By Ben Evans
Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Serebrov—a veteran of four space missions to two different space stations and the 26th most experienced spacefarer of all time—has died at age 69. Citing sources within the cosmonauts’ training center at Star City, on the outskirts of Moscow, ITAR-TASS noted that Serebrov’s death earlier today (Tuesday, 12 November) was “sudden.” During his lengthy career within the Soviet and later Russian cosmonaut corps, he flew two short-duration missions to the Salyut 7 space station and two long-duration missions to the Mir space station. He accrued more than 372 days in space and entered the headlines in early 1990 when he tested the Soviet Union’s answer to NASA’s Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) … a “space motorbike” known as “Icarus.”
Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Serebrov was born in Moscow on 15 February 1944 and graduated from the capital’s Institute of Physics and Technology. He was selected as one of a cadre of seven civilian cosmonaut engineers in December 1978 and launched for the first time aboard Soyuz T-7 on 19 August 1982. Described as “garrulous” and “headline-loving” by Bryan Burrough in his book Dragonfly, Serebrov flew to the Salyut 7 station alongside Leonid Popov and the Soviet Union’s second female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya. Theirs was an eight-day voyage to exchange vehicles with the long-duration Soyuz T-5 crew of Anatoli Berezovoi and Valentin Lebedev, who were at the time halfway through a record-setting seven-month mission.
Twenty-four hours after launch, Popov guided Soyuz T-7 to a smooth docking. During the next several days, their activities were overwhelmed in the eyes of the world’s media by the presence of Savitskaya on the crew. On 27 August, the trio boarded the older Soyuz T-5 and returned to Earth, leaving their “fresh” craft for the use of Berezovoi and Lebedev. It was not to be long before Serebrov returned to space, for he was reassigned almost immediately to join cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Gennadi Strekalov on a long-duration flight to Salyut 7, beginning in April 1983. Aboard Soyuz T-8, their mission would have made them the first three-member crew to attempt a flight lasting longer than the 84-day record established by the United States’ final Skylab crew, almost a decade earlier.
At first glance, Serebrov’s name seemed a surprising one, since he had returned from space only eight months earlier, following Soyuz T-7. Indeed, it would appear that his place was originally assigned to a female cosmonaut, Irina Pronina, who had served as Svetlana Savitskaya’s backup, and whom the Soviets wanted to fly in order to gather data on a woman’s adaptation to long-duration flight. Pronina’s mission, flown during the late spring and into the summer of 1983, would conveniently overlap the flight of America’s first female astronaut, Sally Ride, in June. Sadly, Pronina’s chance did not come to pass. In the book Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft, Rex Hall and Dave Shayler commented that in March “the internal politics of the Soviet program” led to “heavy pressure” to remove Pronina from the Soyuz T-8 crew. She was replaced by Serebrov.
Space historian Phillip Clark suggested that a mission of between eight and nine months was anticipated by many Western observers, although when the cosmonauts rose from Earth on 20 April 1983, their launch occurred during a Salyut landing window. To Clark, this implied “that possibly a mission of four, six or even eight months had been planned,” but he cautioned that there were “comments made at the time … that this was notexpected to be a record-breaking mission … and therefore a four-month mission seems to be likely.” More recently, Hall and Shayler broadly concluded along the same lines, noting that a landing in the summer of 1983, perhaps July, was likely.
Many of these plans for 1983 were shelved when Soyuz T-8 failed to dock with Salyut 7. Titov, Strekalov, and Serebrov ascended into orbit perfectly, unfurled their craft’s solar arrays, and set to work checking their systems. Problems arose during their second circuit of Earth, when the “Igla” (“Needle”) rendezvous radar’s antenna refused to yield data onto the Soyuz display panels. At first, the cosmonauts suspected that the Igla had not properly deployed and recycled the switches. Worrisome telemetry had already alerted ground controllers that the antenna boom had opened, but not to the proper extent. Strekalov wondered if it had become caught on something, and the crew were allowed to use their ship’s thrusters in an attempt to jolt it open. Their efforts were fruitless.
