On May 19, 1991, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalyov blasted off for the Mir Space Station for what was supposed to be a 160-day tour. But, while he was aloft, the country which had sent him into space—the Soviet Union—disintegrated, and his tour was repeatedly extended. Thereafter dubbed “the last Soviet citizen” because of his unusual predicament, Krikalyov orbited the earth for an additional 150 days before he was relieved of duty and journeyed to his new homeland.
This is just one of the interesting aspects of Krikalyov’s biography. A member of the Russian and Soviet national aerobatic flying teams, at the age of 25 he was Champion of Moscow, and, at 28, Champion of the Soviet Union. Trained as an engineer, he worked on the rescue mission team for the Salyut-7 space station when it failed in 1985. He was selected as an astronaut that same year, and worked for a time on the Buran Shuttle program. His first flight in space was a 151-day stint on Mir in 1988 and 1989. He subsequently received several prestigious honors: Hero of the Soviet Union, the Order of Lenin and the French title of L’Officier de la L’egion d’Honneur. He was the first Russian cosmonaut to be awarded the title of Hero of Russia, and in 1994, he was awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal. More recently, Krikalyov was a member of the first three-person crew for the new International Space Station. To date, the 42-year-old cosmonaut has flown into space five times, spent over 624 days in orbit and over 36 hours in space walks.
During his first two stints in space, between November 1988 and March 1992, Krikalyov spent a total of 463 days in space—or 38% of his life during those four years. When he landed in March 1992, he joked that “my health now corresponds with the length of the flight … In any case, for now I don’t feel like dancing at discos.”
As is typical after months in space, Krikalyov had lost a large amount of muscle and fat tissue, and his bone and vascular degeneration was significant. It took him several months to recover. Yet, by April of 1993, he was already training for a new mission—he had been chosen to be the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on a US Space Shuttle.
Krikalyov’s fourth space flight was aboard the Shuttle Endeavor and involved assembly of the core of the International Space Station (ISS)—docking together the Zarya and Unity modules. His fifth flight, in October of last year, was with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko and US astronaut William Shepherd and involved opening up the ISS for continuous habitation. When, during the mission, the Progress cargo ship’s automatic docking procedures failed, it was Krikalyov who was called upon to manually dock the ship to the ISS, despite the tradition that, in emergencies, the ship commander (in this case Shepherd) carries out such operations.
In a strange parallel with his famous 1991 stay on Mir, Krikalyov’s return to earth from the ISS was delayed twice, adding a month to the anticipated three-month stay. During a teleconference, Krikalyov quipped that he had “mixed feelings about my stay at the ISS—on the one hand the crew finalized the preparation of the station to full-fledged status and it feels sad, as if a part of my life is gone. But then I am happy we could achieve a lot and could go without ChPs [emergency situations].”
Krikalyov returned from the ISS on March 21, 2001, almost 10-years to the day after he had returned from Mir to a newly-independent Russia. Two days later, the Mir Space Station fell into the atmosphere and burned up over the South Pacific. Unlike many other Russian cosmonauts, the reserved Krikalyov made no public statements about the demise of Mir. But one could well imagine what he must have felt, as one of the legendary station’s longest-term residents.
It is difficult to predict what the future will hold for Sergei Krikalyov. But, as one of the world’s most famous and accomplished astronauts, his career is clearly on an impressive trajectory.
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