The Soviet Rocket Scientist Who Was Left Stranded In Space For Over 300 Days

Image: Facebook/Sergei Krikalev

It’s January 1992, and Cosmonaut 3rd Class Sergei Krikalev is into his eighth month on the Soviet space station Mir. Yet when he launched on May 19, 1991, his mission was meant to last for just five months. But events back on Earth have meant that Krikalev now has no way of knowing when he’ll head for home.

Image: Twitter/ESA space history

Krikalev – who was a flight engineer – had arrived at the Mir station with two other people. One was Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut. She spent eight days aboard Mir, conducting experiments before returning to Earth. The other was Anatoly Artsebarsky, who was to spend almost five months on Mir.

Image: Anne-Katrin Purkiss

When Sharman returned to Earth, she ultimately left Krikalev and Artsebarsky alone on the space station. And while this pair was together, they made good use of their time with six space walks. These consisted of the cosmonauts performing various scientific experiments, as well as touching up the space station.

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Image: Twitter/ESA space history

As planned, a relief crew bound for the Mir station took off from Earth on October 2, 1992, to take over from Artsebarsky. But Krikalev, on the other hand, had agreed to extend his tour during the previous July. This was because his scheduled replacement, Toktar Aubakirov, had not undergone the training necessary for long stays in space.

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So on October 10 Artsebarsky and Aubakirov – along with Franz Viehböck, the first Austrian in space – returned to Earth. Krikalev remained aboard Mir with Commander Aleksandr Volkov, who had arrived on the October 2 flight. So now it was just the two of them on the space station. But events down below in the U.S.S.R. were shaping up to bring the date of their return into question.

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We’ll soon get back to the happenings of the Soviet Union that threw Krikalev and Volkov’s return journey into doubt. But first, let’s find out more about the Mir station and its place within the context of Soviet space exploration. A Soviet decree initiated the Mir project in 1976 – though it was a decade before it made it to orbit.

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The U.S.S.R. intended Mir – named after the Russian word for “peace” – to be a spacecraft for carrying out long-term research projects as it orbited Earth. The Soviets launched the first of its modules in February 1986. They did so from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which was a part of the Soviet Union at that time.

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After this first module was launched into orbit, a further six were added to complete the space station’s structure over the following decade. During its run, Mir orbited Earth at a rough speed of more than 17,000 miles per hour. Its altitude varied between 220 and 232 miles away from Earth.

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Most often, there were three cosmonauts living in the cramped conditions of Mir – though it was capable of accommodating up to six. Since the station went through 16 sunsets and sunrises every day, nighttime was simulated by blacking out the portholes. Originally expected to last for five years, in the end Mir was in use for 15.

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Working from Moscow’s time zone, the cosmonauts aboard Mir would typically rise at 8:00 A.M. They started their day with breakfast and personal ablutions which would take up a couple of hours. They then set to work for two hours until 1:00 P.M. Then came an hour of physical fitness workouts, and then lunch.

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After lunch came another three hours of work and an hour of exercise. After that, it was time for dinner. The cosmonauts then had free time after they’d eaten. Discover magazine quoted Krikalev describing one of his favorite off-duty pastimes. He recalled, “Every spare moment, we tried to look at the Earth.”

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Jerry Linenger – an American who spent time on Mir in 1997 – described that experience of looking down on the home planet on the NASA website. “Today I saw huge dust storms in the Sahara of Africa,” Linenger wrote. “Lake Chad drying up. Five minutes later: the Nile, the triangle of the Sinai Peninsula, and the Red Sea all in one view. Then, Elbrus and the snow-covered Caucasus.”

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So after that brief description of life on Mir, let’s get to know those two men who were aboard the station in October 1991 – Krikalev and Volkov. It’s worth noting first that for both of those men, this was their second stint aboard Mir. Together, they’d spent 151 days on the space station from November 1988 to April 1989.

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Krikalev was born in 1958, in what was then the Soviet city of Leningrad – now known by its original name of St. Petersburg. After finishing high school, he went to the Leningrad Mechanical Institute. He graduated from here in 1981, leaving with an honors degree in mechanical engineering.

