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Aiming for Arkalyk

Why cosmonauts returning from space face a chilly reception.

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The second happiest passenger is Herve Stevenin, who has not only his astronaut back but his salamanders too.  Ecstatically, he lifts the reptiles to be photographed.

Leopold Eyharts, after three weeks in orbit, looks no worse than someone with medium-intensity flu.  The station proved a “very, very busy” place for the 40-year-old guest cosmonaut during his short tour on Mir.  Week one involved “very intense adaptation” to weightlessness and the environment on board the station, he says.  The rest of his stay was a blur of scientific work stretching from early morning until 10 or 11 at night.

I ask Vinogradov what he found most difficult about spending 200 days in space, and the 43-year-old first-time cosmonaut replies, “Lack of diversity in sources of information.  All day long it’s TsUP communications, and 99 percent of the information is professional.  They sent us up newspapers once when the crew changed, but they were already a week and a half old.”

During his half-year in orbit Vinogradov had time to mull over the emotional aspects of long-duration space travel.  “You cannot battle with the cosmos.  You can only get used to it,” he reflects, then lapses into silence waiting for the next question.

Mir’s designers know how to maintain the human body through extended exposure to microgravity.  But Vinogradov suggests that there is no pat cure for the mental strain.  “The most difficult situation occurs if you do not have understanding within the crew, when different people have different reactions to a situation,” he notes enigmatically.  He does not elaborate.  Instead he calls to mind the gung-ho style of cosmonauts past, insisting that all he wants now is to prepare for the next mission.  He does admit he might need a month to rest.

Vinogradov and Solovyev risked their lives to ensure that there would be more missions to Mir.  Yet their efforts to patch the aging station may have been in vain.  Russia’s space leadership has ordered Mir moved into lower orbit, a first step toward junking it.  Someday soon the heroics of Mikhalishev and Krayev will likely be consigned to history too.  Seen through the cold eye of technological progress, the crash-landing Soyuz and the whirring Mi-8 are relics of the Soviet era, long past the prime of their lives.

Today, though, the tired cosmonauts can take satisfaction in a job well executed as they readjust to the sights and smells and gravitational tug of Earth.  Not long after takeoff, a still wobbly Eyharts leaves his cabin to hit the bathroom, only lightly supported by the resident French physician.  The small crowd goes wild.

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