MAXIM MARMUR/AFP via Getty Images
A Story That’s Out Of This World
Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev left his home in 1991 for his second mission into space. For this trip, he would be floating more than 200 miles above the Earth’s surface, as the only cosmonaut aboard the Mir Space Station. But what started as a routine mission soon became one that would threaten to take his life, and leave him alone in space.
From 200 miles above everything he knew, he would watch the entire world completely change. He had no idea when he would be able to return back home, and no idea when he would even get to speak to another human being. But after being stranded in space, Krikalev is sharing his unbelievable story.
Four Months Earlier…
Krikalev had been working his way up and training for this mission for years. He was a trained pilot and had a mechanical engineering degree when he started working in space flight development. Before long, he was working on space operation methods and ground control operations. In his 20s, Krikalev safely completed an in-orbit rescue mission.
So it was no surprise that by age 30, Krikalev was chosen for his first flight to complete a mission on the Mir Space Station. And after the mission ended successfully, Krikalev was asked to go on yet another trip to the Mir. But unlike his previous experience, this one would be far from smooth sailing.
A Life-Changing Mission
In 1990, Krikalev began to train for another trip to space. Over the next year, he was thoroughly trained for a mission that was set to last for about five months. But there was a problem: Krikalev had not been trained to handle the bodily and technical issues that might arise if the trip were to last any longer than that.
On May 19, 1991, Krikalev along with two other astronauts prepared to board a space ship bound for the Mir station. Krikalev was the only flight engineer on board. And that would soon turn out to be a mistake — of near-fatal proportions.
Reaching The Space Station
Astronaut Helen Sharman, the first Briton to go to space, was on board with Krikalev, and remembered him as being “cool under pressure”, according to Discover Magazine. As the spaceship approached the Mir, Sharman panicked, knowing that one wrong move could be deadly. But her crewmate landed the ship safely. Yet even now that they had arrived, despite its prestige, the space station was decidedly less than glamorous.
As Discover Magazine explained: “Mir had a well-earned reputation as a smelly, noisy place. It was no bigger than a few RVs stacked end to end.” Without any fresh air, the shuttle reeked of sweat. And the noise was never-ending. “The constant racket from fans and pumps and other machinery was enough to cause hearing loss,” the magazine stated. Life on Mir was like life on any space station, at least for now.
Life On A Space Station
Despite all of its downsides, Krikalev loved being in outer space. “He always said when he got into the space station, he felt like he was going home,” his fellow crew member Sharman recalled in an interview. In his free time, he would play games, like trying to float from one side of the station to the other without touching the walls.
When asked about his favorite things about being in space, Krikalev said in an interview with The Guardian: “firstly, the view of Earth from the viewing port. Secondly, the sense of freedom which you experience in weightlessness, you feel like a bird that is able to fly.” But soon the joys of their carefree days would be over — and the entire mission would come crashing down.
Left On A Two-Man Mission
For eight days, the three mission members joined the additional astronauts on the Mir Space Station, and took in the sights of their temporary home. “Every spare moment, we tried to look at the Earth, trying to pinpoint specific places on the globe,” Krikalev said. But for some, the home was more temporary than others.
Assigned with a shorter mission, Helen Sharman had planned to leave with the rest of the crew members. After everyone set off for their trip back to Earth, only Krikalev and Commander Anatoly Artsebarsky were left on board. Suddenly, it was just the two of them suspended in space. And they had no idea how drastically the world was changing back on Earth.
Back On Earth
Krikalev was practically alone in space, and news from Earth was hard to come by. But after a few months, the cosmonaut started to receive some unsettling information. It was August 19, 1991, and the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union, where Krikalev was from, were storming Red Square in Moscow in protest of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The hard-liners, led by Boris Yeltsin, weren’t happy with Gorbachev’s recent reforms. On Earth, citizens of the Soviet Union, as well as the entire planet, were watching the world superpower as it began to dissolve. But from space, Krikalev was watching whatever he could in fear of what this could mean for his space mission, and ultimately, for his life.
A Startling Surprise
If people on Earth were surprised to see what was happening in the Soviet Union, just imagine the helplessness that Krikalev felt while stuck in space. From the Mir Space Station, the cosmonaut was barely able to stay updated, and was definitely unable to predict what would happen next.
“For us, it was totally unexpected,” Krikalev told reporters about the coup happening back in his home country. “We didn’t understand what happened. When we discussed all this, we tried to grasp how it would affect the space program.” But the way these historical events would affect Krikalev’s mission were even more colossal than he could have imagined.
