To paraphrase fictional starship captain Jean-Luc Picard, “Space” is man’s “Final Frontier”. But did you know that one man made this “Frontier” his home for well over a year? He is a Russian, and his name is Valeri Polyakov. In this answer, I’ll be telling his story – that of the world’s longest manned mission in space.
Polyakov was born on April 27th, 1942 in an industrial city called Tula, which sits about two hours south of Moscow. Well, that’s not precisely true. Valeri Korshunov was born on that date and at that place. After his stepfather adopted him, Polyakov changed his name at the age of fifteen.
After secondary school in Tula, he attended medical school in Moscow and did post-graduate study in astronautics medicine (at the Institute of Biomedical Problems, also in Moscow). He was inspired by Doctor Boris Yegorov, who became the first physician to enter space in 1964. Polyakov was admitted to be a Soviet astronaut on March 22nd, 1972. He was selected as a specialized kind of astronaut – a “physician who could render any kind of assistance in orbit, including surgical assistance”.
On August 29th, 1988, Polyakov was launched into space as a physician-investigator with the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz-TM 6, teaming with fellow Soviet Vladimir Lyakhov and Afghani Abdul Mohmand. He then spent over 240 days on the space station Mir, a “long-term research station” that the Soviet Union had established, performing biological and medical experiments with members of the crew. Specifically, Polyakov tested the effects of the space station’s microgravity on humans. He returned to Earth on April 27th, 1989. This mission would prove to be Polyakov’s “warm-up”.
Here, it’s important to note that Mir’s “long-term” status made Polyakov’s later feat possible. Mir had the capability to house Polyakov and support him for an extended stay in space. It was perhaps the only space station with such capability – meaning that, then, only Russia had the capability to set this mark. (The phrase “To the victor goes the spoils” seems appropriate.)
On January 8th, 1994, the Soviet Union had dissipated, and Polyakov was again launched into space – this time, not as a Soviet, but as a Russian. He was on board as a physician-astronaut with Soyuz-TM 18, traveling alongside fellow Russians Victor Afanasyev and Yuri Usachyov. When he reached Mir, he began to conduct “research in space-flight medicine”, which he would continue throughout his stay. This research largely echoed the scientific study he had done while earlier on Mir. And on July 9th of that same year, Polyakov’s Russian companions returned to Earth in Soyuz-TM 18, leaving Polyakov in space. Polyakov’s stated mission was to “establish a new record for endurance in space”. He would certainly do so – he would stay on Mir for almost another full year! On March 22nd, 1995, Polyakov finally descended onboard Soyuz-TM 20. He had spent over 437 days in space, orbiting the Earth 7,075 times and racking up 186,887,000 miles of space flight. This still stands as the world’s longest manned mission in space. Over the course of his two missions, Polyakov spent over 678 days in space; this stands third to fellow Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev (who spent 804 days) and Sergei Avdeyev (who spent 747 days).
When the Soyuz-TM 18 capsule touched down, Polyakov had to be dragged out. He found it extremely hard to balance. His long-term experience in space had profoundly changed his own body’s chemistry. (Being a trained physician, he must have found this very interesting.)
Although he retired from astronaut service in June 1995, Polyakov has remained very active in the world’s pursuit of space exploration. For one, he believes that an individual like himself – a physician with expertise in astronaut medicine – is absolutely critical for any kind of manned mission to the planet Mars. In 2000 Polyakov, speaking as the Deputy Director of the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems (his alma mater), said: “The key element of medical support in a mission to Mars will be the incorporation of a physician into the interplanetary crew. This physician will have to solve all medical problems during the flight by using the on-board equipment and his or her own experience ranging from surgery to therapy — and tele-medicine.”
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