It was decided to continue the rendezvous profile, whilst mission managers analyzed the problem, but the mood aboard Soyuz T-8 was tense. “To tell you honestly,” Titov said later, “we did not feel like rejoicing, so we just got down to work, calmly and busily, as we had trained to do.” By their sixth orbit it was time to rest, although none of the crew were psychologically or physically in any position to do so. The specter of a failed mission loomed large, for without Igla it would be impossible for the cosmonauts to navigate the final distance to Salyut 7, lacking the necessary ranging and closure data for either an automatic or manual docking. On the ground, controllers seemed more concerned about concealing the problem, but the station drew nearer with every passing hour andsomething would have to be done. Early on 21 April, Titov was told to attempt a manual docking, using visual cues alone, although ground simulations had already shown that the chances of success were slim.
“Zero hour” for Titov would commence on Soyuz T-8’s 19th orbit, when the craft would be positioned 0.6 miles (1 km) from Salyut 7’s rear port. However, their drift indicator was providing unreliable measurements of distance, and Titov found it difficult to judge his rate of closure and was told by mission controllers to execute a 50-second thruster firing to bring the two vehicles closer. At length, Salyut began to grow in size on his screen and he was told to watch the station and switch on his craft’s searchlights. Shortly thereafter, Soyuz T-8 drifted out of communications range and the cosmonauts were on their own. By his own admission, Titov had never practiced a manual docking and doubted his depth perception when judging the ship’s closing velocity. That closure rate grew quite alarming, to such an extent that he feared that they would collide with the station.
At this point, Titov felt sure that he could not attempt a successful docking; the rate of closure was still too high and he aborted the attempt, descending and flying past his quarry. The crew were in orbital darkness for the next 35 minutes, and by the time they entered their next sunrise, Salyut-Cosmos was 2.5 miles (4 km) away. With visual aids as his only option, Titov knew that there could be no option for a second attempt. Another half hour transpired before communications with the ground were restored, and the cosmonauts were told to return to Earth. Propellant was low, rendezvous hardware was unreliable, and, as noted by the state-run news agency, Tass, in typically ambiguous fashion, “because of deviations from the planned approach regime … the docking of the Soyuz T-8 craft with the Salyut 7 orbital station was cancelled.” Titov, Strekalov, and Serebrov landed safely on 22 April.
Three years later, in late 1986, Serebrov and Titov were primed to fly together a second time aboard Soyuz TM-2 to the new Mir space station. Theirs was anticipated to be a record-breaking flight of almost 11 months, beginning in February 1987. However, cruel luck was not far away and it would appear that Serebrov failed a medical check in the final weeks before launch. Both he and Titov were grounded and their backups—cosmonauts Yuri Romanenko and Aleksandr Laveykin—flew in their stead.
Shortly thereafter, Serebrov was reassigned with Aleksandr Viktorenko, first as the backup crew for the joint Soviet-French Soyuz TM-7 mission, with an expectation that they would rotate into the prime crew spot for the long-duration Soyuz TM-8, due to commence in April 1989. Delays in preparing two new modules for Mir—known as Kvant-2 (“Quantum”) and Kristall (“Crystal”)—forced the Soviets to “de-crew” the station for several months, and Viktorenko and Serebrov did not finally reach orbit until 8 September. Switching on the lights aboard Mir, they ushered in a golden age for the outpost … an age which would see it permanently occupied for almost 10 full years. Not until August 1999 would Mir again be left unoccupied.
With five months in space ahead of them, Viktorenko and Serebrov had much work to do. Unpacking a Progress resupply craft topped their list of priorities, and in late November the long-delayed Kvant-2 was finally launched. It arrived and was grappled and maneuvered into position by Mir’s Ljappa manipulator arm a few days later. In addition to providing a new airlock, Kvant-2 carried much new gear … including the Sredstvo Peredvizheniy Kosmonavtov (SPK, or the “Cosmonaut Manoeuvring Equipment”). This was similar to NASA’s Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jet-propelled space suit backpack used on three shuttle missions in 1984, and in addition to its testing Viktorenko and Serebrov were assigned an intricate series of five EVAs to fully integrate Kvant-2 into the Mir complex and prepare it for the arrival of the next module, Kristall.
