Twenty years ago, today, on 9 January 1995, cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov seized the empirical crown for the longest single space mission in history, as he surpassed the previous record of 366 days away from the Home Planet. He was heading for an eventual goal of 14.5 months in orbit, aboard Russia’s Mir space station, although his mission should have been even longer. “A big guy, an extroverted guy,” was how U.S. astronaut Norm Thagard—who flew with Polyakov—described him, “but can be sort of like a bull in a china shop.” By the time Polyakov returned to Earth on 22 March, he had accrued almost 438 days in space and, when combined with a previous 241-day mission, he currently ranks fifth on the list of the most experienced spacefarers of all time. Today, Polyakov’s accomplishment for flying the longest single space voyage looks likely to remain unbroken for several years to come, but in March 2015 U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) to begin the first mission of the 21st century to approach 12 months in duration.
As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace article, breaking endurance records has been a mainstay of exploration since the dawn of the Space Age. From Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering 108-minute voyage in April 1961 to Frank Borman and Jim Lovell’s uncomfortable 14 days aboard Gemini VII in December 1965, and from the tragic 23-day mission of Soyuz 11 in June 1971 to the eight-month flight of Leonid Kizim, Vladimir Solovyov, and Oleg Atkov in February-October 1984, the records have fallen, and fallen again, like ninepins. By the dawn of 1986, as the United States began the slow process of recovery after the catastrophic loss of Challenger, the Soviet Union launched the Mir space station and set the pieces in place for a new salvo of extended duration human endeavors.
The man who pushed Russia’s experience base in space beyond eight months ought not to have flown his mission at all. However, veteran cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko was accustomed to breaking records, having commanded the Soyuz 26 flight to the Salyut 6 space station between December 1977 and March 1978, whose 96-day length eclipsed the accomplishment of the final Skylab crew. At the end of 1986, Romanenko and his crewmate Aleksandr Laveykin were serving as backups to fellow cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Aleksandr Serebrov. Unfortunately, it appears that Serebrov failed a pre-flight medical test and, per Soviet rules, the entire prime crew was grounded in favor of their backups. In early February 1987, Romanenko and Laveykin launched aboard Soyuz TM-2, headed for Mir for what was expected to be an 11-month expedition. During their mission, the cosmonauts welcomed human visitors, as well as the Kvant-1 astrophysics module, but Laveykin was forced to return home early in July, following heart irregularities. Romanenko was joined for the remainder of his long mission by cosmonaut Aleksandr Aleksandrov.
By October 1987, Romanenko surpassed the 237-day record of Kizim, Solovyov, and Atkov, as he pushed toward an end of his own mission before the dawn of 1988. In line with the air sports rules, enshrined by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), new records were only recognized if they eclipsed the previous record by more than 10 percent. A late December return to Earth by Romanenko would generate a substantial 35-percent uptake on the achievement of his predecessors.
However, Romanenko was growing weary and made his first complaint about fatigue to flight controllers. In one account, published by the journal Izvestiya on 2 October, he described his life aboard Mir: “I never used to notice noise from the fans at all,” he said, “but now it sometimes wakes me up at night. Sometimes, I don’t fall asleep right away in the evening, or I wake up in the middle of the night and then I’m not myself in the morning.” Aleksandrov, treated him “considerately” in the rare instances when Romanenko overslept. If the commander grew more tired than normal during his workday, he took “medicine at night,” on the orders of the flight surgeons. Certainly, reports in the Western press confirmed that their working day was reduced to around 5.5 hours.
According to Nurmukhamed Mukharlyamov, the head of the clinical department of the Soviet Union’s National Cardiological Center, the psychological wellbeing of Romanenko and Aleksandrov was ensured through a balance of work and leisure, as well as regular exercise and a healthy diet to maintain vital elements, such as potassium and calcium. By early December, as Romanenko passed 300 days in orbit, his working day was reduced to just four hours and he was typically sleeping for nine hours per night and exercising for at least 2.5 hours on the treadmill. He also spent his free time singing Russian love songs.
