Dr. Valery Polyakov, a physician-turned-cosmonaut who spent 437 days in outer space and set the world record, died at 80. Russian space agency Roscosmos announced his death on Monday without disclosing the cause or location.
“His research helped prove that the human body is ready for flights not only to near-Earth orbit, but also to deep space,” Roscosmos wrote in a Telegram post. “We express our deepest condolences to the relatives and friends of Valery Vladimirovich.”
He was born Valery Ivanovich Korshunov on April 27, 1942, but changed his name after being adopted in 1957, according to the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Polyakov began as a physician and joined the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow in 1971, according to CNN.
After undergoing spaceflight training to demonstrate he could administer assistance to fellow astronauts in orbit and passing his exams in 1972, Polyakov became one of the first doctor-cosmonaut trainees in history. He earned his Candidate of Medical Sciences degree in 1976.
Polyakov’s first lengthy space mission in 1988 lasted eight months, and he became deputy director of the institute he once joined as a young man upon returning back to Earth. It was his second and final mission, however, that made history.
Now a specialist in the nascent field of space medicine, Polyakov volunteered to prove human beings could withstand microgravity and reach Mars, according to Wired. His flight to dock with Russia’s Mir space station launched on Jan. 8, 1994 — and Polyakov didn’t return until March 22, 1995.
Polyakov orbited Earth 7,075 times and traveled around 187 million miles during those 14 months — during which millions of people back on Earth had marveled at the launch of the Netscape Navigator internet browser, the opening of the English Channel Tunnel and O.J. Simpson’s high-speed police chase.
According to “The Story of Manned Space Stations” by Philip Baker, American astronaut Norman Thagard said Polyakov returned to Earth “big and strong” and looked “like he could wrestle a bear.” Polyakov exercised during his mission and refused assistance upon landing, opting to walk on his own.
“When his capsule landed in Kazakhstan he walked from it to a nearby chair, a tremendous achievement,” wrote Baker. “He also stole a cigarette from a friend nearby, but could hardly be blamed for that. He sipped a small brandy and inwardly celebrated his mission.”
While NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Mark Vande Hei respectively spent 340 and 355 consecutive days in space and Peggy Whitson spent 665 cumulative days in space, the consecutive 437-day stay accomplished by Valery Polyakov remains unprecedented.
“His record still stands today,” wrote Baker, “and it is unlikely to be broken until man ventures to Mars.”