June 21, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

Oleg Kononenko reaches the record of 1,000 days in space

As Moscow's clocks pass midnight to welcome Wednesday, June 5, the world announces a new hero: a man who is already a national icon in Russia and in his homeland, Turkmenistan. Six decades after Yuri Gagarin first conquered space, Oleg Kononenko, a quiet and modest mechanical engineer, avid reader and volleyball player, becomes the first person to log 1,000 days away from planet Earth.

“Sometimes I go back in time and analyze the steps and actions I took,” he once said in a interview. “And I realize that the vector always pointed towards space.”

Spread over 16 years and five expeditions to the International Space Station (ISS), Kononenko's feat is equivalent to 33 months, or 1.6 percent of his life: he was born in June 1964. He has orbited the Earth 16,000 times and flown 420 million miles (675 million kilometers). It – enough “space kilometer” for hundreds of round trips to the Moon, a trip to Mars or even a one-way ticket to Jupiter.

Kononenko's “kiloversary” places humanity in ample conditions to explore deep space. Since April 2008, he has shared the ISS with 55 people from 13 countries, including the first astronauts from South Korea, Denmark, Türkiye and Belarus. He flew twice with Gennady Padalka, the Russian cosmonaut who first held the world record for longest space-time at 878 days, which Kononenko broke on February 4 of this year.

A little history about Oleg Kononenko

Oleg Kononenko inspects the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft outside the International Space Station in 2018. Credit: NASA.

Kononenko had an eventful career as a mechanical engineer with a specialty in aviation and as a cosmonaut since 1996. He also had a fulfilling home life, husband to Tatyana Mikhailovna Kononenko and father of two children. His family understood his dedication and passion as he commanded four Soyuz missions, spent three Christmases and New Years in orbit, and celebrated four birthdays off planet. They continue to support him as he completes a monumental milestone not only for him but for humanity.

Humanity's adventure in space began with several cosmonauts. After Gagarin's 108-minute single orbit flight in April 1961, Gherman Titov spent one day in space in August 1961, Andriyan Nikolayev logged almost four days (94 hours) in August 1962, and Valery Bykovsky's five days in June 1963 remain the longest solo albums. mission in history.

Three years later, the United States took the lead in space exploration. In August 1965, Gordon Cooper and Charles “Pete” Conrad of Gemini 5 flew a week-long endurance mission to test whether a lunar mission was possible, which they ironically called “8 days or bust.”

The record of almost eight days fell to the members of the Gemini 7 crew Frank Borman and Jim Lovell in December 1965. Their 14-day mission—dirty, cramped, and decidedly unglamorous—proved that humans could survive a round-trip flight to the Moon. Lovell subsequently flew three more times, accumulating 29 days in space in 1970; He was the most experienced astronaut on Earth between 1966 and 1973.

Meanwhile, in June 1970, cosmonauts Nikolayev and Vitali Sevastyanov smashed Gemini 7 record with a 17-day orbital stay on Soyuz 9. A year later, Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev spent 23 days aboard Salyut 1 (the world's first space station), but died tragically when a malfunction caused a premature depressurization of its Soyuz 11 capsule during re-entry.

Oleg Kononenko.  Credit: Andrey Shelepin/NASA.
Oleg Kononenko. Credit: Andrey Shelepin/NASA.

The competition heats up

In June 1973, Conrad eclipsed Lovell's shipboard record. NASA Skylab – America's first space station – accumulating a total run of 49 days across its four missions. In September of that same year, Alan Bean extended the lead to 69 days. And Gerald “Jerry” Carr, Edward Gibson and William Pogue finished the last Skylab mission, Skylab 4, in February 1974 after 84 days.

The advantage then returned – and remained – with the Russian resistance missions. Six flights to its Salyut 6 space station took 96 days in March 1978 (Soyuz 26), 139 days in November 1978 (Soyuz 29), 175 days in August 1979 (Soyuz 32), and 184 days in October 1980 (Soyuz 35).

Salyut 7 set new records of 211 days in December 1982 with the arrival of its first crew in Soyuz T5, and 237 days when Leonid Kizim, Vladimir Soloviev and Olef Atkov ended their space mission on October 2, 1984. A few years Later, Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov spent a continuous year from December 1987 to December 1988 (365 days, 22 hours) outside Earth on the Soviet Mir space station.

But the longest mission ever undertaken by humanity was offered and led by a doctor, Valeri Poliakov. Initially planned for 18 months, from November 1993 to May 1995, a combination of launch delays, technical problems and schedule conflicts truncated it to 16 months and then 14 months. It was finally launched in January 1994, where Polyakov flew 437 days, 17 hours and 58 minutes, circled the Earth 6,927 times and traveled 183 million miles (295 million kilometers).

