The Cosmonaut Who Was Left Stranded in Space

In 1991, Sergei Krikalev was sent on a space mission. It was supposed to last just five months. However, that cosmonaut was stuck in space for 311 days. Due to the Soviet Union and money issues, Krikalev wasn’t able to come back when he was scheduled to.

International Space Station and astronaut in outer space over the planet Earth.

When Germany purchased a $24 million ticket to send Klaus-Dietrich as a replacement, Krikalev was finally able to return. What could have possibly happened to trap someone in space? How was he able to return? Here is Krikalev’s story, his struggles, and his accomplishments.

All Aboard

On May 9th, 1991, Sergei Krikalev launched on the Soviet Space Station Mir for a five-month mission. In January 1992 Krikalev was into his eighth month of the mission and had no idea when he was coming home.

Sergei Krikalev

Krikalev was a flight engineer. He arrived at the Mir station with the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman, and Anatoly Artsebarsky, who spent five months aboard Mir. Sharman was conducting experiments and spent eight days on Mir.

Take Off

Krikalev and Artsebarsky were ultimately left alone on the space station after Sherman returned to earth. The two of them used their time well. They conducted numerous scientific experiments and touched up the space station.

Krikalev and Artsebarsky

On October 2, 1992, a relief crew bound for the Mir Station took off, as planned to take over from Artsebarsky. Krikalev already agreed to extend his tour because Toktar Audakirov, the scheduled replacement didn’t go through the training for long stays in space.

No Return Date

Artsebarsky, Aubakirov and Franz Viehböck, the first Austrian in space, all returned to earth on October 10th. Krikalev and Commander Aleksandr Volkov (who came on the October 2nd flight) stayed aboard. The two of them were alone in the space station.

Artsebarsky, Aubakirov, and Franz Viehböck

However, events at the U.S.S.R., down on earth put the date of their return in question. We’ll get to that later. First, let’s talk about the Mir Station. In 1976, the Mir project was initiated but a Soviet Decree. It took a decade before it made it to orbit.

Mir Station

Mir was named after the Russian word for “peace.” The U.S.S.R. intended to use the spacecraft for long-term research projects. In 1986, the Soviets launched the first of its modules. They did so from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which at the time, was part of the Soviet Union.

Mir space station

After the first module went into orbit, six more were added to complete the space station’s structure during the next decade. Mir orbited at a speed of over 17,000 miles per hour during its run. The altitude was between 220 and 232 miles away from earth.

Life on Mir

There Mir could accommodate up to six people. However, usually, just three cosmonauts lived there at once because it was so cramped. The station experienced 16 sunrises and sunsets every single day. Therefore, they had to back out portholes to stimulate night so that they can fall asleep.

astronauts on Mir

The cosmonauts usually woke up at about 8:00 AM on the Moscow time zone. In the morning, they ate breakfast and got ready, which can take a few hours. Then they work until 1:00 P.M. before coming home for lunch and a workout.

View of the Home Planet

After eating lunch, the cosmonauts spend another three hours working and one more hour of exercise. After that, they finally eat dinner and have some free time.

Astronauts eating is space

Krikalev told Discover Magazine about his favorite pastimes in space. He said, “Every spare moment, we tried to look at the earth.” This is pretty interesting because most people can’t relate.

Looking Down to Earth

In 1997 an American name Jerry Linenger spent time on Mir. He explained his experience of looking down on earth. “Today, I saw huge dust storms in the Sahara of Africa.”

Jerry Linenger

He continued and said, “Lake Chad drying up. Five minutes later: the Nile, the triangle of the Sinai Peninsula, and the Red Sea all in one view. Then, Elbrus and the snow-covered Caucasus.”

Krikalev and Volkov

Okay so back to Krikalev and Volkov, the men who were on Mir station in October 1991. They both spent time on the space station for 151 days is 1988-1989, so for both men, it’s their second time on Mir.

Krikalev and Volkov on space

In 1958, Krikalev was born in the Soviet city of Leningrad, which is now known as St. Petersburg. After high school, he attended the Leningrad Mechanical Institute. In 1981 he graduated with an honors degree in mechanical engineering.


Soon after Krikalev started working at a Russian company called NPO Energia. The company provided and designed services for the Soviet Union’s space program.


Krikalev was not only working in mission control, but he also developed space travel protocols and equipment. In addition, Krikalev was part of the team trying to salvage Salyut 7 space station in 1985, after the systems failed.

Krikalev’s Career

In 1985, Krikalev earned a place in the Soviet cosmonaut program. After he fully completed basic training one year later, he was chosen to be part of the Buran spacecraft initiative.

Sergei Krikalev

However, he was diverted to special training in 1988 for a mission aboard Mir. For the mission, he had to learn to undertake spacewalks.

Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Volkov

Aleksandr Volkov was born in Ukraine in 1948 when it was still part of the Soviet Socialist Republics. Despite being born and raised in Ukraine, Volkov came from a Russian background.

Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Volkov

Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space when Volkov was just 13! Apparently, this was Volkov’s inspiration to become a cosmonaut.

Volkov’s Career

Volkov attended Ukraine’s Chuguyev Higher Air Force School, where he trained as a pilot. After graduating in 1970, he worked as a test pilot for a few years.

Volkov trained as a pilot

He finally joined the cosmonaut program in 1976. In 1985, he got his first space flight abroad the Soyuz T-14 ship to the Soviets’ Salyut 7 space station.

These Two Men

In 1988, Volkov and Krikalev finally came together. They were both abroad a spacecraft called Soyuz TM-7 when it was launched from Baikonur bound for the Mir station.

Volkov and Krikalev

Krikalev was on board as the engineer and Volkov was the commander. Jean-Loup Chrétien was also abroad. In 1982 he was the first Frenchman in space.


The three Soviet cosmonauts with on board with three more newcomers for 25 days. This was the longest amount of time that six people lived in the cramped station.

Claustrophobia on air

After 25 days, two of the original cosmonauts and Chrétien returned to earth. However, Krikalev, Volkov, and Valeri Polyakov stayed aboard. At least they had more room now.

Long Way from Home

In April of 1989, the three of them returned to earth. Polyakov had been on board for 240 days, and Krikalev and Volkov spend 151 days in orbit, on their first time aboard Mir.

The soviet rocket

Polyakov went aboard Mir for the second time in 1994 and spent 437 days in space! It was the longest amount of time a person has been away from earth at the time.


After one mission on Mir, Krikalev decided to reenter training for a Mir project in 1990. For this mission, Krikalev was part of the back-up crew.

Sergei Krikalev

This meant that Krikalev could fly if someone from the original crew backs out. Since nobody dropped out, Krikalev stayed on earth during this mission.

Another Mission

However by December that year, Krikalev was already in training for another Mir mission. For this one, he was a first choice crew member and not a backup.

Sergei Krikalev

His preparation included making up to ten spacewalks. Krikalev returned to Mir abroad Soyuz TM-12 with soviet cosmonaut Anatoly Artsebarsky and scientist Helen Sherman.

Helen Sherman

In 1963, Sherman was born in Sheffield. She and 13,000 other people answered a radio ad, asking for people who want to be U.K.’s first astronaut. She was chosen and spent over a year of training intensely.

Helen Sherman

She finally went abroad Mir, and her stay in space was scheduled to be short. She got to go to space, but she returned to earth just seven days later.

Left in Space

Engineer Musa Manarov and crew commander Viktor Afanasyev were already abroad Mir when Krikalev, Artebarsky, and Sherman joined.

Astronauts on space

On May 26th, 1991, they all returned to earth except for Krikalev and Artsebarsky. During this time, Artsebarsky did six spacewalks and spent more than 33 hours outside the spacecraft.

Replacement Crew

There was a crew scheduled to come to replace Krikalev and Artsebarsky in October. However, the engineer who was supposed to take over for Krikalev didn’t have enough training for a long stay in space.

Krikalev on space

Due to the situation that July, Krikalev agreed to extend his stay on Mir. The relief crew still took off in mid-October 1991 but, not to replace Krikalev.


The three newcomers from the relief crew were, Commander Alexander Volkov, Austrian scientist Franz Viehböck, and from the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, Toktar Aubakirov.

Alexander Volkov, Franz Viehböck and Toktar Aubakirov

Supposedly, the Austrian government paid to soviets $7 million to get Viehböck aboard Mir. On October 10th, Viehböck, Aubakirov, and Artsebarsky returned to Earth.


Volkov and Krikalev were the only ones left on Mir. However, events at the U.S.S.R. complicated their stay. That August, just one month after Krikalev had agreed to extend his mission, Russia kicked things off.

Military coup in Moscow

However, on August 19th radical communists launched a military coup in Moscow because they were unhappy with the way things were going in the Soviet Union.

Changes Down on Earth

Many changes washed over the Soviet Union building up to the coup attempt. Since 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev was the state leader.

Mikhail Gorbachev

He oversaw reforms to the Soviet economy. In addition, he was lessening the strict censorship that the U.S.S.R. had for years. This resulted in affecting the space program.

Overthrowing Soviets

Many territories, including East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia overthrew their Soviet-supported communist government in 1989.

Russian Communist party

However, in 1991, the Russian Communist party decided on one more attempt to roll back the Gorbachev reforms. Tanks were pushed into Red Square in Moscow.

The End of the Soviet Union

This attempt ended in failure just two days later. However, it managed to destabilize what was left of the Soviet Union. By December that year, the Soviet Union was destroyed.

The End of the Soviet Union

Unfortunately, it led to putting the Soviet space program and Mir space station in question. This was because the spacecraft bound of Mir was launched from the Baikonur Kazakhstan base, one of the republics fighting for independence.

