There are several sci-fi movies set in space that center on one simple premise: once you leave Earth, nothing is ever the same once you return. You’re a changed man or woman — for better or worse.
This idea was not just movie magic to cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev. When he set out on his space journey, he thought he knew exactly what Earth would look like on his return. But after an unforeseen shift in power on the planet, he began to wonder if he’d ever make it home safely.
The year was 1991 when 33-year-old flight engineer Sergei Krikalev left for the Mir space station from a base in Kazakhstan. In spite of all his training, Krikalev had no way of preparing for the twist his journey was about to take.
At the time, the Mir space station needed some TLC, so Krikalev, the brainy engineer, was assigned to conduct repairs and experimental spacewalks at the station. In the beginning of his trip, he wasn’t alone.
Cosmonaut Anatoli Artsebarski, and Britain’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, went along with Kikalev for the journey. Both of them, however, wound up leaving Kikalev before disaster struck.
See, Krikalev was only supposed to be in space for 5 months — a quick jaunt, more or less. But after a slew of unexpected happenings plagued Earth, his trip became…complicated.
While he was working on the Mir space station, the Soviet Union, his home country, collapsed and split into 15 separate states on December 26th of 1991. This, of course, spurred dramatic changes.
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President Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down to make room for Boris Yeltsin, the new leader of the newborn country, Russia. All of this made the status of Krikalev’s mission fuzzy, as his home country, the one responsible for his journey, no longer existed!
Stuck in space, Sergei Krikalev was amusingly — and unhelpfully — nicknamed “the last citizen of the USSR,” but the not-so-funny situation posed the questions: how, where, and when was Krikalev to return to Earth?
These questions were complicated because the Soviets had launched rockets from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which went to the new state of Kazakhstan after the collapse of the USSR. They weren’t cheap…
So Kazakhstan then charged Moscow ridiculously large fees to use the facility, in turn delaying Krikalev’s journey home, considering the Russian economy was already deteriorating.
At one point, Krikalev had the opportunity to return to Earth on the Raduga re-entry capsule, but since that would’ve resulted in the abandonment and thus end of Mir, Krikalev declined. He was dedicated to looking after the space station until there was an available flight engineer replacement…but that would take money.
Russia desperately tried to raise money by selling trips to the space station to other governments. Austria paid $7 million for a spot, and a Japanese television station spent $12 million to send one of its reporters into the cosmos. Still, fundraising fell short.
Finally, after Moscow and Kazakhstan negotiated a deal, the first Kazakh astronaut and the Austrian astronaut were launched into space via the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Krikalev was finally going to be relieved…or so he thought!
Sadly, once they arrived at the station, it became clear that neither of them had the skills necessary to replace Krikalev and keep up with the demands of the Mir station. Dedicated, the cosmonaut knew this meant he couldn’t leave yet.
During this catastrophe, Krikalev’s name was plastered all over Russian newspapers, which heavily sympathized with him. The Komsomolskaya Pravda even said that Earth “started to forget about its cosmonaut.”
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The situation was serious. With all eyes on the new country, Russia became so frantic to retrieve Krikalev from space that it even considered selling Mir to the United States — but NASA showed little interest in that offer.
For Krikalev, the days were starting to add up in a major way with some pretty serious consequences. Unfortunately, boredom wasn’t the only risk that came with a lonely, painfully long stay in space.
Overstaying your welcome in space makes you susceptible to a boatload of risks, including muscle atrophy, radiation, a dangerously weakened immune system, and even cancer. So Krikalev was in trouble.
“I wondered if I had the strength to survive to complete the program,” a nervous Krikalev confessed when asked about how he felt preparing for his epic space adventure. “I was not sure.” Soon, his situation looked completely hopeless.
Thankfully, after what must’ve felt like forever, Germany paid $24 million for a ticket for Krikalev’s replacement, Klaus-Dietrich Flade. Finally relieved of space station maintenance duty, Sergei Krikalev returned to Earth on March 25, 1992.