Despite a deterioration in his mood early in the flight, Polyakov's sadness stabilized and he showed no cognitive or performance deficits. He returned home in March 1995 and walked unaided from the Soyuz capsule to demonstrate that humans could one day work on Mars after a months-long weightless transit to the Red Planet.

Female astronauts just want to have fun

(From left) Valentina Tereshkova about to board the Vostok 6 capsule; Tereshkova during the flight and Tereshkova after landing. Credit: RKK Energiya/NASA

Today, women make up 12 percent of all astronauts, but of course this number was almost non-existent just 60 years ago. Russian Valentina Tereshkova, a factory worker chosen by Soviet propagandists to cynically outdo the United States, was the first woman to travel to space. However, despite her headline-making mission that lasted nearly three days and completed 48 orbits in June 1963, it was two decades before another woman followed in her footsteps.

The second female astronaut was Svetlana Savitskaya, whose flights to Salyut 7 in August 1982 and July 1984 made her the first woman to fly twice, walk in space and perform an extravehicular activity, and raised her space-time tally to 19 days. On the other hand, the United States had a larger corps of female astronauts and quickly took advantage of its numerical advantage. In November 1993, Shannon Lucid accumulated 34 space days, more than any woman at the time.

Fitted into the second half of Polyakov's mission, the first long-duration female cosmonaut arrived aboard Mir. In October 1994, Yelena Kondakova boarded Mir and when she returned home 169 days later with Polyakov, they set two empirical records: Polyakov for the longest space flight by a man and Kondakova for the longest space flight by a woman.

Cosmonaut Yelena Kondakova Credit: NASA.

But while Polyakov's record still stands, Kondakova's fell in September 1996, when Lucid concluded a 188-day stay at Mir and a career that spanned 223 days. Her achievement lasted more than a decade. In June 2007, Sunita Williams broke Lucid's single-flight record on a 194-day mission to the ISS. And in November 2007, Peggy Whitson eclipsed Lucid's total, returning home in April 2008 after 376 days—the first woman to log a year in space.

Gathering time in space

In August 1980, after Leonid Popov and Valeri Ryumin spent 184 days in space, Ryumin went a step further and extended the record for longest space-time recorded by a male space traveler with 371 days on four missions (two short duration and two long-term).

Aboard the Mir space station in July 1986, Kizim became the first person to surpass a full year (374 days) over the course of his career. And Yuri Romanenko's 326-day mission on Soyuz TM-2 allowed him to accumulate 400 days in November 1987; she spending the quiet hours in Mir playing the guitar and singing wholesome love songs. And in April 1991, during another stay on Mir, Manarov spent 500 days in space for the first time (a total of 541 days).

Astronaut Peggy Whitson inside the Harmony module of the International Space Station in 2016. Credit: NASA.

In September 2017, Whitson completed another mission to the ISS, which lasted nine and a half months. During that epic journey, he spent a cumulative 400 days in space in December 2016, then 500 in March 2017 and 600 in June 2017. He also commanded a privately funded AxiomSpace mission in May 2023, bringing his personal tally to 675 days. (22 months). , with more than 10,500 orbits and 283 million miles (455 million kilometers) flown.

Despite having twice as much space-time as any other woman, one of Whitson's records fell in February 2020 when Christina Koch completed a 328-day stay on the ISS, the longest space flight ever made by a woman. Koch flew 5,200 orbits and 139 million miles (223 million kilometers). “Records are meant to be broken,” Whitson wrote in a congratulatory note to Koch. “It's a sign of progress.”

The Russian Sergei Avdeyev first accumulated 700 days in July 1997, then Sergei Krikalev surpassed 800 days in October 2005. Now, Oleg Kononenko has surpassed 900 days on February 26. He will turn 1,000 days old on Wednesday, June 5. By the time he returns home on September 24, he will accumulate 1,111 days (more than 17,300 orbits and 466 million miles (750 million kilometers)) throughout his stellar career.

Exploring the solar system and one day leaving human footprints on the Moon and Mars requires more than longevity. Knowledge from Kononenko's career will provide new insights into how to keep astronauts healthy, mitigate radiation risks, and understand how humans function under conditions of extreme isolation and deep stress.

And Kononenko is certainly a man who has his eye on what comes next. “I am a person who does not analyze the past,” he said. “I live in the present. And a little in the future.”

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