Robert Zimmerman, who covers aerospace for UPI Science News, also is an independent space historian. His most recent book, "Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel," is being awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award on Nov. 16. The award, from the American Astronautical Society, is for the best book of 2003 about space exploration written for the general public.
"Leaving Earth," published by Joseph Henry Press, is a history of manned space exploration since the Apollo lunar landings. It describes the efforts by engineers and astronauts in both the United States and Russia to build the first interplanetary spaceships. Following is the second of two excerpts from the book.
The ground was heavy. His arms felt heavy. Everything felt heavy. Two men helped him from the capsule and attempted to carry him to a lawn chair. Polyakov refused.
While he accepted their help, he insisted on walking the scant few feet to the chair himself. All around him swarmed people. The blades of two helicopters chopped the air. Newsmen snapped photos or took video. As Polyakov sat in his lawn chair, looking out across the flat empty expanses of Kazakhstan, his thoughts drifted to cigarettes, alcohol and his wife.
They had landed only 22 miles northeast of the small Kazakhstan city of Arkalyk and about 300 miles northeast of Baikonur. The ground was covered by a light mantle of snow, softening their impact. Despite the snow, to Polyakov it seemed a fine spring day. The sun shone down upon him with a gentle warmth, not the harsh, intense light visible from space. And at his feet he could see several tiny flowers peeking up through the snow.
A friend nearby was smoking a cigarette. Polyakov eyed it hungrily, then reached out for it. The man smiled and put it in Polyakov's mouth. Another friend poured a small shot glass of brandy and handed to Polyakov. How good it tastes, Polyakov thought, savoring the strong flavor as he swirled it about his mouth and then swallowed.
After a few minutes they carried him, chair and all, into the medical tent. There he tried again to walk, managing to stand and take one or two tentative steps on his own. On the helicopter he again insisted on walking. This time he managed more than a few feet, slowly pacing back and forth in the tiny space. By the time he returned to Star City, he could almost walk normally and so he stepped off the plane unassisted.
Polyakov's space flight had lasted 438 days (bettering a year by more than two-and-a-half months). Yet upon return, his health was not much different than other cosmonauts' after a long flight. After those first steps, he completely readapted to gravity within two months. Moreover, his bone loss had been very low, only around 7 percent in some of his weight-bearing bones, a rate of 0.5 percent per month, confirming once again his belief, shared by other Russian doctors, that the exercise program had kept that loss low -- low enough for him to survive a two-year trip to and from Mars.
In fact, though his body felt tired, much of his exhaustion came not from Earth's gravity but from the endless medical tests he had to undergo upon his return.
"I needed to walk," he recalled. "I wanted to walk, but they wouldn't let me."
The doctors were not completely wrong. The bottoms of Polyakov's feet had become as soft "as those of an infant." On return to Earth, it took time for him to build up his natural calluses and walk without pain.
Nonetheless, Polyakov was convinced that he had proved human beings could survive in weightlessness long enough to travel to Mars and work there immediately. "That I could walk from the capsule to the chair proved it!"
But had he? Could Polyakov have worked on Mars? Even today, the question remains unanswered. Within hours of landing, his body was strong and healthy enough to stand and walk on its own. Within a week he felt almost completely normal. Moreover, Mars has a much lighter gravitational field than Earth, making the adaptation upon arrival far less stressful than on Earth.
Polyakov was convinced he could have done the minimum necessary -- take some pictures, grab some rock samples and then come home -- as the Apollo astronauts had done on the moon.
Yet, Polyakov had come back to Earth very weak. For at least those first few hours, he needed help from those around him. Any spacefarer arriving at Mars after a year in space must be prepared to face that same challenge.
For Valeri Polyakov, however, meeting that particular challenge was no longer his concern. Though he would be glad to return to space again, he had no desire to extend his record. It seemed pointless.
As he said in an interview a year later, "The goal (of my flight) was to prove that humans can reach Mars and be in sufficiently good shape to work on it. This goal has already been reached. To increase orbital flights further means to subject cosmonauts to unnecessary stress."
More important, until a mission to Mars was actually being planned, the political will to fly longer flights did not exist in either the United States or Russia. Space exploration was entering an era of cooperation. To try to top someone else's records while also working with them hand-in-glove would be diplomatically awkward.
Copyright 2003, Joseph Henry Press. Excerpted with permission. E-mail email@example.com