Valeri Polykov, holder of the record’s longest stay in space, passes away

Valeri Polykov
Valeri Polykov

Russian astronaut Valeri Polykov, who holds the record for the longest spaceflight yet of any human in history, has passed away at the age of 80.

In 1994 and 1995 Polykov spent 437 days on Russia’s space station Mir, the equivalent of fourteen months and two weeks. His thoughts at launch, as he told me personally when I interviewed him while writing Leaving Earth, were not so confident:

“What if something goes wrong?” [he explained]. “I had sacrificed so much time. The government has spent so much, more than they can afford. And I’ve learned so much for them myself, for them.

“Better I die if something went wrong,” he thought. “Better if I had a gun to shoot myself.”

Nothing went wrong however. Polykov, a doctor, had pushed for this long mission to find out if it would be possible for a person to function after a year-plus of weightlessness upon arrival on Mars. Originally planned to last 18 months, circumstances eventually shortened it to 14 months-plus. When Polykov came home in March 1995, he managed to walk a few steps on his own, shortly after being removed from the capsule. To his mind, he had proved that a person could function on their own on Mars after such a long flight.

Others disagreed. As I wrote in Leaving Earth, though he was almost normal within a week of landing,

Polykov had come back to Earth very weak. For at least those first few hours, he needed help from those around him. Any spacefarer arriving on Mars after a year in space must be prepared to face that same challenge.

Regardless, Polykov, like Brian Binnie, was one of the early giants in space exploration. His contribution must not be forgotten.

Russian astronaut fired for opposing filming of movie on ISS

Krikalev on the shuttle to ISS flight in 1998
Sergei Krikalev on the first ISS assembly flight
by the space shuttle Endeavour in 1998.

According to one new story today, Russian astronaut, Sergei Krikalev, 62, was fired from his position in senior management within Roscosmos for opposing its decision to film for profit the first feature film on ISS.

Krikalev did not say why he was against the film but his stance was backed by former colleagues who said that taking a passenger would delay a flight for a cosmonaut. Roscosmos denied that Krikalev had been fired.

Krikalev is one of Russia’s most celebrated astronauts. He was the first person to fly in space who was born after Sputnik, was the first Russian to fly on the space shuttle, and was the first Russian (along with an American) to enter ISS’s first module soon after launch. Overall he has spent more than 800 days in space.

He also became the last Soviet citizen, stranded on Mir when the Soviet Union fell in 1991. When he launched, he was a citizen of the U.S.S.R. When he finally returned, that country didn’t exist, and he was now a citizen of Russia.

I interviewed him extensively for my book, Leaving Earth, because he was fluent in English due to his flights on the shuttle. What I learned was that Krikalev was then and probably still is an ardent communist. On that Mir flight he refused to be filmed in a commercial for Coca-Cola, arranged by Roscosmos to make some money. There was no way he would allow himself to be recorded in such a crass for-profit manner. Thus, I am not surprised he now opposes using Russian space facilities for a commercial movie, for profit.

I also found him to be a very thoughtful and analytical man, which also probably explains his opposition to this quickly arranged commercial flight. The film company is partly owned by Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, so there probably is some payoffs and corruption involved. It is also probably interfering with the Russian side of operations, as the story says Krikalev claims. These factors would cause Krikalev to speak his mind and argue against the flight, which likely angered Rogozin, who is apparently pocketing some cash from the film.

I suspect Krikalev is not fired, but has merely been sent to the doghouse for a short while. Roscosmos (and Rogozin) can’t afford the bad publicity of letting him go. It also needs his expertise in their operations.

A man claims he has found a piece of debris from the Russian space station Mir in his backyard in northern Massachusetts.

A man claims he has found a piece of debris from the Russian space station Mir in his backyard in northern Massachusetts.

And I have a bridge I want to sell you. This story is very suspicious. No picture, the rock isn’t metallic, the NASA engineer who identified it isn’t identified even though he wrote a letter to the man, and it was found on the eastern United States even though Mir was de-orbited over the south Pacific.

If this story is true, than the journalist who wrote it did a really bad job of reporting it.