An Uncertain Future
Over the next few months and weeks, the updates trickling into the space station were even more unsettling for Krikalev. As time passed, more and more Soviet states were declaring their independence. Krikalev was starting to get increasingly worried, and soon he had even more of a reason to be.
Krikalev was told by space officials in Kazakhstan that, due to the revolution, money had dried up. They simply did not have enough funds to get Krikalev back to Earth at that time. So he waited. Another month passed, and mission control continued to give him the same update: stay in place. But time was running out, and Krikalev began to worry about whether he’d make it out of this mission alive.
On Solid Ground
On Krikalev’s previous trip to the Mir station, his communications with mission control had been much less pessimistic. During that time, he was able to form a connection with a woman working the radio. That woman, Elena, would eventually become his wife. And now, on his second mission, the two were communicating semi-regularly.
But this time, their conversations were decidedly less romantic. The lone cosmonaut was worried about his wife, alone with their 9-month-old child far longer than expected. The cosmonaut was still making his meager state-determined salary of only a few dollars a month, and with the new inflation, he was worried not just about his own survival — he was worried for his family’s survival too.
No End In Sight
“I tried never to talk about unpleasant things because it must have been hard for him,” Elena later said in an interview. “As far as I can make out, Sergei was doing the same thing.” News continued to trickle into the space station, and each update left the stressed cosmonaut feeling like an end date for his mission was even farther out of reach.
Another month had passed, and Krikalev continued to receive the same answer: stay in place. There was not enough money to get him home. “The country is in such difficulty, the chance to save money must be the top priority,” Krikalev said in an interview at the time. So for now, he waited, hoping that conditions wouldn’t get any worse.
A Way Out
All this time, Krikalev was not exactly stranded in space. There was, actually, a way out, and he could have used it all along, though he had chosen not to. The Mir Space Station was equipped with a Raduga re-entry capsule, programmed to make the trip from the station back down to Earth.
But Krikalev and the other cosmonaut on board quickly decided that, for them, the option was off the table. The two had been trained for years about the intricacies of the space station, and they knew that leaving it would mean that there would be no one to look after the Mir. Jumping ship would have been the easy way out, but Krikalev was about to find out just how difficult the hard way out would be.
Starting To Seriously Worry
Beyond the loneliness that came with being stuck in space, Krikalev was beginning to really worry about the effects this elongated mission would have on his health. He knew from his intense training to be a cosmonaut that long periods in space could lead to conditions like muscle atrophy, radiation, a weakening of the immune system, and an increased risk of developing cancer.
Krikalev did not have the training to be able to handle the affects of such a long trip. Now he was certain his trip would last well beyond the original five-month plan. “I wondered if I had the strength to survive, to complete the program,” Krikalev told reporters. “I was not so sure.”
Another Mission, Another Upset
After months of uncertainty, Krikalev was given word that a new crew was being sent up to the Mir Space Station. At the time, the cosmonaut had only one request: he missed the taste of honey, and wanted some sent into space. But in October, when crew members finally arrived, all they had were lemons and horseradish.
But while they lacked honey, they were able to bring supplies and equipment to keep Krikalev’s mission going. But there was still no one in that crew with the skills necessary to take over for Krikalev and relieve him of his post. Just days later, the crew members went home, leaving just one behind to stay with Krikalev. The mission, yet again, had no end in sight.
Stuck, Once Again
The good news was that Krikalev now had supplies to continue his space mission. But the bad news was that this also meant that the cosmonaut knew he still had months of work ahead of him in space. And as the only flight engineer on board, he had no choice but to stay aboard.
Krikalev was left alone with his thoughts for much of his day. And all that time meant that he continued to worry. In an interview with Discover Magazine, he said he remembered wondering to himself: “Do I have enough strength? Will I be able to readjust for this longer stay to complete the program? Naturally, at one point I had my doubts.”
The Soviet Union Falls
Krikalev had been stuck in space for more than seven months when he heard the news that would change his life, and the lives of hundreds of millions. By December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union had completely dissolved. The Cold War had effectively ended. The home that Krikalev left in May would never be the same, and neither would his space mission.
Despite all of the chaos down below, Krikalev continued to put his trust completely in mission control. When they continued to report that they did not have the funds to get home back to Earth, he remained patient. And back on Earth, mission control was scrambling to figure out what to do with the cosmonaut.
“The Last Soviet Citizen”
With his home country forever changed, Krikalev found himself as the last actual Soviet citizen in the world. He was floating in space wearing a flag that no longer represented any country, sent on a mission by a government that had collapsed. It was a perfect storm, and this cosmonaut was caught directly in the middle of it.
