When The Soviet Union Collapsed, A Cosmonaut Was Left Stranded In Space

The Mir space station, the ISS's predecessor. Elena11 / Shutterstock.com

On May 18, 1991, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev departed Earth for the Soviet space station Mir. While he was up there, the country that had sent him ceased to exist, making Krikalev – for a few months at least – the "last Soviet citizen". 

Krikalev grew up in Leningrad (which he watched become St Petersburg from space) and obtained a mechanical engineering degree before going to work as a rocket engineer at NPO Energia, where, among other projects, he worked as part of the rescue team when the Salyut 7 space station failed in 1985. Shortly thereafter, he was selected as a cosmonaut, and spent years in training, working on everything from repair of the space station to conducting spacewalks. 

Unfortunately, his training didn't incorporate what to do when you are left in space with no official space organization (or country), which on his 1991 mission aboard Mir would have been much more useful.

The trip started off badly. As the spacecraft carrying Krikalev and two others approached Mir the targeting system failed, meaning Krikalev had to dock manually, with any wrong move being potentially fatal. Keeping a cool head, he docked and the cosmonauts – plus the first British astronaut Helen Sharman – climbed on board. 

Krikalev loved being on Mir, which was incredibly fortunate. As well as seeing Earth from the viewing port, he loved "the sense of freedom which you experience in weightlessness," he told The Guardian in 2015. "[Y]ou feel like a bird that is able to fly!"

He performed his duties as normal, while below the Soviet Union began to strain further and crack. News did reach them on Mir, but it was sparse.

"It was a long process and we were getting the news, not all at once, but we heard about the referendum, for example," Krikalev explained. "I was doing my job and was more worried about those on the ground – our families and friends – we had everything we needed!"

Soon, even the space station was affected by the politics going on 358 kilometers (222 miles) below. With Kazakhstan (among others) pushing for independence, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced that a Kazakh cosmonaut would replace Krikalev once his mission was over, in order to appease the government. However, since no one in Kazakhstan was trained as a cosmonaut, this would mean Krikalev would have to remain in space a little while longer.

Though not as much was known about the effects of extended stays in space then, Krikalev was aware of some of the risks of staying on Mir for so long.

“Do I have enough strength? Will I be able to readjust for this longer stay to complete the program?" Krikalev posed in an interview with Russian media reports HistoryNet. "Naturally, at one point I had my doubts.”

In October, several of his colleagues departed at the end of their four-month mission. With nobody else having enough experience to remain on the station alone, and the Soviets unable to afford to send another cosmonaut, Krikalev stayed up there to keep Mir going, circling Earth for much longer than he'd anticipated.

Small and claustrophobic as well as high above Earth, it probably wasn't the best place to be with very little company. It was invariably described as a "death trap" that was "held together by baling wire, duct tape, and healthy doses of WD-40," as well as "derelict" and a "lemon". In terms of things you'd rather be stranded in, a derelict oiled-up lemon isn't exactly top of the list.

Then, on December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union finally collapsed. With the collapse, there was even less money for a mission that would relieve Krikalev of his duties. If all else failed, there was the Soyuz capsule that could be used to escape, though this would mean sacrificing the space station. With nobody to operate and repair it, it would be the end of Mir.

“The strongest argument was economic because this allows them to save resources here,” Krikalev said while still on Mir. “They say it’s tough for me—not really good for my health. But now the country is in such difficulty, the chance to save money must be top priority.”

Deals were struck between America and Russia, gaining the funding needed to send more cosmonauts and astronauts into orbit. Three months later on March 25, having spent a then-record 311 consecutive days in space, Krikalev finally returned to Earth. When he left, he had been a citizen of a state that now no longer existed, earning him the nickname the "last Soviet citizen".

Despite spending a lot more time in space than he'd intended, he went straight back to training upon his return, and ended up clocking up 803 days in space, breaking previous records for time spent above the Earth. In calculations by Universe Today, thanks to relativity and time dilation, he has traveled into the future by a whopping 0.2 seconds.

 He went into space as a Soviet citizen and came down in a different state, in a different time to everyone else around him.

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