Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez: First Latin American in Space
Let me introduce you to the first Latin American man to fly in space, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez. Not only is he the first Latin American, but he also holds the title of the first person of African descent and the first Cuban to fly to space.
A man who struggled during his childhood, Arnaldo Tamyo Méndez was always willing to fight for his country, for his people, and their rights.
He emerged from a complicated family situation with a revolutionary spirit. This is his story.
Native to Guantánamo, Cuba (January 29th.1942), he lost his parents as a toddler. His foster parents adopted and raised him.
He began working at 13, as a shoe shiner, market vendor, and carpenter.
His involvement in Cuban politics began during the Cuban Revolution where he joined the Association of Young Rebels to protest Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, the revolt the prior president, Fidel Castro, commanded.
Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez was also part of the Revolutionary Work Youth Brigades.
The Cold War: A Quick Review
Although as a short summary of the infamous Cold War, let me point out how this confrontation serves as the background of Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez’s major achievements and legacy.
Allies during World War II, the United States, and the Soviet Union never oversaw the radical and obvious differences between them—the USSR, a communist dictatorship, and the U.S., a republic.
As the Soviet ideals expanded in Europe, the United States saw this as a threat to their own plans to impede communism from reaching their land.
The thought of the USSR controlling Europe, and probably the world later on, set an idea in the capitalist mind to seek international relations with the Soviets in a rather flashy and weaponized approach.
The USSR did not care much for it. As tensions grew between the two world leaders, their attempts to outpower the other increased, too.
The dispute prolonged until they decided to compete over who was best at getting their country to space.
As a result, in 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite to fly in Earth’s orbit.
A year later in 1958, the U.S launched their own artificial satellite, Explorer I.
As the conflict remained, both sides sought other countries as allies. This resulted in the USSR finding Cuba, under Fidel Castro’s rule, as a communist ally.
Education and Military Service
Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez knew early in his life that he wanted to be part of the bigger picture and serve his country in any way he could.
In December 1960, he studied at the Rebeldi Technical Institute, taking a course for aviation technicians. What’s more, he trained for a year at the Yeisk Higher Air Force School in the Soviet Union.
Thriving in the Air Force
He finally returned to Cuba in 1962, when he joined the air force as part of Playa Girón Brigade of the Cuban Revolutionary Guard.
During his time in the air force he participated on over 20 reconnaissance missions during the Cuban missile crisis.
In 1967, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez enlisted in the Communist Party of Cuba serving for two years with the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces in Vietnam.
After studying at Maximo Gomez Basic College of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, they named him chief of staff at the Aviation Brigade of Santa Clara in 1975. A year later he was already Lieutenant Colonel.
Getting to Space
Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez got his opportunity to fly to space when they selected him as a candidate for the Soviet Union’s Intercosmos program in 1978.
Intercosmos consisted of choosing military men from various countries to participate in the Union’s space missions.
14 international cosmonauts were a part of the Intercosmos program—British, Japanese, and French were also included.
So, on September 18th, 1980, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez hopped aboard the Soyuz 38 with Yury Romanenko.
At the space station Salyut 6, for eight days, both cosmonauts conducted experiments and research that would result in a successful mission.
The Aftermath of Intercosmos
After he returned to Earth, he went back to the air force, where he became chairman of the Military-Patriotic Educational Society (SEPMI). SEPMI’s goal was to train young Cubans into military life.
As he gave his all to the air force, he eventually became Brigadier General, and then Director of the Department of International Affairs for the Cuban armed forces. He also became Director of Cuba’s civil defense organization.
So, what does Intercosmos have to do with the Cold War and the USSR’s attempts to overpower the United States?
The controversy arose after word got out that choosing a man like Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, a Latinamerican Afro-descendent, was the main participant of Intercosmos.
The public was convinced that such a decision was merely a conspicuous strategy to prove to the world that Cuba was not only an antiracist, desegregated country but that it also had a firm political relation with the USSR.
Experts have weighed the possibility that Castro personally asked Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhne to choose Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez over a non-Afro-Cuban.
Despite the conflicts between countries and ideals, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez proved to be a committed military man and an exceptional cosmonaut.
His extensive labor gained him recognitions such as:
- Order of Lenin from the Soviet Union
- The first title of Hero of the Republic of Cuba by Fidel Castro
- Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor in the Soviet Union
- Order of Playa Girón
In 1980, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez became a Member of the Cuban legislature, the National Assembly of People’s Power.
He is married to María Lobaina, with whom he has two sons.
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