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US astronaut of Ukrainian descent goes to space and then comes to Ukraine


After Ukraines independence, the first Ukrainian to go into space was Leonid Kadenyuk who was a member of the crew of a NASA space shuttle mission. Back in the soviet times, Pavlo Popovych, a cosmonaut of Ukrainian descent, was the first man ever to take a space walk.

In the early fall of 2006, Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, a US astronaut of Ukrainian descent, orbited the earth on board Space Shuttle Atlantis for its rendezvous with the International Space Station on mission STS-115. Atlantis with a crew of six was launched on September 9 2006 and landed on September 21 2006. During the flight that lasted for 11 days, 19 hours and 6 minutes, astronauts Tanner and Piper performed two space walks (the third spacewalk was performed by another pair of astronauts) and their quick and efficient work enabled them to get ahead of the planned timeline.


Soon after the flight, Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper began to plan a visit to Ukraine, the native land of her father, Mykhailo (her mother, Adelheid, was a German). The plan was carried out when Viktor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian industrialist and patron of art, sent Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper an invitation to come over to Ukraine on a visit. She arrived in Ukraine on February 28 2007. It was the village her father hailed from that was at the very top of the list of the places she wanted to visit.

Before the Second World War Mrs Stefanyshyn-Pipers father lived in the village of Yakymiv in the Land of Lvivshchyna, Western Ukraine. After the war Mykhailo Stefanyshyn found himself in the USA where he met a German woman he later married.

Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper was born in the town of St Paul in the State of Minnesota on February 7 1963. She is the only daughter in the family  but she has four brothers. Mykhailo Stefanyshyn had preserved Ukrainian traditions and language to such an extent that he passed them on to his children. In her turn, Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper teaches her son, named Michael, the Ukrainian language and some of the Ukrainian cultural traditions. She says that in her home she has Ukrainian icons, decorative embroideries, painted Easter eggs and other things that show her home as a place where the Ukrainian spirit lives. When she has time, she cooks such traditional Ukrainian dishes as borsch, varenyky and holubtsi.

Before becoming an astronaut, Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned her Masters degree, and served in the US Navy. She was an officer in charge of underwater inspection and servicing of warships. After two years of training, she was chosen to be one of the crew on a space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. Later, during her visit to Ukraine, she said that when she had been aboard Atlantis in space and looked down on the planet Earth, she tried to locate Ukraine from space  she easily identified the Crimea and Black sea but I did not see my fathers village.

In Ukraine, Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper was given a red-carpet treatment. In Kyiv she was taken on a sightseeing tour of the Holy Sophia Cathedral and the Pechersk Lavra Monastery. From Kyiv she proceeded to Lviv where she was given a warm welcome at the airport. She gave a press conference, was received by the mayor, and took a stroll around Lviv. Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper gave the mayor, Roman Kulyk, some presents and left her signature in the City Halls honorary guest book (among the signatures there, one can find those of Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Polish presidents). Of all the sights in Lviv, she was most impressed by the buildings of the Lviv Opera House and of the Cathedral of St Yura (St George).

On January 30, Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper went to the village of Novy Yarychiv, where many of her relatives still live. But it was not only her relatives who came to welcome her  probably all the villagers were there to greet her. Close to the village park, which boasts monuments to Taras Shevchenko and Markiyan Shashkevych (a prominent Western Ukrainian writer and public figure of the first half of the 19th century), tables were laid with dishes and drinks of the traditional Ukrainian cuisine; the mayor of the village was there too and he even had cooked meat having used an old Ukrainian recipe. The US astronauts visit did turn into a sort of a festive occasion. But there was an official greeting ceremony too, which was held in the central square of the village, decorated with banners and bunting, where the Ukrainian anthem was played; the young members of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists held posters that said, We Love You, Heide!

Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper was given a traditional loaf of bread as a sign of welcome, all sorts of presents, including dolls in Ukrainian traditional dress, and flowers. Songs were sung and poems were recited. Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper was moved to tears by the reception.

If only my late father were here now, he would be so proud of me and his village, and of his relatives, and of the reception you gave me. Thank you so much, said Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper.

The local church choir sang a thanks-giving hymn and the local priest said that all the villagers had prayed for the success of her mission and her safe return.

That day it was way below zero but Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper did not seem to mind, or be in any way affected by the freezing temperature. She presented the villagers with a big photograph of the International Space Station.

After the reception was over, she went on to the village of Yakymiv where her father used to live. The village is situated several kilometres away from Novy Yarychiv. By the time she got there, a snowstorm had hit the village, but she again was met by many people from Yakymiv and other neighbouring villages. The mayor of the village, Mariya Yakymova, in welcoming the US astronaut, gave her an embroidery that depicted the village, and the birth certificate of her father; the local priest presented her with a Ukrainian icon and decorative embroidered towel. The reception was held near the 150-years old Church of St John the Baptist in which Mrs Stefanyshyn-Pipers father had been baptized years ago.

Later, Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper, accompanied by her relatives, went to the local cemetery where her grandparents were buried. After a prayer for the dead, she was invited for dinner at her cousins place. She said she was happy to see the place where her father had once lived, and of which he had told her a lot, and meet her Ukrainian relatives, of whom there turned out to be so many. She said she would come back again to Ukraine as soon as she would find time for another visit, adding that she would bring her brothers and her son with her.

When Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper returned to Kyiv, she was received by the President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko who said that We are proud that you have so successfully performed all the tasks of the space mission, and that it was exciting to hear the news of the first woman of Ukrainian descent successfully performing two space walks. The President added that it was so good that Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper has preserved the loyalty to the Ukrainian language and traditions, and remembered Ukraine even during the space flightUkraine will always give you and your family a warm welcome. The President also asked Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper to share her impressions of her visit and she gladly did it.

Then the Order of Grand Duchess Olga, 3rd category, was awarded to Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper by the President.



Photos by the author and from NASAs website




The President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko
awards Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper the Order
of Grand Duchess Olga, 3rd category.
February 1 2007. Photo by N. LAZARENKO


Mrs Stefanyshyn-Piper was given a traditional
loaf of bread as a sign of welcome; she was moved
to tears by the reception in the village of Novy
Yarychiv. January 30, 2007


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