Twenty-four astronauts and cosmonauts from eight nations gathered in Almaty, Kazakhstan September 26October 2, 2001 for the 17th Planetary Congress of the Association of Space Explorers. The theme of the Congress was Gateway to Space Exploration and Environmental Protection, reflecting the role of Kazakhstan as the launch site for humanity's first venture into space as well as its struggle to address severe environmental problems that plague the region. The 17th Congress was hosted by Kazakh cosmonaut Tokhtar Aubakirov.
The Opening Ceremony of the Congress took place Thursday, September 26 at the Almaty City Hall with the astronauts, cosmonauts, press, government officials, members of the scientific community and the general public in attendance. Congress host Tokhtar Aubakirov began the session with a statement of condolences to the people of the United States for the tragic events of September 11; Aubakirov then introduced the individual fliers and welcomed the delegations to Kazakhstan. The Vice Prime Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan followed, describing the growing role of Kazakhstan in space research and exploration and lauding the assembled fliers for promoting the use of space technologies for environmental monitoring and preservation, particularly with regard to the many environmental problems faced by Kazakhstan. The Deputy Mayor of Almaty followed, echoing Aubakirov's remarks and describing the central role Almaty played, and continues to play, in the development of Kazakh scientific and technical research capabilities.
Alexei Leonov, representing ASE-Russia, spoke about his experiences viewing the Earth from orbit and how these experiences imprinted upon him the fact that we all inhabit a single, small fragile planet and that we all share responsibility for its welfare. John Fabian spoke on behalf of the US fliers, thanking the Kazakhs and Russians for their support and reiterating Leonov's statement on the commonality of our interests in preserving the planet for future generations, noting that this was precisely the reason the Association was formed. Fabian remarked that among the most important tasks of the ASE was to communicate to the public in general and the youth in particular the importance of understanding and addressing the many environmental problems we face. Aubakirov returned to the podium and declared the Congress officially open. The ceremony was punctuated by a poem read by celebrated Kazakh poet V. Mukhtar in which he expounded upon the spirit of adventure and responsibility that compels the space explorers to pursue humanity's greatest adventure.
Thursday afternoon, the fliers assembled for the first technical session of the Congress to discuss the history of human space flight. Viktor Gorbatko opened the session by reminiscing on his experiences in early cosmonaut training, the cosmonauts' relationships with Korolev and he provided some insight into the selection of Yuri Gagarin as the first space traveler. Alexei Leonov recounted his EVA training protocols for Voskhod 2 and provided a humorous description of his post-landing survival experiences. Gennadi Strekalov followed with a detailed account of his aborted launch on board Soyuz TM-10 and discussed the need for continued progress on crew safety issues. Miroslaw Hermaszewski closed the session with an overview of the Intercosmos program. After the session, the fliers and their spouses attended a reception at the Embassy of the Russian Federation.
The second technical session of the week, 40 Years of Earth Observations, took place Friday morning at the State University of Kazakhstan. Chaired by Russian cosmonaut Viktor Savinykh, the session included a report by Savinykh on the achievements of the Soviet earth observations program as well as the current status and future prospects of the Russian effort. Papers were presented by Academician Umurzak Sultangazin on Kazakh work in the field of remote sensing and M. Nauryzbaev on Kazakh environmental monitoring strategies for areas impacted by spacecraft debris after launching from Baikonur. Loren Acton reported on the Deep Space Probe and the relationship between that program and the US earth observation effort.
Friday afternoon the first of a two-part executive session was held where candidates for the ASE executive committee were nominated and placed on the ballot. The day concluded with a reception at the official residence of the US Ambassador to Kazakhstan.
Saturday morning the delegates arose early and boarded a charter flight to the Russian space launch facility in Baikonur. The day-long excursion included visits to the Korolev and Apollo-Soyuz monuments, an appearance at the Golden Autumn celebration, tours of the Khrunishchev and Energia vehicle processing facilities, visits to the Proton and Soyuz launch pads and a tour of the Baikonur museum. The trip concluded with a reception hosted by the Mayor of Baikonur.
Sunday was a free day for the fliers; while some took advantage of the resort facilities of the Alatau hotel, others enjoyed an afternoon excursion to the local Zaliskii Alatoo mountains and a visit to the world-class Medeo speed-skating facility on the outskirts of Almaty. In the afternoon, the fliers signed the commemorative Congress poster. That evening the fliers and spouses were treated to an evening of entertainment at the Abai Opera and Ballet Theater.
Monday morning the fliers convened at the National Academy of Sciences in Almaty for the international space flights update session. Due to the events of September 11, the NASA-sponsored chairs and speakers for this session were not present for the Congress and presentations were limited to the active Russian cosmonauts in attendance. Talgat Musabayev reported on his recent flight to the ISS with Yuri Baturin and Dennis Tito, Anatoli Artsebarsky screened home videos taken on his long-duration missions to the Mir space station and Umurzak Sultangazin gave a detailed briefing on the results of several Kazakh scientific programs carried out over the years on board the Mir. After lunch, the fliers returned to the Academy for a spirited roundtable discussion of the role space technology, research and exploration plays in resolving environmental problems world-wide. That evening, the delegates attended a reception and barbecue hosted by the Mayor of Almaty.
The final day of the Congress began with the second of the two-part executive session, where reports on internal ASE activities were made by representatives of the US and Russian chapters; elections to the international executive committee were also held Sergei Avdeev (Russia) and Franz Viehbock (Austria) were elected from a field of six candidates to fill seats vacated by outgoing executive committee members Dorin Prunariu (Romania) and Miroslaw Hermaszewski (Poland). A press conference was held with members of the Kazakh, Russian and international media to discuss the Congress events; the executive committee reiterated the message that space exploration plays an important role in environmental protection and encouraged the media to work towards greater public awareness of the environmental issues faced by Kazakhstan.
At the Closing Banquet and ceremony that evening, Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of the Republic of Kazakhstan was awarded the ASE Planetary Award, the Crystal Helmet, for his efforts in raising awareness of and support for protecting ecologically sensitive areas in Kazakhstan. Academician Sultangazin was awarded a Leonov Medallion for the role he plays in the Kazakh scientific research community and ASE members Sultan al-Saud, Loren Acton, Bertalan Farkas, Georgi Ivanov, Oleg Makarov, Edgar Mitchell (in absentia), Rusty Schweickart (in absentia), and Franz Viehbock (in absentia) were awarded ASE logo pins with inset diamonds for their longtime service to the Association as executive committee members or Congress hosts.