Once back on terra firma, a group of four men helped Krikalev down from the Soyuz capsule. He was pale as flour and sweaty, like a lump of wet dough. One man fanned his face with a handkerchief. Another handed him hot broth. Fresh air and burning sunlight washed over his body, which was nestled beneath a fur coat. A blanket of fresh snow made it tough to walk.
“It was very pleasant in spite of the gravity we had to face,” Krikalev recalled years later for a documentary crew. “But psychologically, the load was lifted. There was a moment. You couldn’t call it euphoria, but it was very good.” The enormous responsibility of managing Mir was no longer his. It would take weeks for Krikalev to feel normal back on the ground and months to recover fully.
In his understated way, Krikalev downplayed the significance of his trip once back on Earth. His own people didn’t know his name and face, but many journalists would ask him about returning to a changed planet.
“What surprises me most?” he mused to reporters. “That at first, the Earth was dark, and now it’s white. Winter has come, and before it was summer. Now, it’s beginning to bloom again. That’s the most impressive change you can see from space.”
June 17, 1992
Months after Krikalev’s return, President Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin met in Washington, D.C., and finalized the Shuttle-Mir program, which put cosmonauts on the space shuttle and astronauts on Mir, paving the way for the ISS. Krikalev returned to training almost immediately, traveling to America to prepare for his role as the shuttle’s first Russian crew member in 1994, flying alongside current NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
“After meeting, training and flying with Sergei, I had great hopes that U.S.-Russian relations in space would develop progressively and that one day Russians and Americans flying together with astronauts of other nations would become commonplace,” Bolden says.