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Krikalev then started working with NPO Energia, a Russian company which designed equipment and provided services for the Soviet Union’s space program. He developed space travel protocols and equipment at the company, and he also worked in mission control. He was also involved in the operation to salvage the Salyut 7 space station following a systems failure in 1985.

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Krikalev won a place on the Soviet cosmonaut program in 1985, successfully completing his basic training the following year. He was then chosen to take part in the Buran spacecraft initiative. But in 1988 he was diverted to special training for a mission aboard Mir. This involved learning to undertake space walks.

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On the other hand, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Volkov was born in 1948 in Ukraine, which was still then one of the Soviet Socialist Republics. Although born and raised there, Volkov was of Russian heritage. And when he was 13, the Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first man to reach space. This apparently sparked Volkov’s yearning to become a cosmonaut.

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Volkov trained as a pilot at Ukraine’s Chuguyev Higher Air Force School. He graduated in 1970, then spending some time as a test pilot before joining the cosmonaut program in 1976. His first space flight came in 1985, when he traveled aboard the Soyuz T-14 ship to the Soviets’ Salyut 7 space station.

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Volkov and Krikalev came together in November 1988. A spacecraft called Soyuz TM-7 was launched from Baikonur, bound for the Mir station. On board, Krikalev was the engineer and Volkov was the commander. It was the former’s first space flight and the latter’s second. With them was Jean-Loup Chrétien, who had previously become the first Frenchman to travel into space in 1982.

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The three Soviet cosmonauts already on Mir stayed with the newcomers for 25 days – the longest period in which the station had ever hosted six people. It must have felt crowded. After the 25 days, two of the original cosmonauts and Chrétien headed back to Earth. Krikalev, Volkov and one Valeri Polyakov stayed put.

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The trio later returned to Earth in April 1989. Polyakov had been on Mir for 240 days. As mentioned earlier, Krikalev and Volkov were in orbit for 151 days on their first mission aboard Mir. In 1994 Polyakov went on a second mission to Mir, spending 437 days in space. At the time, this was the longest spell a human had ever spent away from Earth.

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After that first mission on Mir, Krikalev reentered training for a Mir project in April 1990. However, this time Krikalev was one of the back-up crew for the mission. Unless one of the first-choice crew dropped out, he would not actually be flying to Mir. And, in fact, the first-line crew did fly this time – leaving Krikalev on Earth.

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But by December 1990 Krikalev was back in training again for another Mir mission – this time as a first-choice crew member. The rigorous exercises included preparations for making up to ten space walks. Krikalev would be returning to Mir aboard Soyuz TM-12 with two others. One was Soviet cosmonaut Anatoly Artsebarsky, who would be in command of the Soyuz spacecraft. The other was scientist Helen Sharman.

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Born in the English city of Sheffield in 1963, Sharman was one of almost 13,000 people who answered a radio ad which called for people to become the U.K.’s first astronaut. She was picked. And so now, after a year and a half of arduous training, here she was speeding towards Mir. But her scheduled stay there was to be a short one. She returned to Earth after seven days.

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When Krikalev, Artsebarsky and Sharman arrived on Mir, already aboard were flight engineer Musa Manarov and mission crew commander Viktor Afanasyev. On May 26, 1991, these latter two and Sharman returned to Earth. That left just two cosmonauts on the space station – Artsebarsky and Krikalev. Artsebarsky performed six space walks during his time aboard, giving him a total of more than 33 hours outside the space station.

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A relief crew was scheduled to come in October to replace Krikalev and Artsebarsky. But the replacement engineer meant to take over from Krikalev didn’t have the requisite training for a long stay aboard the space station. In light of that, Krikalev agreed to extend his time aboard Mir. In any case, the relief crew duly took off and arrived at Mir on October 2, 1991.

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The three newcomers to Mir were Commander Alexander Volkov, the Austrian scientist Franz Viehböck and Toktar Aubakirov from the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. The Austrian government had reportedly coughed up a fee of $7 million to the Soviets to get Viehböck aboard Mir. On October 10 Viehböck, Aubakirov and Artsebarsky flew back to Earth.