Mission control worked tirelessly to get their cosmonaut back to solid ground. At one point, the new government attempted to sell seats on the Mir Space Station in order to collect the funds to bring their man back. But that did not work. Simultaneously, they worked to try to find someone who was able to replace him. What would the lasting effects be on the cosmonaut as Earth tarried?
Finally, A Way Out
It was March, and Krikalev had been in space for 10 months — double the amount of time that his mission was originally expected to take, and three months since the USSR fell. His body was weak, and he was feeling the effects of living life in zero gravity for such a long time.
He was trying to hold on to hope as he watched his body continue to weaken. And then, at long last, came the call that would change his life. Mission control had radioed the Mir Space Station to tell him the news: they had found a replacement for him. He was told to prepare to return back to Earth, back to a world that had completely changed since he last left it.
A Bittersweet Homecoming
On March 25, 1992, Krikalev finally landed back on Earth. But what was supposed to be a joyous event took a much darker turn. The last citizen of the USSR stepped off of the space ship wearing the signature red flag on his arm. Dubbed a hero, he nonetheless looked weaker than ever.
A news report at the time described Krikalev as “pale as flour and sweaty, like a lump of wet dough”. Another referred to him as a “victim of space”, due to his frail appearance. After 10 months without gravity, Krikalev couldn’t even stand. He needed four people to carry him and help him stand up. Quietly, officials worried about the toll the mission had taken on his body.
“A Victim Of Space”
Krikalev was quickly placed in a stretcher to transport him inside. It was snowing at the time, which was a dramatic shift from the hot, sweaty space capsule he’d stepped out from. One man reportedly fanned his face with a handkerchief, while another wrapped him in a fur blanket, and yet another fed him hot broth to regulate his body temperature.
Despite all of this, Krikalev told reporters that his return home was “very pleasant in spite of the gravity [he] had to face. But psychologically, the load was lifted. There was a moment. You couldn’t call it euphoria, but it was very good.” But that euphoria would not last long.
Returning To A New Home
By the time Krikalev had landed back on solid ground, he had circled Earth a total of over 5,000 times. He watched 5,000 sunsets and sunrises over his more than 300 days spent in space. And the world below him had changed dramatically. He landed in Arkalykh, which was now a part of the newly independent republic of Kazakhstan.
After some observation, he was able to return to his home. When he had left, the city where his family lived was called Leningrad, but now, even it too had undergone a name change: St. Petersburg. The salary he had made was once enough to provide for his family, but now, under inflation, he made less than a bus driver.
Reacting To The Changes
Krikalev had become a legend in Russia and throughout the world of space travel. His story seemed like it was ripped right from the pages of a science fiction novel. But this cosmonaut was not a fan of the spotlight, and downplayed what it was like to return home to a changed world.
“The change is not that radical,” Krikalev told reporters at the time. Instead, he focused on the changes he got to see from space. “Winter has come, and before it was summer,” he said. “Now it’s beginning to bloom again. That’s the most impressive change you can see from space.” But down on Earth, the changes in his body continued to demand attention.
The Long Road Of Recovery
Krikalev’s mission was officially over, but he was not yet out of the woods. His body had taken a serious hit. “After a long duration in space, the first stage of recovery normally takes two to three weeks as you get used to things back on the ground,” Krikalev told The Guardian. “After two to three months, you are fully recovered.”
Krikalev explained to The Guardian that he managed to utilize various techniques and exercises while he was in space. And thanks to those methods, he was able to regain his bone and muscle mass over time. As soon as he was able, he decided to do what some would consider to be completely unthinkable.
Returning To Work
After finding himself stuck in space for an indefinite period of time, and then returning to a completely changed world, it would have been totally understandable for Krikalev to have decided to end his career there. But Krikalev was not like most people. Instead, as soon as he could, he returned right back to work.
He flew to the United States to train for his next mission, to be the only Russian crew member to fly alongside NASA astronauts to the new International Space Station. He was given the honor of being made an official Hero of Russia. And in 1998, Krikalev returned back to his home away from home, floating in space.
Life As A Hero
Krikalev would go on to complete six space missions. He was included on the first long-stay mission to the International Space Station in 2000, and the eleventh ISS mission in 2005. Beyond being awarded the title of Hero of the Russian Federation, he was also given the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal.
And at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, it was Krikalev who was selected to raise the Russian flag during the opening ceremony. Over his life, he spent 803 days, 9 hours, and 39 minutes in space. And while some of them were more anxiety-inducing than others, this cosmonaut doesn’t regret a single second.
Sources: Discovery Magazine, Russia Beyond, The Guardian