There are several sci-fi movies set in space that center on one simple premise: once you leave Earth, nothing is ever the same once you return. You’re a changed man or woman, and when you look at your city, your friends, your family, you look at them through the lens of an astronaut — someone who battled the void of space and won.
This was not just movie magic to cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev. When he set out on his space journey, he thought he knew exactly what Earth would look like on his return. But after an unforeseen shift in power on the planet, he began to wonder if he’d ever even make his return.
The year was 1991 when 33-year-old flight engineer Sergei Krikalev left for the Mir space station from the Soviet Baikonur Cosmodrome in the republic of Kazakhstan. In spite of all his training, Krikalev had no way of preparing for the twists his journey took.
At the time, the Mir space station needed some TLC, so Krikalev, the brainy engineer, was assigned to conduct repairs and experimental spacewalks at the station. In the beginning of his trip, he wasn’t alone.
Cosmonaut Anatoli Artsebarski, and Britain’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, went along with Kikalev for the journey. Both of them, however, wound up leaving Kikalev before disaster struck.
See, Krikalev was only supposed to be in space for 5 months — a quick jaunt, more or less. But after a slew of unexpected happenings plagued Earth, his trip became…complicated.
While he was working on the Mir space station, the Soviet Union, his home country, collapsed and split into 15 separate states on December 26th of 1991. This, of course, spurred dramatic changes.
President Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down to make room for Boris Yeltsin, the new leader of the newborn country, Russia. All of this made the status of Krikalev’s mission fuzzy, as his home country, the one responsible for his journey, no longer existed!
Stuck in space, Sergei Krikalev was amusingly — and unhelpfully — nicknamed “the last citizen of the USSR,” but the not-so-funny situation posed the questions: how, where, and when was Krikalev to return to Earth?
These questions were complicated because the Soviets had launched rockets from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which went to the new state of Kazakhstan after the collapse of the USSR. They weren’t cheap…
So Kazakhstan then charged Moscow ridiculously large fees to use the facility, in turn delaying Krikalev’s journey home, considering the Russian economy was already deteriorating.
At one point, Krikalev had the opportunity to return to Earth on the Raduga re-entry capsule, but since that would’ve resulted in the abandonment and thus end of Mir, Krikalev declined. He was dedicated to looking after the space station until there was an available flight engineer replacement…but that would take money.
Russia desperately tried to raise money by selling trips to the space station to other governments. Austria paid $7 million for a spot, and a Japanese television station spent $12 million to send one of its reporters into the cosmos. Still, fundraising fell short.
Finally, after Moscow and Kazakhstan negotiated a deal, the first Kazakh astronaut and the Austrian astronaut were launched into space via the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Krikalev was finally going to be relieved…or so he thought!
Sadly, once they arrived at the station, it became clear that neither of them had the skills necessary to replace Krikalev and keep up with the demands of the Mir station. Dedicated, the cosmonaut knew this meant he couldn’t leave yet.
During this catastrophe, Krikalev’s name was plastered all over Russian newspapers, which heavily sympathized with him. The Komsomolskaya Pravda even said that Earth “started to forget about its cosmonaut.”
The situation was serious. With all eyes on the new country, Russia became so frantic to retrieve Krikalev from space that it even considered selling Mir to the United States — but NASA showed little interest in that offer.
For Krikalev, the days were starting to add up in a major way with some pretty serious consequences. Unfortunately, boredom wasn’t the only risk that came with a lonely, painfully long stay in space.
Overstaying your welcome in space makes you susceptible to a boatload of risks, including muscle atrophy, radiation, a dangerously weakened immune system, and even cancer. So Krikalev was in trouble.