At the very end of his six-month sojourn in outer space, cosmonaut Valery Tokarev seemed to come out of his shell. By nature and reputation a very private person, the 53-year-old Russian cosmonaut maintained that privacy with a lighthearted jest.
A question from a reporter during this week's news conference seemed to delight him. What, he was asked, do you dream about in space?
The unexpected inquiry struck a chord in his soul. With a grin he took the microphone from his shipmate Bill McArthur, and answered with a tone of delight in his voice. “We slept well,” he explained, “and only sometimes dreamed.” Then he paused.
“I want to say I saw one beautiful dream, a color dream, and I don’t remember I [ever] saw it on the ground,” he explained. Then, suppressing a chuckle, he added, “I will not tell you who and what I saw.” The obvious intention was for the questioner to guess, and Tokarev was hinting that the answer should be obvious.
But there is little that is obvious about Valery Tokarev. Born within earshot of the first Soviet rockets headed for space, his teenage passion was for high-performance aircraft flight. His skills brought him through flight school and into the Red Air Force, where he became a leading test pilot. This led him into the Soviets' Buran shuttle program, which became a dead end.
When the program was canceled and the test pilot teams returned to military flight duties, Tokarev chose not to follow orders. Instead, he maneuvered his way into a neighboring office at the cosmonaut center, where he remained an active cosmonaut without a program — a senior test pilot out of step with the pilot-cosmonaut culture there. But as unexpected opportunities arose, he was primed to use them, both through luck and tenacity.
None of this is in any official biography. Nor is the high reputation he has earned from his Russian and American colleagues, a reputation that led NASA astronaut Ed Lu to bestow on him the greatest compliment a space pilot can use. "I'd fly to Mars with him," Lu told MSNBC.com, attesting to his regard for Tokarev's technical skills as well as his cooperative personality fit for a years-long expedition.
At age 53, this kind of person does not turn from his crowning professional accomplishment, a six-month tour in space, to mere ceremonial duties. He will not willingly fade into retirement, but will rather seek new aerospace challenges. So it’s time the world got to know him better.
Behind the official bio
The official biography says Tokarev was born in a town called Kapyar, in the lower Volga River valley of Astrakhan Province. But there is no such town on any map of the Soviet Union, and a simple Internet search shows why: “Kapyar” is a military nickname for Kapustin Yar. The rocket base, active since 1947, is known to space historians as the birthplace of not only Tokarev, but the modern Russian missile and space program.
Tokarev’s father was a military officer in the civil engineering corps, and was assigned to the site as part of a major buildup for missile testing in the early 1950s. Residents of the area would have been close enough to see and hear the missiles in flight, and even smell the fires and fuel spills that would have occurred. But Tokarev was too young to remember any of this.
He has told interviewers that his first childhood memories were of a rural area with “lots of cows and tractors, but few cars,” in a small town called Osenyevo ("Autumn"). The town is north of Moscow, 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Yaroslavl, on a small river. This was after his father left the military and moved to Russia's northern pine forests, where he became manager of a collective farm.
Tokarev went through the first eight years of school there, then moved in with his grandmother in the city of Rostov, about 90 miles (150 kilometers) northeast of Moscow, where he attended high school. He graduated in 1969 and entered Air Force pilot training right afterward. While there, he learned that his father, Pavel Tokarev, had been killed in an automobile accident.
By 1973 he was a jet pilot on active duty, and so impressed his commanders that by 1981, at the age of 28, he was transferred to test pilot duties.
Tokarev is matter-of-fact about these accomplishments. “I served as a test pilot, testing the navy versions of different types of aircraft,” he told Dutch space historian Bert Vis in a 1995 interview. These models included helicopters, vertical-takeoff-and-landing airplanes such as the Yak-38, even heavy transport planes — more than two dozen types in all, adding up to 1,600 hours of flight time. He was co-pilot of an Ilyushin-76 that flew across Antarctica.
The dream of space
In 1986, Tokarev decided to become a cosmonaut. "The situation was not so simple. I had to overcome some difficulties," he explained to Vis. "The local commander didn't want to see some of his experienced pilots leave his unit. To get the permission to get involved in the cosmonaut group was not very easy."
