Unearthing a bit of Soviet space history


Caption: Josef Gitelson (left) and Genry Lisovsky at Bios-3 in Krasnoyarsk

I’ve just moved into a new home – my second move in a little more than a year. In preparing for my first move, from Arlington, Virginia, to Sarasota, Florida, I culled an immense amount of space-related books, reports, papers, and notes from the collection I’d amassed over my 35 years of work in the space community.

Now, after my second move – to a new home in Sarasota – I’m sorting through what’s left of my space collection. And I keep coming across interesting things….

Right now I’m looking at notes dated May 16, 1989, on a meeting I had, while working with NASA’s space life sciences program, with two fascinating Soviet scientists. I remember this meeting quite vividly. (Somehow, NASA scientists were able to maintain collaborative relationships with Soviet scientists throughout much of the Cold War period.*)

Josef Gitelson was director of the Institute of Biophysics at the Siberian branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences in (then secret-city) Krasnoyarsk. His colleague Yevgeny Shepelev was with the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow. Both worked on the Bios project in Krasnoyarsk, started in 1961. (I remember that Shepelev grinned like a Cheshire cat and chain-smoked throughout the meeting. Gitelson was more solemn….)

The Bios project developed a series of “abioregenerative” life-support systems to demonstrate what cosmonauts would need, “possibly in space but more likely on the surfaces of the Moon or Mars. Learning to construct and to operate such a life-support system was a goal of the Soviet space program from its inception….” (Frank Salisbury, Josef Gitelson, and Genry Lisovsky, “Bios-3: Siberian experiments in bioregenerative life support,” BioScience,Volume 47, No. 9, 1997.)

Bios-1, built to support one person, was completed in 1965. In 1968 a new chamber was added to the facility to grow food plants, and Bios-1 became Bios-2. Bios-3, built underground, was completed in 1972. The first three-person crew – two men and one woman – spent six months in Bios-3 during the winter of 1972-73.

In 1962, Shepelev became the first person to spend 24 hours in Bios-1, “breathing only oxygen produced by 45 liters of Chlorella algae.” (Renata Tyszczuk, Provisional Cities: Cautionary Tales for the Anthropocene, Routledge, 2017, np. Also see Sabine Hohler, Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990, Routledge, 2016, p. 119.)

Gitelson and Shepelev told me that the last Bios experiment with humans took place in 1984. Most experiments took place between 1970 and 1980, and human crews spent a cumulative total of two years in the habitats. (My notes show that Bios-3 had 120 square meters of surface area inside and 600 cubic meters of volume. I should note that these numbers differ from numbers cited in other sources I’ve cited in this post.)

“Sci-Fi, Science, and Space Geek” Mohan Sanjeevan reports on his Facebook page, “On the walls of the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk hang black-and-white photos telling the story of the groundbreaking results, obtained during the 1960s and 70s. Bios-3, an 315 cubic-metre habitat, was designed to mimic a spacecraft headed to Mars; today, the simulator is a rust heap, and the “no photos” sign no longer applies. The historical images depict happy and tired subjects, presented with flowers upon their release from the simulator…. The Russians wanted to re-create the Earth’s cycle in a closed system, under controlled conditions, and transfer the model to spacecraft and space stations…. The Soviet Union also had dreams of a Mars colony and hoped to one day have space stations scattered across the solar system.”

(Tomorrow, Mars-colonization advocates – I’d guess overwhelmingly American – gather to begin their annual Mars Society meeting. Stay tuned for Mars madness, coming at you from Pasadena, California.)

Reading my notes on my meeting with Gitelson and Shepelev has reminded me that I am very fortunate to have met and worked with, and learned from, so many interesting people in my 35 years in the space community. Thank you, everybody!


*According to Roald Sagdeev, former head of the Soviet Space Research Institute, the United States “was pragmatic about keeping up its contacts with Soviet scientists” during the Cold War. U.S.-Soviet consultations on space science issues took place through a channel between the U.S. and Soviet national academies of sciences. NASA scientists were especially interested in learning about the health effects of long-duration space flight. And U.S. and Soviet scientists met regularly at meetings of the Committee on Space Research and the International Astronautical Federation.

(One final note: I met Roald Sagdeev at an International Space Year meeting in New Hampshire in 1992. We shared a dinner table at a restaurant in Main – I think it was the Cliff House in Ogunquit –  and I watched him eat his first-ever lobster.)