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An unusual path to space and back

Yuri Shargin was a late addition to the Soyuz crew that blasted up to the space station last week. Upon his return he'll face a new set of challenges.
Astronauts Sharipov, Padalka, Chiao, Shargin and Fincke are seen in International Space Station
This image taken from video shows Yuri Shargin at upper right, shortly after he, Salizhan Sharipov and Leroy Chiao arrived at the international space station on Oct. 16. At the bottom of the picture are Gennady Padalka and Michael Fincke, the astronauts Sharipov and Chiao are replacing.Nasa / Reuters

The Soyuz capsule returning to Earth this weekend brings home one space station crew, leaving two fresh faces in orbit for another six months.

Piloting the capsule is Gennady Padalka, who with this mission became only the 21st human (all but one are Russian) to have spent more than a year in space. His colleague Mike Fincke is eager to see his newborn daughter for the first time. Their replacements, nicknamed the "Orient Express" by flight controllers, are American astronaut Leroy Chiao, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov, an ethnic Uzbek born in what is now Kyrgyzstan.

There was also a fifth face aboard the international space station for the last ten days: Russian Space Forces’ Lieutenant Colonel Yuri Shargin. Like previous people who have filled the third seat in the Soyuz capsule, Shargin traveled up to the station with the replacement crew and was returning with the old crew.

But the 45-year-old military officer was a late addition to the crew and information about his background and his space activities has been sketchy. This has led to speculations of why, exactly, he was on this flight.

“Not much is known about the aims of his mission,” Moscow’s official NTV television channel reported on the day Shargin was launched. It listed his assignments including 14 experiments in the field of biotechnology and medicine as well as technical experiments, and a “special program” of “visual observations” for “ecological monitoring”. But it wasn’t clear what this really meant.

Russian Space Forces Commander, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Popovkin, had earlier told reporters that his organization was very excited about having its first cosmonaut fly (previous Russian cosmonauts were either Air Force pilots or civilian engineers). "An interesting program is being prepared for Shargin that will be beneficial for the space forces and for the country in general," Popovkin said.

Spokesmen at Moscow’s Mission Control Center assured reporters that “that there will be no military research” aboard the international space station. Chief flight director Vladimir Solovyov, himself a former cosmonaut, was blunt (as usual): “We, on the ISS, are not involved in military matters.”

Russia's space forces
Military units have supported Russian space activities from the very beginning, as is the case also in the United States. Space-related teams have been shuffled through various bureaucratic changes over the decades but two years ago, the space forces again were awarded stand-alone status in the military chain of command.

Popovkin took command of the group in March after his predecessor, Lt. General Anatoliy Perminov, was promoted to command the entire Russian Space Agency, the first military officer to hold that position. Among Perminov’s new duties is overseeing and approving space crews.

The space forces' core mission is the operation of launch, tracking, control and landing operations. They fund the development of new booster rockets and handle the commercial sale of launch services to Western customers. They totally control one space center, Plesetsk, north of Moscow, and run much of the main space center at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, as well as lesser launch facilities. They also run the recovery teams that pick up returning space crews, unmanned science capsules and canisters of reconnaissance film. Tracking radar and optical systems all across Russia are under their command. (They even once had a fleet of ocean-going ships, now mostly sold for scrap.)

But not until 1996 did they have any of their alumni ever enrolled as a candidate for an actual space mission. That man was Shargin.

Unusual path to space
Yuri Georgiyevich Shargin was born on March 20, 1960, in the city of Engels on the lower Volga where his military father was stationed. When Shargin was a year old, Yuri Gagarin returned from the world’s first manned space flight just across the river. The baby was brought to the local celebrations, so he was later told -– and they must have imprinted his life’s course on him.

Yuriy’s interested in military aeronautical engineering led him to the A.F. Mozhayskiy Military Engineering Institute (now the Military Space Academy), where he graduated in 1982.  He was immediately assigned to the Baikonur Cosmodrome where he held a series of engineering positions. Four years later, apparently having impressed managers at Moscow’s Energiya Space and Rocket Corporation (which builds and operates all Russia’s manned spacecraft), he was assigned to that organization as a team chief. While there he completed a correspondence course in military leadership from the Dzerzhinsky Military Engineer Academy.

But he seems to always have had a cosmonaut career in mind, since civilian engineers from Energiya were the main pool for recruiting flight engineers for space missions. In 1996 he and two younger civilians from Energiya were selected as future cosmonauts.

