Ever since he returned from the ultimate getaway—six months aboard space station Mir—Alexander Poleschuk has not had much patience for the mundane. Even today, 10 years later, there’s a kind of contained restlessness about the former cosmonaut as he sits, drinking tea and fingering his cigarette pack, in a Toyota dealership on the bleak, block-housing-lined outskirts of Moscow, waiting for his car to emerge from the service bay.
A little knot of men—the new Russian entrepreneurial class—stand elbow to elbow at the window, like dads at day care, keeping an anxious eye on their gleaming Corollas. Nobody seems to recognize Poleschuk, 51 years old with a push-broom mustache, wearing a Technicolor sweater, and therefore nobody thinks to ask, “Hold on: Shouldn’t cosmonauts—whose mechanical miracles in zero G kept the wheezing Mir going for 15 years—be able to fix their own cars?”
“For me a car is a means of transportation, not a means of killing time,” Poleschuk says, green eyes shining. It’s a riff on the old Soviet adage, “A car is a means of transportation, not a means of luxury”—words that, in the new Russia, with its growing class of capitalists, are starting to make less and less sense.
Poleschuk today is a different man from the one who went to space. In low Earth orbit something inside him was recalibrated forever. “When you’ve been in extreme conditions, the psyche changes,” he says. “The Earth did not seem as big as I thought. You can see evidence of ecological problems, and you realize how man’s will can be both creative and destructive. You feel like a tangible particle of space. You no longer belong where you were born.”
Spacephiles will remember Poleschuk as the flight engineer on the 13th Mir mission, a six-month space voyage in 1993 during which he performed 10 hours’ worth of space walks to test the docking assembly that would be used on nine subsequent space shuttle visits. The mission was
There is one archetypal workplace in the Russian space program, and Poleschuk has punched his card there for a quarter century. That place is RSC Energia, the neocortex of Russia’s national space strategy. A senior test engineer in Energia’s design bureau, Poleschuk oversees what, in space, he performed—on-the-fly, nuts-and-bolts repair and assembly techniques. There may be no one in the Russian space program with more detailed, firsthand mechanical knowledge.
When historians list the motivations that have nudged human beings into space, national pride is always near the top. The architect of U.S. space strategy was Wernher von Braun, who had designed rockets for the Nazis. (He was so far ahead of his time that when the Russians found one of his V-2 rockets after the war, awestruck engineers described it as “that which is not possible.”) Von Braun’s most obvious legacy, besides boot prints on the Moon, is the credo that space exploration is one of those projects, like interstate highways or nuclear power, that are too big and fraught to be left to the private sector. The Soviet Union, where private enterprise was until a decade ago practically nil, was von Braunian right out of the chute. Their man was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1907â€1966), founder of Energia.