When the “victim of space” slowly came out of his return capsule, four men had to help him stand, as Krikalev hadn’t experienced gravity in approximately 10 months, just about 311 days. They draped a fur coat over the brave cosmonaut and gave him a warm bowl of broth.
Krikalev’s return to Earth became international news. One report even described his initial appearance on March 25th as “pale as flour and sweaty, like a lump of wet dough.” Hmm, that seems a bit harsh considering the nightmare that Krikalev endured. Especially considering he wasn’t done with space just yet…
Two years later, he embarked on another space mission, becoming the first Russian cosmonaut to travel on a NASA shuttle. His bravery and commitment to the final frontier must’ve been inspired by the fearless cosmonauts that came before him.
See, the late 1960s was a period of attempted bravado for both the United States and the then-functioning Soviet Union. Both superpowers wanted to lead the charge into space in what became known as a tension-filled era known as the Space Race.
The Soviet Union had already ousted the U.S.A. on numerous occasions. The first time was in 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first satellite to break through Earth’s orbit. But four years later, they had an even bigger achievement.
In 1961, they blew everyone’s minds by sending the very first human into space. He was a man named Yuri Gagarin, and when he arrived back on Earth, he was hailed as a national celebrity and hero. But this only made the Space Race grow in intensity.
By 1967, both nations successfully sent men into space and cheered spacecrafts orbiting the Earth for several days at a time. But now, both wanted to achieve the ultimate goal: a lunar landing.
America had already failed at this endeavor: three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, died inside a spaceship when a routine ground test caused an explosion. This gave the Soviets a window of opportunity.
A man named Leonid Brezhnev was running the Soviet Union at the time and winning the Space Race was imperative to him. He came up with an idea he believed would truly put the Soviets in the lead: launch two spaceships that would rendezvous, dock, and exchange crew members before making it back home.
The fraternity of astronauts intended for this massive Soviet undertaking was confident they could pull off such a dangerous mission with success. The reputation of the entire nation rested on it.
One of the Soviets’ spaceships, Soyuz 1, was going to be manned by an astronaut named Vladimir Komarov, who happened to be close friends with Yuri Gagarin, the hero from the first manned space launch. As smart and skilled as Komarov was, he was hesitant about the mission.
First of all, the hatch that led into Soyuz 1 was too narrow to allow for fully suited astronauts to pass in and out of with ease. This was an immediate red flag, but it was only the beginning of the issues.
After a thorough inspection of the spacecraft Komarov was going to be placed in charge of, engineers found an alarming 203 problems, which were detailed in a 10-page memo. Unfortunately, no one was brave enough to alert Leonid Brezhnev.
Knowing about the absurd amount of problems with Soyuz 1, Komarov apparently told Gagarin not long before the launch, “I’m not going to make it back from this flight.” But he knew he had to board the shuttle anyway.
See, Komarov knew if he bailed out, Gagarin would take his place in that horrifically flawed shuttle. Were Komarov to bail, his friend would take his place and face that certain doom.
Almost immediately after the launch, Komarov experienced problems. One of the ship’s solar panels never deployed, he lost the ability to navigate, the thermal control system deteriorated, and the ship spun out of control.
Komarov’s communication with ground control was almost nonexistent. In fact, Americans listening stations in Turkey actually picked up sporadic transmissions of Komarov screaming with rage in the ship.
As Komarov hurtled back down towards Earth after five horrific hours, he fired retrorockets in an attempt to slow his speed so the craft’s parachute could deploy. It was his only chance of survival.
However, the parachute never deployed, and Komarov crashed into the Earth at full force. The impact killed him instantly. The Soviets watched in horror as their mission came to a miserable end.
Soviet Union military troops rushed out to the crash site, hopeful that maybe Komarov managed to survive. Sadly, all that was left were the charred remains of twisted metal and scorched earth.
Friends and family of Komarov, naturally, were destroyed by the series of tragic events that led to his death. But no one suffered more than Yuri Gagarin, who even gave a risky interview afterward condemning the entire mission.
