Valery Polyakov, record-breaking cosmonaut, dies at 80
When humans finally tread the ocher plains of Mars for the first time, one can glance up at the heavy, dust-laden sky and offer a wordless note of thanks to cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who helped pave the way. . Polyakov died on Monday, September 19, 2022, at the age of 80.
Valery Polyakov is known for completing the longest single spaceflight in history, spending 437 straight days on the Mir space station between 1994 and 1995. And in his two-mission career, Polyakov spent almost enough time off Earth’s surface to complete a theoretical round trip to the Red Planet and back.
The valuable lessons we learned from Polyakov’s extended spaceflights have not only helped us protect the dozens of astronauts who have since orbited Earth. They could also pave the way for what may one day be humanity’s greatest achievement: venturing to a planet beyond our own.
Focus on Valery Polyakov
Valery Polyakov’s name is now in the record books. But this outgoing and physically imposing man entered the world with a different name. Valeri Ivanovich Korshunov was born on April 27, 1942 in the industrial city of Tula, located about 180 km south of Moscow. At age 15, however, he changed his second patronymic and surname to Vladimirovich Polyakov in honor of his adoptive stepfather.
Polyakov first studied medicine in Moscow, specializing in astronautical medicine at the capital’s Institute of Medical and Biological Problems. He became a Soviet cosmonaut in 1972 – although his wait for actual spaceflight proved long and arduous.
Finally, on August 29, 1988, Polyakov launched to the Mir space station aboard Soyuz TM-6, accompanied by fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Lyakhov and the first Afghan astronaut, Abdul Ahad Momand. His teammates returned to Earth’s surface a week later, but Polyakov remained on Mir to oversee the health of Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov, two cosmonauts nearing the end of the world’s first year-long spaceflight. Titov and Manarov returned to Earth in December 1988, but Polyakov remained aboard Mir to welcome two new crewmates.
Polyakov finally returned to Earth only on April 27, 1989. With a duration of 241 days, the cosmonaut’s first mission ranked third among the longest spaceflights at that time. But Polyakov’s next mission would be even longer.
By the late 1980s, Russia had aggressively pushed the boundaries of long-term spaceflight. Yet the effects of microgravity on the human body remained imperfectly understood. Cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko, who flew for 326 days in 1987, found himself working less, sleeping more and exercising vigorously as his mission drew to a close. Longer flights, mission planners realized, required close medical supervision of the crew. And even better, they demanded a medical expert on the crew.
Polyakov was one such expert. In 1993 he volunteered to be stationed on Mir for 18 months. But its planned November launch aboard Soyuz TM-18 was delayed until January 8, 1994. And with NASA’s space shuttle plans to visit Mir in mid-1995, Polyakov’s mission was even reduced, first to 16 months, then to 14 months.
Viktor Afanasyev and Yuri Usachev joined Polyakov on Mir for the first six months of his off-world marathon. Between July 1994 and March 1995, they were replaced by three rotating crews of cosmonauts and astronauts from Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany and the United States.
Aboard Mir, Polyakov supported 25 life science research projects, which focused on diet, the human muscular system, the lungs and immune system, the blood and central nervous system, and the regulatory role inner ear balance.
In early 1995 – quietly and without fanfare – Polyakov’s mission surpassed Titov and Manarov’s one-year-in-orbit record. But now the end of Polyakov’s spaceflight shone like a mirage on the horizon.
In February 1995, the space shuttle Discovery approached within 30 feet (9 meters) of Mir, photographing a beaming Polyakov at one of the station’s windows. A few weeks later, Norm Thagard joined Polyakov on Mir, becoming the first American occupant of the Russian space station.