Preparations for the first EVA got underway in late December, and on 8 January 1990 the two cosmonauts poked their helmeted heads into the vacuum of space, during orbital darkness, kicking off an excursion which would run for two hours and 56 minutes. Their primary objective was to install a pair of star trackers onto Kvant-1. Although this was successfully accomplished, their pressurized garments presented their own minor irritations: a broken wire in Viktorenko’s suit prevented water temperature monitoring, whilst Serebrov suffered a leak in his suit’s coolant loop. Three days later, on the 11th, they were back outside for almost three hours, retrieving an experiment which had been left outside the station by a French astronaut and installing materials exposure “cassettes.”
Their third EVA, on 26 January, was devoted to preparing Mir for the SPK backpack evaluations. The men again spent three hours outside and saw the cosmonauts demonstrating an add-on package to supply power, telemetry, and cooling to their suits, thus rendering obsolete the umbilicals used on previous EVAs. This was perhaps the new suit’s most significant improvement, since it provided a degree of autonomy for the first time. The men were linked to Mir only by safety tethers and, for the first time, departed the station not through the multiple docking adaptor, but through Kvant-2’s new airlock, whose large-diameter hatch provided passage into space for the SPK backpack. Looking like an overstuffed and overly padded armchair, this device was named in honour of the legendary Daedalus’ foolhardy son, Icarus, whose wings of feathers and wax melted as he drew too close to the Sun.
Fortunately, nothing of the sort transpired to affect Alexander Serebrov during the mission’s fourth EVA, on 1 February 1990, as he put Icarus’ spacefaring namesake through its inaugural paces. Serebrov remained tethered to Mir, because the station could not maneuver to recover him in the event of a failure. He started by gingerly making a trio of short flights to a distance of around 16 feet (5 meters) and then out to 110 feet (33 meters) before returning. During his final exercises, he realized that he was approaching the Kvant-2 “dock” slightly off-course and, although he was able to correct the problem, he noticed that the tether caused him to flip backwards and rock “like a pendulum.” Four days later, on 5 February, a second SPK run was completed in a dramatic EVA which ran to almost four hours. Although the SPK remained attached to the external Kvant-2 dock for several years, and was kept ready to perform external inspections of Mir, it was never used again.
The five EVAs, and the SPK trials, together with the arrival of commissioning of Kvant-2, had proven the highlight of Viktorenko and Serebrov’s residency aboard the station. In early February 1990, the new Soyuz TM-9 crew arrived to relieve them and the cosmonauts returned to Earth on the 19th after 166 days in orbit. It was Serebrov’s first long-duration voyage, but it would not be his last. Three years later he flew again, though from “Russia” and a “Commonwealth of Independent States,” rather than the “Soviet Union” … and this brave new world carried many of its troubles and laid them at the cosmonauts’ doors.
For the planned four-month Soyuz TM-17 expedition, Serebrov was teamed with fellow Russian Vasili Tsibliyev, and French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haigneré would accompany them to Mir for about three weeks. Only hours before their 5:33 p.m. Moscow Time liftoff on 1 July 1993, there was a temporary power blackout at the Baikonur launch pad and the electricity supply in the nearby city of Leninsk failed completely. Arriving at Mir two days later, the space station’s population was temporarily increased to a five-man crew for almost three weeks, thanks to the presence of Soyuz TM-16 crewmen Gennadi Manakov and Aleksandr Poleshchuk. Three weeks of French research work was punctuated on 22 July, when Manakov, Poleshchuk, and Haigneré returned to Earth, leaving Tsibliyev and Serebrov alone for a mission which they expected to end in November.
August was a relatively quiet month, although the Perseids meteor shower produced a spectacular display for them. In readiness for a possible emergency return to Earth, Russian aircraft and rescue forces were placed on alert, and Tsibliyev and Serebrov watched, around-the-clock, from Mir’s windows as a total of 240 meteoroids burned up in the atmosphere. Several impacts were observed on the space station’s windows, creating pit-like craters, and particle fluxes were 2,000 times higher than normal. Tsibliyev referred to them as “battle wounds” and noted that they had caused minor damage to solar panels on the base block and Kristall. Although Mir sustained no obvious structural damage, it was decided to stage an EVA in September to inspect the exterior.The two cosmonauts spent more than four hours outside on 16 September, followed by another three hours on the 20th, primarily to assemble a cylindrical girder, extendible to some 16 feet (5 meters), atop the Kvant-1 module, which had design implications for Russia’s planned Mir-2 station. Then, on 28 September, they carried out a two-hour inspection, known as “Panorama,” in which a small hole was spotted in one of Mir’s solar arrays. The damaged area was surrounded by cracks, but the cosmonauts were unable to determine if a Perseid strike was responsible. This EVA was scheduled for four hours, but ended earlier than planned when a cooling issue was experienced with Tsibliyev’s suit; he was forced to remain close to the Kvant-2 airlock, whilst Serebrov completed the photography of Mir and collected detector plates from a NASA-provided exposure experiment.
