“I COULD WRESTLE A BEAR”
Born Valeri Ivanovich Korshunov in 1942, in the industrial city of Tula, south of Moscow in the USSR. He changed his surname to Polyakov when adopted by his stepfather when he was 15.
He graduated from Tula Secondary School no. 4 aged 17, and then enrolled in the ‘I.M. Sechenov 1st Moscow Medical Institute’ – the oldest medical university in Russia. He gained a doctoral degree.
As a qualified doctor, Valeri then worked at the ‘Institute of Medical and Biological Problems’, part of the Ministry of Health. His specialism was astronautics medicine. His hero was Boris Yegorov, the first physician in space, who had flown on Voskhod 1 in 1964.
By now Valeri was married with one child.
He volunteered to become a cosmonaut in 1972. He spent years in training and was on the reserve list for a number of flights.
His first journey into space came in 1988, on Soyuz TM-6. He flew to the MIR space station. There, he was involved in research, before returning to earth on Soyuz TM-7. He had been in space for 240 days.
Then Valeri was put on administrative duties until his second flight.
This occurred on the 8th of January 1994, on Soyuz TM-18. Again, he went to MIR and conducted experiments and scientific research. But he was up there for a long time.
On 9th January 1995, his 366th day, he broke the record of Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov, who had stayed in space continually for exactly a year in 1988.
The aim was to have a man in space for the exact duration it would take to fly to Mars and back. It was also to check the physical and mental well-being of somebody in space for such a long while – how the human body responds to microgravity on long endurance missions.
He finally came back down to earth on Soyuz TM-20, on the 22nd of March 1995, after 437 days in space. He had orbited the earth 7,075 times and had travelled nearly 187 million miles.
Upon returning to earth, the usual practice was to carry a cosmonaut from the capsule to a chair or to a transport vehicle, whilst his body reacclimatised itself to earth and gravity.
Valeri insisted on walking to a chair unaided. Asked if he felt weak, he gruffly responded, “I could wrestle a bear!”. A colleague passed him a cup of water – and he answered questions from the Russian media.
What nobody realised was that the cup was actually full of brandy and the moment the cameras stopped rolling he lit up a cigarette he had ‘borrowed’ from his friend.
He had 29 medical assessments whilst in space and then another 6 months of testing when he returned, all of which showed no impairment of cognitive functions, although he admitted to feeling slightly depressed going from such an intense environment back to ‘normality’ on earth.
He retired as an astronaut in 1995, having flown 678 days, 16 hours and 32 minutes in space, over two missions – then a world record.
In 1999 he was put in charge of ‘Simulation of Flights of Crew on Space Stations’, before eventually becoming Deputy Director of the Ministry of Public Health in Moscow.
Nevertheless, Valeri maintained his interest in astronautics, being part of the Russian Chief Medical Commission, who selected future cosmonauts.
He was also made a member of the ‘International Space Researchers Association’ and the ‘International Academy of Astronautics’.
And he was a ‘Cosmonaut Investigator’, providing advice to the USA, France, Germany and Austria for their astronauts who spent time on the MIR Space Station.
He wrote various publications on human physiology.
Valeri received many awards including the ‘Order of Lenin’, the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’, the ‘Hero of the Russian Federation’, the ‘Order of Parasat’ from Kazakhstan and the French ‘Legion d’Honneur’.
His record of time in space was broken by Sergei Avdeyev in 1999 (747 days), but he did it over three missions. Valeri still holds the record for the longest continual time in space.
He took full and proper retirement in 2021.
Roscomos, the Russian Space Agency said, “His research has helped prove that the human body is ready to travel not only to Earth’s orbit but also into deep space.”
RIP – Records In Plenty