When Sergei Krikalev departed Earth, he expected to be back in just a few months. But his trip to outer space turned out to be much longer. And the home he came back to was unrecognizable. Here's his remarkable story.
The Lone Cosmonaut
In 1991, as cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev launched into space, it wasn't his first rodeo. But little did he know that this trip outside Earth would prove to be far different from anything he'd ever experienced.
Rather than complete the mission and come back - as was usually the case for the cosmonaut - Sergei found himself in a situation he likely never imagined possible: He was stuck in outer space. Meanwhile, the world below him shifted into something he hardly recognized...
But before we get into how one man literally got stuck in outer space, let's rewind to how Krikalev ended up in that spaceship to begin with. The truth is, Sergei's career with the Russian Space Agency was a long time in the making. The cosmonaut was pretty much always an over-achiever.
Krikalev was born in the former Soviet Union in a city called Leningrad. Today, his hometown is called Saint Petersburg, Russia. As a child, Sergei enjoyed all kinds of physical activity, from swimming and cycling to skiing. But it was his love for education that would really take him far.
Kicking Off His Career
After graduating from high school in 1975, Sergei went on to study mechanical engineering at the Leningrad Mechanical Institute - known today as Baltic State Technical University. There, the young student excelled academically and ultimately graduated in 1981.
It didn't take long for Krikalev to find a job after graduation. He soon began working with NPO Energia, a Russian organization that handled manned space flights. Sergei started off by helping test equipment, developing space operation methods, and more. And his talents didn't go unnoticed.
He Became a Cosmonaut
In 1985, Sergei partook in a rescue mission team for Salyut 7, a failed space station that had an onboard system that needed repair. Perhaps his accomplishments during the rescue mission expedited his career trajectory: Krikalev was chosen to be a cosmonaut later that year.
By 1986, Sergei finished the basic training for cosmonauts and joined the Buran Shuttle program - the first spaceplane created as a part of the Soviet Union's Buran program. The talented man spent a few years on the Buran Shuttle team. And then he was offered a chance like never before.
The Intense Training
About two years after joining the Buran Shuttle program, Krikalev was offered his next big break: a long-term trip to outer space. The cosmonaut's first long flight would be aboard the Mir space station, which had been initiated in 1986. But Sergei had a long way to go before being ready for take-off.
There was no doubt that Krikalev had the skills, knowledge, and potential for a successful trip to Mir. But spending a long time in outer space put pressure on the body that Sergei had yet to experience. So he had to go through very intense training.
Going to Space
In order to prepare for what could be the mission of a lifetime, Sergei underwent heavy training. The space agency created simulations of what life in outer space would be like, and Krikalev even practiced his spacewalk a few times. And then the moment finally arrived.
On November 26, 1988, the Soyuz TM-7 launched into the air and past the Earth's atmosphere, all the way into outer space. Aboard the spaceship was none other than Sergei, who served as the flight engineer, and two other professionals. But once the trio arrived, they weren't alone.
Five Months Later
Krikalev's first long-duration mission was accompanied by Commander Aleksandr Volkov and astronaut Jean-Loup Chretien. But there was already another crew of three at the Mir space station - and they ended up staying nearly another month after the arrival of Sergei's and his companions.
This turned out to be a history-making event, as it was the first time a six-person team was in outer space for as long as they were. After the original crew left, Krikalev, Volkov, and Chretien stayed at Mir. For five months. They conducted experiments and prepared the station for the next arriving team.
His Next Adventure
Just over five months since taking off, Sergei was back earthside. He and the rest of the crew landed on April 27, 1989, to a proud, welcoming committee. As Krikalev recovered from his long trip to space, plans were brewing for his next adventure. And it would be the biggest one yet.
After much-needed rest, Sergei got back to it in 1990. The cosmonaut began prepping for his next big flight to space. This one was also set to last five months, although that estimate turned out to be far from accurate, at least for the only flight engineer on board - Krikalev.
3, 2, 1, Take Off!
Looking back, the space agency likely had some regrets over only sending one flight engineer on the mission. But for now, everything seemed fine and dandy. The three-person crew successfully took off on May 19, 1991, and it wasn't long before Sergei was back in Mir.
This time, Helen Sharman was onboard, along with Sergei and the other astronaut. After their successful landing at the Mir Space Station, Sharman officially became the first British person to go to space. She later fondly described Krikalev to Discover Magazine, calling him "cool under pressure."
A Totally Different Lifestyle
But life in Mir wasn't what some sci-fi films might make it out to be. The space station was reportedly smelly, noisy, and quite cramped. Despite that, Sergei absolutely loved it. "He always said when he got into the space station, he felt like he was going home," Sharman recalled.