Kazakh on Board

The Soviet authorities agreed to send a Kazakh national to Mir in an attempt to keep Kazakhstan on board. Toktar Aubakirov was chosen and arrived on October 2nd, 1991.

Kazakh national

His stay aboard the space station was short. He went in place of an experienced cosmonaut that should have been the one to replace Krikalev.

No Return Date

Sergei Krikalev had been highly impacted by these events as 1991 continued, and things only got worse. On top of having already extended his original mission, there was no scheduled endpoint to his time on Mir.

Sergei Krikalev in interview

Krikalev admitted to Discover in 2016, that his prolonged stay in space was concerning. He was actually very stressed about how long he would be there for.

Not Enough Money

Krikalev didn’t really understand what was happening. He kept being told that there wasn’t enough money to bring him back to earth. Mission control kept telling him to wait a bit longer.

Sergei Krikalev on space

After another month passed, he kept getting the same answers. He said, “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 the top priority.”


Krikalev expressed, “For us, it was totally unexpected. We didn’t understand what happened. When we discussed all this, we tried to grasp how it would affect the space program.”

Krikalev was taken by Doctors and policmans

As expected, he was also worried about his own health and well-being. “Do I have enough strength? Will I be able to readjust for this longer stay to complete the program? Naturally, at one point, I had my doubts.”


The Washington Post ran a story in 1992 titled, “Left in Space: The Cosmonaut’s Endless Orbit.” At that point, Krikalev was orbiting the earth for about nine months.

Washington Post

The article stated that Krikalev got to speak to his wife Elena each week. What they didn’t mention, however, was that she was actually working at mission control.

Family Struggles

Elena described her thoughts about the called to Discover Magazine. She explained, “I tried never to talk about unpleasant things because it must have been hard for him.”

Krikalov’s wife

As far as I can make out, Sergei was doing the same thing.” I can only imagine how tough it was for Elena back at home. The couple even had a new baby.

He Deserves Honey

In addition to the stress of being trapped in space, Krikalev wasn’t making that much money being a cosmonaut. He earned just 500 Rubles a month which was equivalent to $2.50.

Sergei Krikalov

If you think the situation couldn’t get worse, Russia’s economic situation was also negatively affecting Krikalev’s comforts aboard the Mir. He loved honey, but sadly, there was a shortage in Russia. Instead, he received onions and horseradish as a substitute. The worst possible replacements for honey.

Coming Home

Ultimately, a replacement team was on its way. Krikalev and Volkov would finally be able to go back to earth. On March 25th, 1992, both men arrived at their home planet safely, landing in Kazakhstan.

Krikalev and Volkov came back home

However, by that time, Krikalev had circled the earth at least 5,000 times! He stayed in space for 311 days, which was a world record at the time. Unfortunately, he came back to his country, ruined.

Home Sweet Home

For Krikalev to return to earth, Germany paid $24 million to buy a ticket for Klaus-Dietrich Flade, his replacement. However, he finally made it back.

Klaus-Dietrich Flade

It was reported that Krikalev’s appearance was “Pale as flour and sweaty like a lump of wet dough” when he returned. Not bad for someone stuck in space for over 300 days.

Getting Back on the Horse

Incredibly, the fearless Krikalev didn’t seem to be too affected by his uncertain stay aboard the Mir. In October of 1992, NASA promised to launch a space shuttle with a Russian on board.

Krikalev on NASA

The Russian Space Agency chose Krikalev as one of the cosmonauts to train for this revolutionary partnership between Russia and America. In 1994 the shuttle launched and Krikalev was aboard.


An American named Robert Cabana and Krikalev were the first two astronauts aboard the International Space Station in 1998. He returned to the space station two more times and even did a six-month stay in 2005.

Robert Cabana and Krikalev

Krikalev spent a total of 803 days in space and was on six different missions by the time he retired as a cosmonaut. However, he continued to work as a director of manned spaceflight at Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation.

Beating His Records

Although Krikalev spent 311 days in space and unintentionally broke the record, he got beat a few years later. Valeri Polyakov beat him staying in space for 438 consecutive days.

Valeri Polyakov

In 2018, Gennady Padalka also broke Krikalev’s record. Cosmonaut, Gennady Padalka spent a total of 879 days in space, while Krikalev was there for 803 days. Still impressive if you ask me.

Space World Records

The world record for the most space missions for one person is seven. This record is held by two astronauts. Jerry L. Ross and Franklin Chang-Diaz.

Jerry L. Ross and Franklin Chang-Diaz

John Young is another astronaut breaking a world record! Young holds the record for being in command or piloting four different space shuttles.

More Records

The youngest person to ever fly in a rocket ship was Gherman Titov, who was just 25 years old at the time. The oldest person to fly was John Glenn. He was 77 when he broke that record.

Gherman Titov

The crew for the Apollo 13 moon mission was the farthest astronauts have ever been from the earth. It was 401,056 km which is about 249,205 miles. Good thing they didn’t get lost out there!