Less is Mir: if you think your lockdown is bad, consider this poor guy

Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, his record-breaking space stint at last over, toasts with a cup of hot tea as he sits in an armchair.
BEVERAGE JOE Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, his record-breaking space stint at last over, toasts with a cup of hot tea as he sits in an armchair.
Image: Reuters

If the next 21 days are feeling like rather a lot, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and think of Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov.

On January 8 1994, Polyakov and two colleagues were strapped into a Soyuz-U2 rocket on the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. After the standard countdown procedure – suddenly needing the loo, wondering if they’d left the stove on – they were flung into space and, two days later, floated their way aboard the Mir space station.

At the time, Mir was the largest spacecraft ever built, but it was still the stuff of pure nightmare for claustrophobes, with living quarters that were a cross between a washing machine and a broom cupboard. Most windows showed a view of the void. Exercise (which was compulsory) involved being strapped to a treadmill or cycle until, I assume, beads of sweat orbited cosmonauts’ faces like tiny water moons.

And so it went. For a week. For two. Yes, for 21 days. For six full months Polyakov, commander Viktor Afanasyev and flight engineer Yury Usachov lived aboard Mir like three extremely educated and disciplined pilchards in a can in the middle of nothing. Long-term weightlessness has many unpleasant effects on the human body, one of which is increased flatulence. Russians have endured many hardships in history, but that must have been something special.

At last, on July 1 1994, there was a knock at the airlock: the next Soyuz mission had arrived, delivering two new space-pilchards. For what must have been a very claustrophobic and somewhat stinky week, all five cosmonauts lived together in the tin can, doing the standard handover like explaining how and when to feed the cats, the ADT password in case anyone tripped the alarm, and where the spare front door keys were hidden. Then Afanasyev and Usachov squeezed inside a small high-tech rock and plunged back to Kazakhstan.

Polyakov, however, stayed. And stayed. And stayed. Working, thinking, reading, farting; floating among the endless pipes and wires and switches and whatsits that crowded in from every side. And when he was finally ordered back to Earth, and flew his somewhat atrophied body into Soyuz TM-20, and banged down on the Kazakh steppes, and felt himself crushed by gravity, the numbers were astonishing: Polyakov had been in space for 437 days and 18 hours.

In the coming weeks, claustrophobia will be real. Even those lucky enough to live in houses with gardens in which they can roam will, at some point, feel terribly trapped.

When this happens, however, perhaps it’s worth thinking of Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov and his 14 months in a tin can, and remembering that if we have a second or even third room into which we can walk upright, and a bed on which we can stretch out, and a screen on which we can speak to our friends, then we’re already halfway home.