And Krikalev had plenty of good things to say about life in space. "Firstly, the view of Earth from the viewing port," the cosmonaut detailed of his favorite things about being in Mir. "Secondly, the sense of freedom which you experience in weightlessness, you feel like a bird that is able to fly."
And Then There Were Two
Krikalev and Sharman had traveled to Mir with Commander Anatoly Artsebarsky. But once they arrived at the small and noisy station, they weren't the only ones. The previous crew was still on board. But all of that soon changed as they departed - along with Helen Sharman.
Sharman's mission was shorter than that of Krikalev and Artsebarsky. So when the original crew departed, she went with them. And then there were only two men left aboard the Mir space station. But as they got used to life as a duo aboard Mir, things back on earth were shifting.
On the Ground
"Every spare moment, we tried to look at the Earth, trying to pinpoint specific places on the globe," Krikalev recalled of his time in Mir. But no matter how hard they observed, the crew members had no way of seeing what was actually happening down there - and there was plenty taking place.
Three months after take-off, the Mir space station received word of what was happening earthside: some of the Soviet Union's Communist groups filled Moscow's Red Square to express their opposition to then-President Mikhail Gorbachev. Things seemed to be falling apart.
The Shocking News
And they were. The world watched as the Soviet Union seemed to lose control over its people, and Communist leaders protested. Up in Mir, Sergei got updates as often as he could - but they came slow and far between. The cosmonaut had no idea what would happen to his mission if the Soviet Union fell apart.
"For us, it was totally unexpected," Krikalev recalled. "We didn't understand what happened. When we discussed all this, we tried to grasp how it would affect the space program." But no matter how many scenarios Sergei predicted, none of them turned out to be as grave as reality.
(Im)patiently Waiting to Go Home
Krikalev and his one-and-only companion tried to pass the days by taking care of the station, working on their projects, playing some games, and watching Earth. But at all times, they had a stressful thought sitting in the back of their heads: what was happening to their home?
It seemed that every time Sergei received news from Earth, another territory had declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Naturally, this affected the state's economy. And unfortunately, the economy directly affected Krikalev's mission. And he soon received devastating news.
The Bad News
Eventually, Sergei received word from a space agency in Kazakhstan. Things were looking dire: all of the protests and instability meant there were not enough funds to bring Krikalev and his companion home. Month after month, they received the same news: the duo could not return to Earth.
But there was more than political turmoil troubling Sergei. His wife, Elena, was down on Earth with their nine-month-old baby. The cosmonaut worried about the two of them being alone amidst the Soviet Union's instability and was also concerned for his family's finances.
New Month, Same News
Things back on Earth were difficult as the Soviet Union's economy collapsed. But Sergei's wife tried to keep his spirits high when the couple got the chance to speak. "I tried never to talk about unpleasant things because it must have been hard for him," Elena recalled.
She added, "As far as I can make out, Sergei was doing the same thing." Krikalev, for his part, tried to be as understanding as possible. "The country is in such difficulty, the chance to save money must be the top priority," he said. But that didn't make being stuck in space any easier.
A New Opportunity
Month after month passed, and the updates were the same: there wasn't enough money to get the cosmonaut and his partner back home. But the truth was, the pair had a way of returning to Earth the entire time they were up there - but Sergei didn't want to use it.
The station had a re-entry capsule that could take the duo back to Earth. But they both cared too much about the Mir space station, and leaving it without knowing when someone else would return meant risking the Mir's existence and usefulness. And so they stayed. Little did they know just how complicated things were about to get.
"The Strength to Survive"
While Sergei worried for the well-being of the Mir space station, he also had his own well-being to take care of. The mission was lasting much longer than expected, and being in space for extended periods could have long-term health repercussions. Krikalev's body was not prepared to handle the long stay.
"I wondered if I had the strength to survive, to complete the program," he remembered. "I was not so sure." Being in outer space could potentially result in muscle atrophy, radiation, cancer, and an overall weakened immune system. The clock was ticking.
There was hardly a way to train for what Sergei was experiencing. After all, the human body just isn't equipped to live in outer space long-term. But for the sake of the Mir space station, he persisted. After months of not knowing what would happen, Krikalev received hopeful news.
A new crew would be arriving at Mir space station with more equipment and food. But there was a catch: none of them had the skills that Sergei had; the cosmonaut would have to stay at the space station after their departure. He had renewed supplies and a bit of company, but things were back to the same old soon enough.
Back to Being Mr. Lonely
Sergei was grateful for the temporary company and a refuel in equipment. Unfortunately, the one thing he had asked for wasn't able to be delivered: Krikalev wanted honey. But the crew that quickly came and went was only able to bring lemons and horseradish.