A fourth and fifth EVA on 22 and 29 October concluded the Panorama inspections and enabled them to examine the entire outer skin of Mir. In the excursion on the 22nd, Serebrov suffered a problem in the oxygen flow system of his suit, which had been worn 13 times by previous cosmonauts and had exceeded its recommended operational lifetime. As a consequence, the spacewalk was curtailed and the cosmonauts returned to the Kvant-2 airlock after just 38 minutes. The final EVA on the 29th experienced no such problems, however, and Serebrov established a world record for the most spacewalks by one person, with a grand total of 10. They ended the excursion by tossing overboard the Orlan suit which had caused problems on 22 October … after rigging it so that it appeared to be saluting, “like a soldier.”
At around this time, it was announced by the Russians that the Soyuz TM-17 crew would not return to Earth in November, but were to remain aboard Mir until the following January, due to problems obtaining engines for the powerful Soyuz-U variant of the venerable rocket which would launch their replacements: the Soyuz TM-18 crew of Viktor Afanasyev, Yuri Usachev, and Valeri Polyakov. Budget cuts were acknowledged to have delayed the manufacturing of the engines at the factory in Samara, whose managers refused to deliver them until it had received payment from the Russian government.
Tsibliyev and Serebrov agreed “reluctantly” to this extension of their mission, and Soyuz TM-18 was postponed from 16 November 1993 until 8 January 1994. Several days later, after welcoming the new arrivals, the time came for Tsibliyev and Serebrov to return to Earth. They undocked from Mir without incident on 14 January, and Tsibliyev commenced his assignment of a short inspection flight around the station, prior to departing. This task required the commander to assume manual control, withdraw to a distance of 150 feet (45 meters), then steer his spacecraft to within 50 feet (15 meters) of Kristall to photograph the APAS-89 system for NASA. Nine minutes after undocking, Tsibliyev radioed his first complaint that something was amiss. The controls handled “sluggishly,” and Serebrov voiced concern that they were drawing dangerously close to Mir’s solar arrays.
“For some reason,” wrote Bryan Burrough in Dragonfly, “his thruster control button momentarily froze. Unable to control the ship, Tsibliyev watched in amazement as it floated slowly toward the station.” Aboard Mir, Afanasyev urgently instructed Usachev and Polyakov to prepare their vehicle, Soyuz TM-18, for an evacuation, certain that a collision was about to occur. The loss of control occurred at a distance of about 100 feet (30 meters), and at 7:47 a.m. Moscow Time Soyuz TM-17 hit Mir, not once, but twice, with a two-second gap between each impact. The collision was very slight, and almost imperceptible for the cosmonauts, as Soyuz TM-17 quickly rebounded away.
Aboard the station, Afanasyev, Usachev, and Polyakov also felt nothing, but Mir’s attitude-control system registered the angular velocity and automatically switched to free-flying mode. Immediately after the impact, radio communications with ground controllers were lost for a period of about 10 minutes. These were only fully restored, after a period of spotty comm, at 8:02 a.m. Subsequent discussions revealed no damage to either craft, and Soyuz TM-17 began its descent to Earth at 10:15 a.m. Moscow Time. An hour later, the descent module hit the steppe of Kazakhstan, and Tsibliyev and Serebrov were safely home after 197 days in space. Chalking up 372 days in space at the end of his fourth mission, Serebrov had spent almost 32 hours outside Mir on 10 spacewalks. He resigned from the cosmonaut corps in mid-1995. Serebrov was married, with one child, and to his family and friends AmericaSpace extends its sincere condolences.