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Astronaut Was Left Stranded In Space For 311 Days. When he Returned To Earth, His Country was Gone

He was in touch with his wife who worked in mission control during the 800 days that he spent on an international space station.
PUBLISHED MAY 25, 2024
Cover Image Source: STS-88 Mission Specialist Sergei Konstantinovich Krikalev, a Russian cosmonaut, gives a thumbs up during suit check before launch. Mission STS-88 is expected to lift off at 3:56 a.m. (Photo by NASA)
Cover Image Source: STS-88 Mission Specialist Sergei Konstantinovich Krikalev, a Russian cosmonaut, gives a thumbs up during suit check before launch. Mission STS-88 is expected to lift off at 3:56 a.m. (Photo by NASA)

The world around us has been changing quickly in the past few decades, and the fall of the Soviet Union was one of the events that altered the course of history. But while the world saw the historic visuals of the Berlin Wall being brought down and moved on to a new world, astronaut Sergei Krikalev was somewhere in space, unaware of the way in which things would be by the time he returned. Krikalev went to space as a Soviet citizen but by the time he landed back on Earth, he had become a Russian as his nation had fallen apart. When it comes to the longest time spent in space, he ranks third behind cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Yuri Malencheko, having spent 800 days aboard the international space station. According to the Journal of Space Operations and Communicator, Krikalev blasted off from Baikonur in present-day Kazakhstan, on May 18, 1998.

Image Source: Astronaut Sergei Krikalev Returns to Earth (Photo by Georges DeKeerle/Sygma via Getty Images)
Image Source: Astronaut Sergei Krikalev Returns to Earth (Photo by Georges DeKeerle/Sygma via Getty Images)

After spending almost a year aboard the space station, Krikalev did get news of the changing geopolitical scenario back on Earth. Presidents changed, his hometown of Leningrad became St. Petersburg, and the Soviet Union broke into fifteen different nations. Krikalev had a history of being an impressive pilot and a valuable member of the Soviet Union's national aerobatics team. Back in 1985, when the Soviets lost contact with the Salyut 7 space station, Krikalev was part of the ground control team that planned a valiant in-orbit rescue mission, as per the outlet.

Image Source:
Image Source: American NASA astronaut Nancy J Currie, American NASA astronaut James H Newman, and Russian RSA cosmonaut Sergei K Krikalev using rechargeable power tools to manipulate nuts and bolts on the Zarya module during construction of the International Space Station. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Years later he was assigned to his first space flight with the Soyuz TM -7 on 26 November 1988 to the space station Mir. On May 18, 1991, Krikalev became a part of the Juno Misson and boarded the Soyuz-TM 12 to arrive at the Mir space station.

Image Source: Russian RKA cosmonaut Sergei K Krikalev seals a set of biomedical samples in the Spacehab module prior to performing a Bioserve experiment during Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-60, 3rd February to 11th February 1994. STS-60 is the first mission of the US/Russian Shuttle-Mir Program, carrying the Wake Shield Facility (WSF) experiment and a Spacehab module into orbit. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Image Source: Russian RKA cosmonaut Sergei K Krikalev seals a set of biomedical samples in the Spacehab module prior to performing a Bioserve experiment during Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-60, 3rd February to 11th February 1994. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When the political turmoil in the Soviet Union broke out on August 19, 1991, Krikalev got semi-regular calls from his wife, Elena, who worked in mission control. Krikalev's stay in space was extended by six months because the next two planned missions were merged for lack of funds and only one member of the regular crew could be exchanged.  Krikalev finally returned to Earth and landed near the city of Arkalyk on March 25, 1992, without a valid passport in the now-independent Republic of Kazakhstan.

Image Source: Sergei Krikalev, mission specialist representing the Russian Space Agency (RSA), floats in the Unity module on Flight Day 8. A banner displaying the flags of all the ISS participants is at right. (photo by NASA)
Image Source: Sergei Krikalev, mission specialist representing the Russian Space Agency (RSA), floats in the Unity module on Flight Day 8. A banner displaying the flags of all the ISS participants is at right. (photo by NASA)

Krikalev was interviewed by NASA where he shared his personal experience about his time in space. "From orbit, you can already see a curvature of Earth. The second surprise was to see with your own eyes that we have a pretty thin layer of atmosphere protecting us," Krikalev told NASA. The pictures he took from space contributed to science as he had to follow specific instructions from scientists back on Earth.

Image Source: Sergei Krikalev, mission specialist representing the Russian Space Agency (RSA), pokes his head up from inside one of the bays inside the walls on the Russian-built Zarya module December 11, 1998. Krikalev and astronaut Nancy J. Currie replaced a faulty unit which controls the discharging of stored energy from one of Zarya's six batteries. (photo by NASA)
Image Source: Sergei Krikalev, mission specialist representing the Russian Space Agency (RSA), pokes his head up from inside one of the bays inside the walls on the Russian-built Zarya module December 11, 1998. (photo by NASA)

"I remember from my first flight, that when you look down, it is a little more difficult to find things on the surface. You start to understand that in many cases, our separation on Earth is more artificial. We are living on the same surface. You start to see that we are more united," Krikalev said about his takeaway from the first time he spent in orbit. "I think what we do in space together is a good example of how people need to live on the ground. We try to keep this area protected and keep this good example to politicians and maybe other people in my country and your country, showing that is really how we need to live."

According to a January 2024 report from Bloomberg, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed cosmonaut Krikalev to be his special envoy for international space cooperation as Russia sought to reform a space industry suffering from US-led sanctions.



 

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