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That left Volkov and Krikalev aboard the space station. But their time there was complicated by momentous events back in the U.S.S.R. Things had kicked off in Russia in August 1991 – the month after Krikalev had agreed to extend his mission. On August 19 radical communists – unhappy with the way things were going in the Soviet Union – launched a military coup in Moscow.

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In the buildup to this coup attempt, many changes had washed over the Soviet Union. Indeed, in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev had become the leader of the state. In this capacity, Gorbachev oversaw reforms to the Soviet economy, as well as a slackening of the strict censorship that had characterized the U.S.S.R. for decades.

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In 1989 many territories – such as East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia – overthrew their Soviet-supported communist governments. But in August 1991 some hardline elements in the Russian Communist Party decided to act in a last-ditch attempt to roll back the Gorbachev reforms. Tanks now trundled into Red Square in the city of Moscow.

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After two days, the coup attempt ended in failure. But it had succeeded in destabilizing what remained of the Soviet Union. And so on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved. But one consequence of this was a large question mark over the Soviet space program and the Mir space station. After all, spacecraft bound for Mir were launched from the base at Baikonur in Kazakhstan – one of the republics pressing for independence.

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In an attempt to keep Kazakhstan on board, the Soviet authorities agreed to send a Kazakh national to Mir. This was Toktar Aubakirov, who arrived for his short stay aboard the space station on October 2, 1991. He had taken the place of an experienced astronaut who would’ve replaced Krikalev at that point.

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So because of these events, Sergei Krikalev had been significantly impacted as 1991 rolled on. And things got worse. Not only was Krikalev’s original mission now extended, no definite end-point to his time on Mir had been scheduled. And Krikalev’s own words – quoted by Discover in 2016 – show that the astronaut had been concerned about this prolonged stay in space.

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Speaking of the coup, Krikalev said, “For us, it was totally unexpected. We didn’t understand what happened. When we discussed all this, we tried to grasp how it would affect the space program.” And unsurprisingly, he was concerned about his own well-being. “Do I have enough strength? Will I be able readjust for this longer stay to complete the program? Naturally, at one point I had my doubts.”

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In February 1992 The Washington Post ran a piece headlined, “Left In Space: The Cosmonaut’s Endless Orbit.” By then, Krikalev had been orbiting Earth for almost nine months. The article reported that Krikalev only got to speak to his spouse Elena at a single point each week – even though she actually worked at mission control.

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Discover magazine published Elena’s thoughts about those calls. She said, “I tried never to talk about unpleasant things because it must have been hard for him. As far as I can make out, Sergei was doing the same thing.” But things must have been difficult for Elena and the couple’s baby daughter back on Earth.

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For one thing, Krikalev’s earnings of 500 rubles a month were supposedly then equivalent to just around $2.50. And Russia’s dire economic situation was also impacting on Krikalev’s home comforts aboard Mir. You see, Krikalev loved honey. But there was a shortage in Russia. So instead, he received parcels containing onions and horseradish – poor substitutes for the sweet stuff he craved.

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Eventually, news came through that a replacement crew was on its way. Krikalev and Volkov would soon finally be able to get back to their home planet. And on March 25, 1992, the two men arrived back on Earth, landing in the newly independent Kazakhstan. By that time, Krikalev had circled the globe around 5,000 times. He had been in space for 311 days – a record at the time. And while he’d been there, his country had dissolved.

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Amazingly, it seems that the intrepid Krikalev was unfazed by that extended and uncertain spell aboard Mir. In October 1992 NASA committed to flying a Space Shuttle with a Russian on board. And Krikalev was picked by the Russian Space Agency as one of those to be trained for this groundbreaking partnership between America and Russia. He was aboard the Shuttle when it launched in February 1994.

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Then, in 1998 Krikalev and an American named Robert Cabana were the first two aboard the International Space Station. And he was back on the space station twice more, including a six-month stay in 2005. By the time he retired, Krikalev had been on six missions and spent 803 days in space. He went on to work for Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities as director of manned spaceflight. A veteran space hero indeed.

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