Moscow held a state funeral for Komarov where his ashes were placed in a tomb in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis at Red Square. But, that wasn’t the only way they honored the fallen astronaut.
In addition to the funeral, Komarov was posthumously awarded two medals for his dedicated and courageous service to his nation. One of them was the Order of Lenin and the second was the Order of Hero.
Komarov was only 40 years old when he took on the doomed mission to space. Neither America or the Soviet Union could put their Space Race egos aside, and it cost both sides the lives of dedicated individuals.
Competition between nations has pushed engineers to dance around common sense for decades, and this more evident three decades later. It was then, on January 28, 1986, seven Americans died in front of an audience of roughly 40 million people when the Challenger blew up. And one man could’ve stopped it all.
Flashback to June 1st, 1985, a year after President Ronald Reagan announced the NASA Teacher In Space project. One teacher out of thousands would be chosen to join six astronauts on the Challenger Space Shuttle.
The project was meant to increase public interest in the Space Shuttle program and bolster funding — which NASA certainly needed at the time — while simultaneously stressing the importance of education.
Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was selected to perform the high honor of giving lectures from space. Ecstatically, she started training for the launch of her life.
The other Challenger adventurers were Francis Scobee, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka, pilot Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair and Judith Resnik (the second female astronaut ever). Not one of them knew that they had just sealed their fate.
Preparation for the launch consisted not only of training the astronauts but of ensuring the shuttle was safe and ready to make its 10th trip. However, there were some concerns regarding its capabilities…
During its previous flights, the shuttle ran into problems with its O-rings — rubber rings produced by Thiokol, used to seal a number of parts together and ensure the entire structure is airtight.
Erosion of these O-rings was undeniable, but the Marshall Center didn’t report it to senior management. Instead, they kept the problem in their reporting channels with Thiokol, where it was dubbed “Criticality 1.”
As time went on, the situation worsened. The outer O-rings began to leak gas, but because the inner O-rings held, the damage was deemed “an acceptable risk.”
Despite the dangers presented by the O-rings, no extra safety measurements were taken. Ejecting seats with parachutes were considered, but this would limit the crew’s space and thus the size of the team.
However, there was one man who was gravely concerned about the stability of the O-rings and the safety of the crew — a man who tried everything to prevent what was later dubbed “the Challenger Disaster”.
Robert “Bob” Ebeling was born in Chicago in 1926. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he married the love of his life, Darlene, and started a family with her. She then supported him through his studies as a mechanical engineer in San Diego.
Upon graduating in 1952, Ebeling snagged a job at Convair, the firm responsible for manufacturing some of NASA’s first rockets — a high honor for a 26 year old, but Ebeling was not just any engineer.
His skills and work ethic allowed him to succeed in engineering at a rapid pace. After several promotions, he joined Thiokol just in time for their contract to build rocket boosters for the space program.
Here, Ebeling oversaw the assembly of the boosters after their initial construction. However, in the lead-up to the launch, he began to worry that the components were not up to scratch.
The launch was set to occur in January and the temperatures were expected to drop. Ebeling and his coworker Roger Boisjoly were unable to conclude whether the rubber rings could withstand the cold.
Originally, Challenger was set to launch from KSC in Florida on January 22, 1986. Unfortunately, shuttle Columbia faced some delays, and thus Challenger’s mission was moved to January 24th, 25th, 26th, 27th, and finally, January 28th.
In the days leading up to the big moment, Ebeling, Boisjoly and several of their colleagues grew weary of the impending danger. “We all knew if the seals failed, the shuttle would blow up,” engineer Roger Boisjoly said.
On the morning of January 27, the day before Challenger was due to launch, Ebeling telephoned his superior Allan McDonald in Florida to express his concerns. McDonald arranged a teleconference with NASA officials.
Initially, Thiokol officials agreed with Ebeling and Boisjoly that the launch should be delayed, but their data was unclear. They knew the cold would affect the O-rings, but not what temperature was the exact limit.