At the end of 1987 he passed medical screening for spaceflight candidates, and in May 1989 reported to Star City for a two-year training program as a Buran shuttle pilot. While in residence at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, he also enrolled in the nearby Gagarin Air Force Academy — "so I studied at two Gagarin training centers!" he joked.
However, by 1991, with Buran apparently on the verge of cancellation, he was transferred back into test pilot work at the Nitka air base in the Crimea, where he tested aircraft carrier flight operations. He was there when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent. Suddenly, he was in a different country.
Tokarev returned to test pilot duty in Russia, then went back into space training in 1994 to replace a retiring pilot who was head of the moribund Russian Air Force group of Buran candidates — by then, an almost certainly dead-end duty, but one in which Tokarev saw opportunities.
Sure enough, two years later the Buran pilot group was officially disbanded. Every other pilot was reassigned, but Tokarev managed to hang onto an office at Star City until he was officially adopted by the cosmonaut program in 1997.
Because of his seniority, he was considered by some a candidate for commander of an early space station crew — but by then a half-dozen Mir pilot-cosmonauts, all younger than Tokarev, had solidified their hold on the initial crew assignments. Another assignment as commander of a short-term visiting crew was considered, but again he was pushed aside.
In February 1998, Tokarev accepted the position of cosmonaut representative in Houston, a six-month tour usually assigned to young trainees. And it was during that stint in Houston that his luck suddenly changed — or he helped change it, by his willingness to tackle new educational challenges. Astronaut Ed Lu recalled that Tokarev learned to speak English the same way he learned to play tennis: by dogged persistence and force of will.
Hope in Houston
William Readdy, a NASA astronaut who briefly visited the Mir space station in 1996, met Tokarev the next year in Houston. "He was pretty far back in the queue at Star City for a flight," he told MSNBC.com. "I think he could see the writing on the wall that [going to Houston and] learning English would ultimately help him along. Many over there in Star City were not anxious to do either.”
Readdy added another insight into Tokarev’s incompatibility with the other pilots at the cosmonaut center. “Culturally, the Russian program did not favor flight test experience,” he explained. “In Houston, he was actually more in his element among test pilots flying jets and dealing with piloting the shuttle than he was in Star City.”
While in the United States, he flew T-38 jets and the Gulfstream Shuttle Training Aircraft, though not in the pilot’s seat. In the shuttle simulator, he took a turn as pilot and managed to get his virtual craft down safely on the first attempt — demonstrating that the years of Buran training had not been a total waste.
The door swings open at last
By the end of 1988, delays in the assembly of the international space station, and breakdowns in the Russian modules already in space, forced NASA to add additional shuttle flights. Because each visit to the not-yet-manned station required one Russian representative, Tokarev was on hand to step into the open slot. He hardly had to change offices in Houston and joined the STS-96 crew.
In May 1999, he was launched into space at last aboard a space shuttle — but not in one of the pilot seats. Instead, he flew as a passenger on the middeck.
Once he became a "real cosmonaut," his place in the queue for a station mission was assured. He began training for the mission back in Moscow in 2002, and commanded several backup crews before his turn came last year to fly as part of Expedition 12. Although his shipmate Bill McArthur was designated station commander, Tokarev was the Soyuz spacecraft commander. Because their capsule had to be moved twice to clear the way for follow-on dockings, Tokarev was the first Soyuz commander to fly dockings at all three of the station's Soyuz docking ports.
Now Expedition 12 is giving way to Expedition 13. Tokarev is due to return to Earth this weekend, along with McArthur and short-term station visitor Marcos Pontes, the first Brazilian in space.
Back on the ground, Tokarev will have new challenges to consider. Ten years ago, even before being accepted into the cosmonaut program, he voiced interest in flying another manned spacecraft being designed for air launch. That project was halted due to lack of government funding, but in the last year a new avenue has appeared: space tourism .
Russia's future commercial rocketplanes will need talented, experienced test pilots, eager to learn and willing to take chances with uncertain projects. That's the kind of project where Valery Tokarev the human being — not the cosmonaut statistic — may well seek new successes.
James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. His most recent book is "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance."
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints