian than Greek) and Alexios Komnenos, or even saints such as Theodore of Amasya, whose statue stands atop a column in Venice, I decided upon a ruse, in order to capture my listeners. Flashed upon the screen at the commencement of my talk then, was a photograph of the leggy supermodel Heidi Klum. I contended, based upon spurious conspiracy theories garnered from various internet sites, that she was of Pontian descent, that her baptismal name was Heidoula and that she enjoyed the music of. Stelaras. As a result of my bold and completely spurious assertion, my audience resolutely refused to believe my next assertion, which was that among various emperors, conquerors, men of letters and the like, the Pontians boast among their most famous sons, an astronaut.
Nonetheless, it is absolutely true. Fyodor Yurchikhin (Grammatikopoulos), was born on 3 January 1959 in Adjara, an autonomous republic of Georgia, to Pontic Greek parents Nikolai Fyodorovich Yurchikhin and Mikrula Sofoklevna Yurchikhina, both of whom now reside in Thessaloniki. After graduation from high school in Batumi in 1976, he entered the S. Ordzhonikidze Moscow Aviation Institute He finished studying in 1983, and is qualified as a mechanical engineer, specializing in airspace vehicles. In 2001, he graduated from the Moscow Service State University with a Ph.D. in economics.
After graduating from the Moscow Aviation Institute, Yurchikhin worked at the Russian Space Corporation Energia from September 1983 until August 1997. He began working as a controller in the Russian Mission Control Center, and held the positions of engineer, senior engineer, and lead engineer, eventually becoming a lead engineer for the Shuttle-Mir and NASA-Mir Space Programs. In August 1997, he was enrolled in the Energia cosmonaut detachment as a cosmonaut-candidate. From January 1998 to November 1999, he completed his basic training course. In November 1999, he was qualified as a test cosmonaut. In January 2000, he started training in the test-cosmonaut group for the International Space Station Program.
Yurchikhin was a crewmember of the International Space Station assembly mission sts-112 conducted using the Space Shuttle Atlantis. During the mission the shuttle crew conducted joint operations with Expedition 5 by delivering and installing the third piece of the station's 11-piece Intergrated Truss Structure. Three spacewalks were required to outfit and activate the new component. Yurchikhin also transferred cargo between the two vehicles and used the shuttle's thruster jets during two maneuvers to raise the station's orbit. His STS-112 mission was accomplished in 170 orbits, traveling 4.5 million miles in 10 days, 19 hours, and 58 minutes.
As a result of his amazing endeavours, in 2003, Yurchikhin was awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation medal, the Order of Friendship medal, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the title of Russian Federation Test-Cosmonaut.
In 2007, he became commander of Expedition 15 to the International Space station. His flight began on April 7, when he launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in a Soyuz TMA-10 spaceship. On October 21, he returned to Earth after spending 196 days and 17 hours in space.
On May 30, 2007 Yurchikhin began his first spacewalk from the Pirs docking compartment a airlock. He and fellow cosmonaut Oleg Kotov performed a 5 hour and 25 minute spacewalk, during which they installed protective panels to shield ISS from space debris.
On June 6, 2007 a second spacewalk from the Pirs docking compartment airlock was completed. The two spacewalkers installed a section of Ethernet cable on the Zarya module, installed additional Service Module Debris Protection panels on Zvezda, and deployed a Russian scientific experiment. Yurchikhin and Kotov returned to the ISS after 5 hours and 37 minutes.
On July 23, 2007, Yurchikhin participated in his third spacewalk along with NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson. During the spacewalk, Yurchikhin and Anderson removed and jettisoned the Early Ammonia Servicer installed a television camera stanchion, reconfigured a power supply for an antenna assembly, and performed several get-ahead tasks. The spacewalk lasted 7 hours and 41 minutes.
As if this was not enough, on June 16, 2010, Yurchikhin along with NASA astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker lifted off aboard the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, for another bout as ISS maintenance. Soon after, on July 26, Yurchikhin performed a spacewalk outside the space station. During the spacewalk he outfitted the Rassvet module's Kurs automated rendezvous system, installed cables and remove and replaced a video camera, the spacewalk lasting an arduous six hours and 42 minutes.
Cosmonautical endeavours not withstanding, Yurchikhin has made history in other fields as well, notably the initiation of the first Pontian to Pontian inter-space communication. This cosmo-historic event took place at 10:45am, on 24 June 2010, when interplanetary Pontic titan extraordinaire Peter Jasonides, received the following telephone call, reproduced in full (and in Pontian), from Yurchikhin, who was at that very moment observing Australia from space:
- Έλα Παναϊώτη.
- Ποίος εν;
- Εγώ ο Θόδωρον είμαι. Είμαι απές στη διαστημή το πλοίον και ελέπω σας αυκά σην Αυστραλίαν. Απάν α' σην Αυστραλίαν είμαι σ' α' τώρα και ελέπω αυκά!
- Τρώω την Παναϊας Θέδωρε. Α΄τώρα επαλάλωσες΄με. Α΄τώρα θα εβγαίνω οξουκά και θα τσαϊζω. Βγάλον έναν φωτογραφία την Αυστραλίαν από εκεί απάν, και στείλον α΄τέν σ΄ο σπίτι΄μ. Θεόδωρε, να εν τ΄εμέτερον η Παναϊα με τ΄εσέν.
- Να είσαι καλά Παναϊώτη. Να είσαι καλά.

This mind-blowing conversation proves two things: Firstly, that if there is any incentive in becoming a cosmonaut, surely it lies in being able to make unlimited and expensive long distance telephone calls to all and sundry. Secondly, that this is the stuff that Pontian anecdotes are made of, viz: "What did one Pontian say to the other Pontian when in space?"
As a result of Peter Jasonides' relating the contents of the conversation, I drew him into a heated discussion as to the theological implications of his exclamation: «Τρώω την Παναϊας.» For if one is to assert that they eat the Theotokos, is this not blasphemy of the highest order - tantamount to postulating that the Theotokos is of the same nature as Christ and can be offered as communion to the faithful? Peter's response to this is that this is but one of many strange, inexplicable but thoroughly colourful Pontian phrases that pepper the dialect, in order to show enthusiasm and /or disbelief. Another, «τρώω τα κάκαλα'ς» is just as disturbing. Perhaps, in keeping with our space motif, we can introduce astronomical expressions such as «τρώω τη μαύρη τρύπα'ς» which is also disturbing, but topical.
That Yurchikhin, Pontian cosmonaut can reach the stars and then remember to phone his Pontian friends and rejoice in their mutual Pontianism is a marvellous thing. It proves that diasporan Greeks are able to succeed in diverse walks of life and can provide inspiration for multitudes.
As the diatribist dons his gravity boots and attempts to orbit around his own periphery, an observation, from the perspicacious Karl Jung: "Space flights are merely an escape, a fleeing from one's self, because it is easier to go to Mars or the moon than to penetrate one's own being."
After all, it gets lonely up there in space. Ας εμέν το Διατριβιστήν, shαιρετίας.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 October 2010