Finally, a new crew arrived just before Christmas. Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov would attempt the first year-long mission in history, and were joined by Anatoli Levchenko for a short flight. However, the process of handing over Mir operations from the old crew to the new was a busy one and the exhausted Romanenko found his final days under immense pressure. On the 28th, he snapped and told flight controllers that he and Aleksandrov were “rushing around like squirrels in a wheel,” trying to do what was demanded of them, and insisted that the “superfluous” scientists responsible for their experiments should be ejected from the control center. At length, on 29 December, Romanenko, Aleksandrov, and Levchenko returned safely to Earth. In wrapping up his mission, Romanenko secured a personal and empirical record of 326 days on a single flight.
Serious concerns were expressed about his health, although he was able to sit upright in the recovery helicopter and, amazingly, he completed a run, unaided, for 300 feet (100 meters), barely 24 hours after landing. He was also spotted walking in a park with his wife and a physician and appeared to be moving “very confidently.” In Romanenko’s mind, another hurdle had been cleared in the effort to send a crew to Mars.
That hurdle was further advanced in 1988 as Titov and Manarov sought to spend at least an entire Earth-year away from the Home Planet, with some speculation that they might even be aiming for 400 days, producing a landing as late as 24 January 1989. They welcomed two visiting crews in June and August 1988, one of whose members was Valeri Polyakov, kicking off his first long-duration mission. He would remain with Titov and Manarov for the remainder of their year-long flight, and would continue with Mir’s next crew, into the late spring of 1989. By mid-December, Titov and Manarov reached 359 days in orbit, thereby securing the required 10 percent uplift on Romanenko’s mission to satisfy the FAI. Several days later, alongside French visiting cosmonaut Jean-Loup Chrétien, they returned to Earth, after 365 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes and 5,790 orbits of the planet.
In the aftermath of their landing, it would appear that the Soviets shifted focus to more standard, six-month endurance missions. One exception to this policy came in 1991, when the decision to fly a Kazakh citizen in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union required cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev to support not one, but two, back-to-back long-duration flights. Originally launched in May, Krikalev should have returned to Earth in October, but was obliged to join Aleksandr Volkov on a second crew and eventually landed in March 1992, after 312 days aloft. This produced a number of erroneous “Stranded in Space” stories, which were leapt upon by sectors of the world’s media.
By this time, efforts were in place to stage a single voyage of up to 18 months. In mid-1993, the planning centered on launching Soyuz TM-18 on 16 November, carrying Viktor Afanasyev, Yuri Usachev, and Valeri Polyakov. After about six months, a new crew would be launched to replace Afanasyev and Usachev—who would return to Earth—and join Polyakov for the next stage of the 18-month mission. Unfortunately, budget cuts and problems with obtaining engines for the new Soyuz-U booster pushed the launch back by nearly eight weeks, until early January 1994. By this stage, plans to stage a shuttle-Mir docking mission in May 1995 had caused the return of Polyakov to be brought forward to March 1995, therefore producing a flight of 14 months. Backing up Polyakov was another physician-cosmonaut named Gherman Arzamazov and it has been reported over the years that relations between the pair became distinctly frosty. “Arzamazov says that Polyakov has not practiced medicine for a long time,” Flight International noted in January 1994, quoting Russia’s deputy health minister as saying that the disgruntled backup had “psychological problems.” In any event, Arzamazov was discharged from the cosmonaut corps in the fall of 1995.
Launched on 8 January 1994, Afanasyev, Usachev, and Polyakov docked with Mir and undertook changeover duties with the resident crew, Vasili Tsibliyev and Aleksandr Serebrov. Six months later, in July, Afanasyev and Usachev returned to Earth and were replaced by Yuri Malenchenko and Talgat Musabayev, who were themselves replaced by Aleksandr Viktorenko and Yelena Kondakova in October-November, for the final phase of Polyakov’s lengthy expedition. Together with his rotating crewmates, the physician supported 25 experiments, mainly in the life sciences.
Specific foci included the diet, the function of the human muscular system, the lungs and the immune system in the peculiar microgravity environment. Changes in the blood and central nervous system were examined, together with problems with metabolism, alterations in blood volume, and the function of the sense of balance in the inner ear. Other investigations explored calcium depletion in the bones, with the KARKAS “advanced vacuum trousers” used to draw blood into the abdomen to simulate the higher volumes in this area due to terrestrial gravity. Whilst Afanasyev and Usachev were aboard, Polyakov took measurements every third day of variations in the circumference of their legs, their blood pressure, their cardiac output and the changing position of their hearts. The cosmonauts’ sleep patterns were also observed, as was their psychological behaviour, including reaction rates, short-term memory, and manual skills. Materials science, Earth observation, astrophysics, and biotechnology assignments also consumed a large portion of their time.
