Gennady Padalka is late.
It’s not something I was expecting from the former military pilot, who is also among Russia’s most decorated cosmonauts. I pass the minutes by translating the names written in Cyrillic on the posters surrounding me in the Russian Academy of Science’s Space Research Institute: Venera, Lunokhod, RadioAstron—all programs the Russians engineered during their long and storied history of space exploration.
In the early days of the space race, the Soviets were clearly winning. They launched Sputnik, the first satellite, in 1957. And on April 12, 1961, they put the first human in orbit, when 27-year-old cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin climbed into his spherical spacecraft and took to the skies.
Though it only lasted 108 minutes, Gagarin’s mission proved that humans could visit space and safely return—and it fueled the ongoing competition between the world’s dueling superpowers. (Here are some of the big changes in space travel since Gagarin’s first flight.)
Today, humans live in space for months at a time, and some space travelers are lucky enough to visit the realm of microgravity more than once, learning not only how to survive in a hostile and alien environment, but how to adjust to life back on Earth.
With 879 days accumulated over 17 years, Padalka has spent more time in space than any other human, ever, so he seemed like the perfect person to talk to about how spaceflight changes a person.
Suddenly, the door bangs open and Padalka runs in, shaking off the dreary October rain and looking exactly like his photos. He mutters something about the cursed Moscow traffic, offers an apology, and then takes off, striding purposefully through a hall filled with model spacecraft and more information about the country’s adventures in interplanetary exploration.
I have no idea where he’s going, so I hustle after him with my recorder and notebook. His destination—the men’s room—is not exactly the best place for an interview, so I stop short of the door when I finally realize where he’s going. Ludmila Mekertycheva, who will be translating during our conversation, catches my eye, and we start laughing at the barely averted faux pas.
When Padalka returns, he sits down and apologizes again, as the traffic was just horrendous. He then says he won’t be able to help me much with my story.
“I’m not philosophical,” he says.
But for more than an hour, Padalka spoke generously about his time in space: his experiences, his regrets, his frustrations. At the end of our conversation, it was clear that although Padalka may not consider himself a philosopher, he certainly is a thinker who’s not afraid of introspection, or of sharing his insights. Here, on the anniversary of Gagarin’s record-setting trip, is an edited account of our conversation.
You’ve spent 879 days in space, over five flights and 17 years. Does the planet look different now than when you first flew?
No, the planet didn’t change. Seventeen years, during which I made my flights—it’s just a very short period of time. Our planet, as you know, is four billion years old. Nothing has changed.
Are there places or things on Earth that you missed, while in space? Did flying over home make you wish you were home?
I wouldn’t say so. Not really. Of course you miss your home, of course you miss your family. But it’s not that every time you fly over, you want to go home and visit and see. No. Like Moscow, for instance, you fly over Moscow … but then you remember the traffic. Oh, the traffic. It is good to be out of Moscow!
No traffic jams in space.
It took, to fly over, several seconds instead of many hours and days. But, for instance, I would love sometimes to come out and face the rain. I will never be able to do that up there. Or just jump into the sea. Or maybe climb up Mount Elbrus and shout from the top, here I am!
Many astronauts have said that seeing the planet from far away can cause them to care a bit more about it. Did you think about anything like that while you were in space?
Climate change, ecological problems, I don’t consider them to be the main problems for the Earth. The bigger problem is people conflicting with each other. Look at what has happened in the world.
But if you take astronauts and cosmonauts, we work together in a very restricted space together, Americans and Russians and Canadians and Japanese. We speak a common language. We understand each other. Why can’t the same approach be applied to Earth?
What can we learn from the way the space station is run?
During the last 20 years, I’ve been working in an international project. I visited the U.S. several times per year. Canada, Europe, Japan—all the countries that participated in this project. I have lots of friends. And being in space, flying above, we knew that whatever the situation is, we knew that the life of your friend depends upon you, too.
The major thing, actually, that I have gained during space training was friendship. I started it in 1989, the end of Cold War, and our first project was the Mir shuttle project. We started to meet with the Americans and European space people. And then ISS project, it has brought us even closer to each other. And we are tied up so tightly that we can’t live in space without each other.
This is probably my best discovery, that the people of different nations, from different countries, under very severe conditions, can work very successfully, can be friendly all the time, understand each other, though their situations are sometimes really stressful.
But there’s something wrong in the fact that only such difficulties as I’ve just mentioned unite people. This is wrong. There should be something else.
You’ve spent a ton of time in space. Do you think humans are ready to be living in space for long periods of time?
In the ‘60s, we didn’t understand many, many things. We didn’t know whether a human being will withstand radiation, which is so strong up there, or whether the human being can withstand this weightlessness, and for how long? Now, since we have carried out tons of experiments, we are sure that the human being can easily live and work in the conditions of space, despite different factors which seem to be quite hostile toward the human being.
Easy to stay, easy to live, thanks to the designers’ thoughts and ideas that save us in space and provide the conditions for staying. Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly, they spent one year in space without any problems, no consequences. So humankind had proved to itself that it is possible to live and work in space.
Would you want to live in space for a year, or five years?
Not five years. One year, no more. With time, it just becomes tedious. You start to miss Earth. I remember always with great pleasure, I would enter the station. I would have great pleasure and enthusiasm in work, and with the same degree of pleasure, I would leave the station.
So, you are officially a Hero of the Russian Federation ...
This is the response I get from everyone: ‘Why does everyone call me a hero?’ But I’m wondering, who are your heroes? Who do you admire?
Actually, I never had one.
Well, for instance, if somebody becomes your hero, a pattern for you to follow, you start to imitate what he does. And you lose your individuality. Everybody has his own talent. Everybody was born with some certain and very different capabilities. Somebody will become a great scientist, a Nobel prize winner, somebody will become a great mother. Somebody said that we don’t live on the minefield to follow somebody’s steps.
I was impressed at the very early stage of my space career, like the flights to space, to the moon, landing on the moon. But to say this guy, yes, I have to be similar to him? We are all talented. We are all heroes. Nyet. Don’t suppress your own talent.