The military bureaucracy seems not to have known how to handle the paperwork for this half-breed military space engineer turned cosmonaut candidate. At first he was assigned to the Strategic Air Defense Force, and later he was a staff officer of the Titov Main Test and Space Systems Control Center at Krasnoznamensk, southwest of Moscow. In February 2002 he was transferred to the Russian Federation Defense Ministry Space Forces when it resumed its independent status, continuing his cosmonaut training all the while.

Along the way, Shargin (pronounced with a hard ‘g’, and accent on the second syllable) married and had two children, then divorced. He later remarried, to Lyudmila Lutokhina.

To get into space, however, required a large degree of luck. The cash-poor Russian space program has been trying to sell the third Soyuz seat to paying passengers. But first the originally scheduled candidate for the seat on this mission, an American millionaire, ran into a medical problem. Then negotiations with a Russian construction millionaire to fly as a space tourist broke down. In the end, Shargin was simply the most senior remaining candidate not assigned to other urgent misions.

A correspondent from the Russian armed forces newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda recently described Shargin this way: “We met Yuri two years ago at the Space Forces headquarters. He is of average height, as a cosmonaut should be, and is an unassuming and educated officer. We exchanged phone numbers and dreamed together of a future flight. But at the time it was a very long way to the stars.” They joked about designating him a special correspondent of the newspaper – if he ever flew.

Classic space research
And now Shargin has made the space flight he dreamed about, and he brought with him the press credentials that the military newspaper had promised. And it quickly became clear that he was a full-fledged space team member. 

Still, some eyebrows were raised when Shargin's first activity aboard the space station (as reported in internal NASA status reports) was “photography of the North American continent” for a Russian experiment called Ekon. It is Shargin's space forces, after all, that operate Russia's military photoreconnaissance satellites. And due to technical and budgetary problems, 2004 had seen the longest absence of spy satellites in orbit in more than three decades: a drought of nine months, not relieved until the launch of the Kobalt-class Kosmos-2410 satellite just three weeks before Shargin’s blastoff.

But Shargin's work aboard the station, it turns out, fell into classic space research programs, along with being the "extra hand" in a long series of engineering and maintenance activities common during crew handovers.

The Ekon project, for example, is a long-standing ecological investigation that involves observation of human environmental impacts all over the world. During his week of work on this task, Shargin not only took images of North America, he did the same over the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean and the Red Seas. On previous missions, observed regions included the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the Atlantic Ocean. The imagery can show large buildings and roads (the ground resolution can get as good as 15 feet if the photographer handles the camera skillfully), but much higher resolution images can be purchased commercially from private satellite operators.

On Monday, Shargin helped assemble and operate a Body Mass Measurement Device, then broke it down and stowed it, performed cardiovascular tests on himself, and held a telephone conference with the mayor of his home town.  On Tuesday, Shargin did more photography, then spent two hours helping one of the new station crewmen take microbial samples in the oldest station module, then spend another hour doing close-up photography of the sampled surfaces, and later spent half an hour on the ham radio with schoolchildren in Finland

For Wednesday, Shargin was busy helping a crewmate with a red blood cell count experiment and a body fluids distribution test, including computer manipulations to format and save the data, and later did Ekon photography of the Pacific Ocean and other observations over other bodies of water. He then went through a 3-hour landing simulation inside the Soyuz TMA-4, followed by an all-crew press conference.

“Zero-gravity took me tenderly,” he told reporters. “I feel good, the atmosphere here is completely different, I feel lightness, I have lots of impressions,” he continued, “but only on Earth will I have the chance to think them over, because here I have too much work to do.”

Thursday was another full work day, with more ocean photography. Shargin also performed a toxicology experiment in the Russian section of the station, sampling the water supplies, and then performed an experiment on genetic material transmission using bacterial conjugation. He also prepared ice-packs for preserving frozen samples on the return to Earth.

As a veteran cosmonaut, Shargin now has a wide variety of trajectories available to him. His parent service may want him back, in some high-responsibility and high-visibility position –- and a promotion to full colonel, or higher, is certainly in the cards. Or he could set his eyes on a long term space mission, a six month ‘expedition’ assignment, especially if Russian plans to expand crew size in the next several years open up a flock of new flight assignment opportunities. Age is certainly no barrier -– many men assigned to such missions are as old as he will be then.

Yuri Shargin has followed a unique and unusual path into space, in his career, and few people paid him much attention on that path – or seem to have had much hope in his success. But his triumph in achieving his dream, and his performance once he got into orbit, seem to warrant a whole lot more attention now.