The conclusion of Polyakov’s mission coincided with the arrival of NASA’s first long-duration Mir resident, Norm Thagard, aboard Soyuz TM-21 in March 1995. In his oral histories, Thagard recalled that Polyakov was in a jubilant mood, keen to return home to his family, but that the cosmonaut took time to show him where everything was located aboard the space station. At length, on the 22nd, Viktorenko, Kondakova, and Polyakov boarded the Soyuz TM-20 spacecraft and returned safely to Earth. Polyakov’s mission had lasted 437 days, 17 hours, and 58 minutes and had completed 6,927 orbits of Earth.
So excited was Polyakov to come home that Viktorenko had a hard time calming him down. “He was apparently being real rambunctious,” recalled Thagard, “just listening to him on the radio, as they were undocking and flying around, before re-entering.” Polyakov did not appear to have endured any negative effects from his 14.5 months in orbit and was even able to walk unaided from the Soyuz descent module to the chairs for transportation to a field hospital. He would also provide aerospace physicians with their closest possible analog for the effects of microgravity upon the human body during a voyage to Mars. Surpassing Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov’s record with an uplift of 16 percent, Polyakov satisfied the requirements of the FAI and retains his place in the Guinness Book of Records.
And there the story might have ended until the mission of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko. By the early summer of 1998, with NASA pushing Russia to de-orbit Mir and devote its full attention to the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), it seemed that the old station would soon be abandoned. In early July, however, the Russian Government announced that it had allocated the necessary finances to permit further long-duration crews through June 1999. Soyuz TM-28 was duly launched in mid-August 1998, carrying cosmonauts Gennadi Padalka and Sergei Avdeyev, together with politician Yuri Baturin, the latter of whom returned to Earth after about a week.
It was already clear, virtually from the outset, that Avdeyev was targeted for a mission of at least 10 months in duration, making it not dissimilar to that of Sergei Krikalev, a few years earlier. The Soyuz TM-29 spacecraft, due for launch in February 1999, included two guest crewman—Jean-Pierre Haigneré of France and Ivan Bella of Slovakia—and a single Russian cosmonaut, Viktor Afanasyev, thereby requiring Avdeyev to serve a “double-duty” expedition. In August 1998, Flight International explained that Afanasyev’s crew would “remain until June, just five days before [Mir] plunges to destruction” in the upper atmosphere, which would produce a 10-month mission for Avdeyev. By the end of 1998, it was obvious that Mir would remain in orbit beyond June 1999, and late the following February Soyuz TM-29 was launched and docked safely. Bella remained aboard the station for a week and returned to Earth with Padalka, leaving Afanasyev, Usachev, and Haigneré as the next crew until at least June, or, more likely, August.
Unfortunately, Russia’s dire economic situation made it obvious that Soyuz TM-30, and cosmonauts Sergei Zalyotin and Aleksandr Kaleri would not launch to replace Afanasyev and his crew. This made it inevitable that Mir would mothballed—perhaps permanently—as it entered the twilight of its operational life. Certainly, Avdeyev was uncertain about whether another visiting crew would launch and even flight controllers described it as “unlikely.” Finally, on the late evening of 27 August 1999, the cosmonauts board Soyuz TM-29 and returned to Earth in the small hours of the following morning. Avdeyev completed 379 days, 14 hours, and 52 minutes in flight, joining Titov, Manarov, and Polyakov as only the fourth person in history to spent in excess of one Earth-year in space.
And today, on the 20th anniversary of Valeri Polyakov becoming the incumbent record-holder for the longest single space mission, these four men form an exclusive club, which looks set not to be broken for some time to come. Even Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will probably not see their much-trumpeted mission spend a full year away from the Home Planet: With liftoff planned on 27 March 2015 and landing scheduled for 3 March 2016, the two men will spend 342 days—or about 49 weeks—in orbit. Yet a return to ultra-marathon missions is a positive indicator of the importance placed by NASA and its International Partners on expanding the envelope of human endurance, in anticipation of returning people beyond low-Earth orbit and outward to the Moon and Mars.