The talented flight engineer couldn't help but worry for his health and wondered how much longer his body could survive. "Do I have enough strength?" he asked himself. "Will I be able to readjust for this longer stay to complete the program? Naturally, at one point, I had my doubts."
The End of the Soviet Union
For what sometimes seemed like an eternity, Sergei floated in space, waiting for news from below. He worried for his health, for his family's well-being, and for the Soviet Union. Each update was the same: things were chaotic - and there was no money nor personnel to replace the lonely flight engineer.
After over seven months stuck in the Mir space station, Sergei's world was turned upside down as he learned that the Soviet Union was no more. On December 25, 1991, President Mikhail Gorbachev stepped won and President Boris Yeltsin stepped in to lead the new Russian state. What did this mean for the cosmonaut?
Only One Soviet Left
So the Soviet Union was no more. Many of its territories had declared independence, and now, Sergei's hometown was a part of the independent state of Russia. Yet the cosmonaut in the Mir space station still had uniforms that repped the Soviet Union's flag.
The government in charge of Krikalev's mission no longer existed. Ten months into the trip, Sergei was suddenly the last Soviet citizen. But without a government, who would get him back home? The cosmonaut continued to worry about his deteriorating health.
A Hopeful Call
By the time the Soviet Union dissolved, Sergei had been in space a whopping seven months. Two months over the planned time period and every day in space had repercussions for the flight engineer's body. Three months after the historic events of December 1991, Krikalev was still in space.
March 1992 marked ten months in space for the dedicated cosmonaut. That was twice the amount of days that Sergei was trained to be in space for. He did his best to stay positive, but space was taking its toll on his body. And then, for the first time in almost a year, he got a hopeful call.
Finally Coming Home
After months of hearing the same thing over and over again, Sergei finally received some good news: He would soon be coming home. They finally found another flight engineer with the skills to replace him. After nearly a year in space, Krikalev could hardly believe he'd soon be back on Earth.
On March 25, 1992, the lone cosmonaut finally came home. Well, or at least to what once was his home. Now, everything was different - including his body. Reports from that historic day described Sergei as "Pale as a flour and sweaty, like a lump of wet dough," when he got off the spaceship.
A Load of Difficulties
Another news report labeled the returned cosmonaut a "victim of space." And it wasn't hard to see why: the change in atmospheric pressures and gravity had severe effects on Sergei's body. He could hardly walk after landing and was shaking from the change in temperature.
But while outsiders saw a mean with struggling health, Krikalev felt something else. He called the trip back "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 there were plenty more difficulties to come.
A Whole New World
Sergei was physically unwell. But mentally and emotionally, he was delighted to be home. Although the cosmonaut wasn't exactly home just yet. From space, Earth looked unchanged. But back on the ground, it was clear that Krikalev's world as he knew it was gone.
Sergei departed to space from the Soviet Union but returned to a newly-independent Kazakhstan. And that wasn't the only difference. When the cosmonaut was finally approved to make the trip to his family, he returned to find his hometown had a whole new name.
His Hometown Was Gone
From the Mir space station, things looked quite the same at all times. "The change is not that radical," Krikalev explained. "Winter has come, and before it was summer. Now it's beginning to bloom again. That's the most impressive change you can see from space."
But it was an entirely different story back on Earth. When he finally got back to his wife and child, what Sergei knew as his hometown of Leningrad became St. Petersburg. And with a collapsed economy, his cosmonaut salary was hardly enough to support the family of three.
Getting His Health Back
And Krikalev's hometown wasn't the only thing that changed radically during the ten months Sergei stayed in space. The cosmonaut's body had transformed, and Krikalev had a long way to go before being back to his optimal health - if he ever got there, again.
"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," Sergei detailed of how long it would take to get back to his old self. "After two to three months, you are fully recovered." Some people couldn't believe what the man did next.
Back at It
Sergei had gone through something many of us cannot even fathom: a five-month mission to space had turned into nearly a year living in the Mir space station. For all of that time, Krikalev didn't eat regular food, didn't sleep in a normal bed, and, most tragically, didn't see his wife or child.
Not to mention the physical repercussions the ten-month trip had on his body and health. Yet once the cosmonaut was recovered, there was only one thing he wanted: to get back to it. This time, Sergei made his way to the United States to join a NASA mission to the International Space Station.
A National Hero
In 1998, Sergei returned to outer space as the only Russian cosmonaut part of the NASA crew. And that was far from his last rodeo: the dedicated space-lover went on to partake in another six trips. And one of them was the first long-term mission to the International Space Station.
In total, Sergei has spent a whopping 803 days of his life in outer space. It's no wonder he was named a Hero by the Russian Federation and was honored with a Distinguished Public Service Medal from NASA. Krikalev is truly a one-of-a-kind human being.