Medal snub for Russian cosmonaut sparks 'cosmic scandal'

7th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russia's space agency expressed outrage Tuesday after the defence ministry refused one of its cosmonauts a prestigious state honour, in the first such snub in half a century of Soyuz flights.

Cosmonaut Maxim Surayev, who returned to Earth in March after six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS), has twice been denied the Hero of Russia medal, in what the media has called a "scandal of cosmic proportions."

"The defence ministry has twice refused to award the Hero of Russia medal to Surayev," Roskosmos spokesman Alexander Vorobyov told AFP. "As far as I know there was no reason given."

The medal, one of the country's highest honours, has been granted to nearly almost every first-time cosmonaut since Yuri Gagarin in 1961 and to every cosmonaut to fly on the Soyuz shuttle since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"The whole Russian cosmonaut community is up in arms at what is happening and in the end they may all go on strike," Vorobyov said, adding that the space agency had appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev to intervene.

The Hero of Russia medal confers housing, pension and travel benefits, as well as a state funeral.

These perks compensate cosmonauts for wages much lower than those paid to astronauts in the United States space programme NASA, Vorobyov argued.

"Our cosmonauts earn a lot less than NASA's astronauts, so in some ways it is a moral compensation," he said. "If they're not going to make them Heroes, then at the least they have to raise their salaries."

First-time cosmonaut Surayev, 38, became the first Russian to write a blog about his time in orbit with witty entries full of sharp Cold War spoofs and also went on a tricky spacewalk.

Colleagues argued that he had done enough to earn the honour.

"They probably thought that we don't do anything there... just fly up there for a vacation," cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, 39, who was awarded the honour in May, argued on a television talk show.

"I think it's wrong and I'm not the only one who thinks so."

© 2010 AFP

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