Slovak astronaut Ivan Bella has been promised a big promotion on his return from the Russian space station MIR.
Born in 1964 in the central Slovak village of Dolná Lehota, Ivan Bella studied at the military high school in Banská Bystrica, from which he graduated in 1983.
"The decision to apply for this special kind of high school came from his deep interest in flying, which started at an early age," said the astronaut's father, 61-year-old Marián Bella. He added that his son's efforts were crowned by success when he was accepted at an Air Military Academy in Košice right after graduating from high school.
After four years of university study, Bella became a fighter pilot. In 1993, he was assigned to an air base in the western Slovak town of Malacky, where he learned to pilot Mig-21 and Su-22 Russian fighters.
The turning point in his life arrived at the beginning of 1998, when former representatives of the Slovak Defence Ministry announced a competition to fill the post of Slovakia's first astronaut. Bella decided to apply.
"At the beginning, there were 30 pilots," Bella explained. "They broke us into smaller groups and picked the best ones. Finally, four people were chosen and went to Russia. Of these, they chose me and Michal Fulier [the back-up astronaut for the current mission]," he added.
Bella departed for Russia on March 24, 1998, leaving a daughter and son from his first marriage, and one son from his second marriage, in his native Slovakia. His big day came after nearly a year of training, when he stepped into the rocket after saying goodbye to his family, friends and colleagues.
But Bella may be returning to a different world. Successful completion of the mission will most likely mean a promotion for Lieutenant Colonel Bella to the top ranks of the Air Force after his landing on earth, Defence Minister Pavol Kanis said.
With press reports
1. Mar 1999 at 0:00 | Slavomír Danko