“My God, Thiokol,” Marshall Spaceflight Center’s Lawrence Mulloy said to the engineers, “When do you want me to launch? Next April?” The NASA representatives decided they could wait no longer.
Upon NASA’s final decision to proceed with the launch, Bob Ebeling went home to his wife in a haze of worry and disappointment. “It’s going to blow up,” he said solemnly, unable to sleep at night.
Frustrated with NASA’s decision, he drove to the launch the next morning, beating his fist on the dashboard. His daughter, Leslie, had never seen him like that. She recalled him saying, “everyone is going to die.”
It was a cold morning for the area, with temperatures around, or 28°F (-2°C). It was freezing, which meant the O-rings would stiffen. To onlookers, it was just a chill, but to the Challenger crew, it was the beginning of the end.
Since none of the impending dangers were known to the astronauts nor Ms. McAuliffe, they were beaming with excitement as they bid their families goodbye and headed into the crew cabin, smiling from ear to ear.
With an on-site audience of a few hundred people and a TV audience consisting of 17% of the U.S. population, the shuttle door closed, and the countdown began. Launching in 10…9…8…7…5…4…3…2..1…
At first, everything seemed okay. The shuttle blasted into the sky in one piece. About one minute after liftoff, a friend of Boisjoly said to him, “Oh God. We made it!” Boisjoly wasn’t so sure.
Then, 73 seconds after the launch, a disaster happened that rocked the nation: The shuttle exploded in the sky and started to nose-dive towards the Atlantic Ocean, traced by an ominous plume of smoke.
Any communication with the crew was gone, only static was left as the shuttle plummeted towards the water. Some audience members screamed, others stood silently, and the newscasters were at a loss for words.
Meanwhile, 3 members of the crew remained conscious after the initial explosion, with the crew cabin still intact. Personal Egress Air Packs were used by Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, and pilot Michael J. Smith.
Since Smith’s pack was located on the back of his seat, someone aided him. “There had been nothing in our training concerning PEAP. The fact that Judy or El helped Mike Smith made them heroic in my mind,” said astronaut Mike Mullane.
Sadly, surviving the explosion did not mean the three PEAP users had a chance. The pressure of falling at more than 300km per hour (186 miles) and the impact of the crash was far more than anybody could take.
As America subsequently struggled to cope with the loss of all seven crew members, President Ronald Reagan gave a heartfelt speech. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave,” he said.
“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God,’” Reagan said.
The tragedy of losing 7 talented and wonderful people in an accident seen by millions ripped through the United States like wildfire, with 85% of the country hearing about it within an hour.
Three weeks after the disaster, Ebeling then gave an interview to NPR – although he chose to remain anonymous at the time. “I could have done more,” he told journalist Howard Berkes. “I should have done more.”
Sadly, the disaster haunted Ebeling for decades, especially after a report came out that confirmed the O-rings failed, allowing fuel to leak within the tank. It was exactly what he had warned them about.
The report also noted that both Thiokol and NASA had been aware of the problem but had failed to act accordingly. “NASA did not accept the judgment of its engineers that the design was unacceptable,” it read.
Unable to cope with his guilt, Ebeling left Thiokol and joined Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge as a volunteer. In fact, when the sanctuary flooded, Ebeling drew on his engineering knowledge to help rebuild it.
It wasn’t until to 2016 that Ebeling spoke out again when journalist Howard Berkes returned to interview the now 90-year-old retiree at his home in Brigham about what happened between Thiokol and NASA.
“I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” Ebeling told Berkes then. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me? You picked a loser.’”
Though Ebeling was clearly heartbroken, the world had a different opinion. Soon afterward, he received a flood of supportive messages, including from former NASA and Thiokol employees, releasing him from any blame.
The unbelievable amount of love and support Ebeling received finally “helped bring [his] worrisome mind to ease.” On his deathbed, two months after the Berkes interview, he said, “you have to have an end to everything.”
The Challenger disaster cost 7 innocent people their lives, and Ebeling his conscience. Now, all we can do is learn from NASA’s mistakes, and make sure to listen to those who voice their concerns.