During the Cold War period, the Soviet Union had an edge over its arch-rival, the US, in space explorations. It sent the first-ever earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik 1 and the first-ever human, Yuri Gagarin into outer space.
The Mir Space Station had by this time become the symbol of Soviet power and its technological advancements.
A Soviet cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, went on a regular mission to Mir space station but had to stay put there for almost double the mandated duration due to the political churning happening in his country and the slow disintegration of the Soviet Union.
On May 18, 1991, Krikalev arrived at the Mir space station on a Soyuz spacecraft after a five-month deployment. He was accompanied by Anatoly Artebarsky, a Soviet scientist, and Helen Sherman, a British scientist. He took off from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Space Center.
Krikalev wouldn’t breathe earthly air for 312 days after blasting off from Baikonur. From 200 miles above, the soft-spoken cosmonaut would see his country fall apart. Leaders would be replaced; Leningrad — his hometown — would become St. Petersburg; and a single communist superpower would break up into 15 countries.
Krikalev would be the only remaining citizen of the once-mighty Soviet Union by the time he returned. He was sent to space as part of a routine mission. He needed to make some repairs to the station in order to improve it.
However, although everything appeared to be going smoothly in space, the Soviet Union appeared to be fast crumbling on the ground.
The massive and powerful Soviet Union dissolved in a matter of months while Krikalev was in space and even though he had arrived at the space station on an easy assignment, he was left hanging for several months as a result of this disintegration and the subsequent orders of staying put until further orders.
Sergei Krikalev’s Prolonged Stay In Space
In 1988, Sergei Krikalev, a Soviet mechanical engineer and astronaut, became the first person to reach the Mir space station, which was circling the Earth at a distance of 400 kilometers.
“Krikalev became immensely popular around the world because he was an astronaut who spoke to ordinary people on Earth through the space station’s radio,” says Kathleen Lewis, a historian of space operations, quoted by BBC.
She recalls that throughout Krikalev’s extended stay in space, he used to converse to ordinary people on Earth who could pick up his frequency on the radio. Lewis explains, “That’s how they formed informal contacts all around the world.”
According to Lewis, another Soviet citizen, Alexander Volkov, was aboard the space station with him. Krikalev, on the other hand, became known around the world as the ‘last Soviet citizen’.
When Mikhail Gorbachev was losing control of his country and the USSR was disintegrating, Krikalev was in space. He was requested to stay in orbit until further orders due to the worsening political and economic turmoil back home, on Earth. Previously, he had spent 151 days aboard Mir from 1988 to 1989.
Over the summer, Krikalev received word that the experienced cosmonaut who was supposed to relieve him had been replaced by a Kazakh cosmonaut with less experience. For the sake of his country, he would have to stay longer than his five months.
Krikalev agreed to continue his space mission. However, he confessed in a BBC documentary that it was not an easy task. Krikalev and Volkov could have returned at any time, but doing so would have resulted in the space station being abandoned. Krikalev told BBC that he always knew that it was his responsibility to stay aboard the space station.
Keeping Krikalev alive and well in space for far longer than he had prepared for proved to be the ultimate test for those associated with the Soviet space program, regardless of their government.
“These folks were still on the job,” Lewis says, “and they were really dedicated to it.” “They recognized the need for national prestige, to retain the space station,” whatever successor state replaces the former Soviet Union.
All this while, even though Krikalev has some idea about the situation on the ground, he was unaware that his home was falling apart and he would come back to another nation and another leader.
Soviet Union’s Disintegration
Gorbachev, then-General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, introduced a broad set of democratic and economic reforms in 1987, to loosen the Communist party’s grip on constituent nations in the USSR, including Baltic states like Estonia and Latvia — and the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.
When Moscow removed the leader of the Kazakh communist party in 1986, riots erupted, and the Kazakhs took advantage of the loosening of central political authority to declare their country a sovereign republic within the Soviet Union in October 1990.
Dismayed with Gorbachev’s reform efforts (which included the creation of the presidency and his election to it in 1990), hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union staged a failed coup in August 1991.
Then, on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union, which effectively dissolved it all together.
A fresh team of three cosmonauts joined the Mir crew as Krikalev’s original stay drew to a finish. None of them had the necessary aviation expertise to replace him, but Austrian Franz Viehböck was prepared to help the stranded cosmonaut.
The Austrian then returned home after a week, bringing Artsebarsky and one of the three new cosmonauts with him.
Krikalev’s prolonged stay in space put financial pressure on Russia. To obtain funds, the failing country offered space station vacations to Western countries. There was even talk of selling Mir itself, sparking concerns among the crew members.
Finally, in March 1992, Krikalev received word that he would be replaced and that he would be able to return to Earth. In the now-independent Republic of Kazakhstan, the final Soviet citizen landed near Arkalyk, says Discover Magazine. By this time, his home Leningrad had become St Petersburg of the Russian State.
Krikalev had completed 5,000 orbits around the Earth and witnessed thousands of sunrises and sunsets. He’d spend another 803 days in orbit over the next few decades. It was on the intention that no one would spend more cumulative time in space until his comrade Gennady Padalka in 2015.
Krikalev thus became the last citizen of the Soviet Union. His resolve to stay put at the Mir station in the face of adversity and his commitment to the Soviet space program made him a name to reckon with. Now, Krikalev serves as the director of the department of the Russian space agency Roscosmos.