When Soviet cosmonaut Anatoly Pavlovich Artsebarski climbed into his rocket on its launchpad in Kazakhstan on May 18, 1991, he had little idea that his country was about to go through a major political upheaval. As commander of the Soyuz TM-12 spacecraft, he blasted off with two crewmates–Sergei Krikalev and Helen Sharman–to rendezvous and dock with the space station Mir. After Sharman returned to earth a few days later with the station’s previous two-man crew, Artsebarski and Krikalev settled in for a long stay in orbit.

The cosmonauts had brought along a 35-millimeter movie camera to shoot footage for the Romanian filmmaker Andrei Ujica. His documentary, Out of the Present, contrasts their residency in space with the historic events taking place on the ground: the ouster of Mikhail Gorbachev, mass demonstrations in the streets of Moscow, Boris Yeltsin’s speech from atop a tank, and finally the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself. Strangely removed from it all, Artsebarski and Krikalev looked down from their perch in the sky and saw only the same brown mountains, white clouds, green forests, and blue oceans.

The cosmonauts spent most of their time conducting research and making observations of earth while also adding to the extensive Russian database on human long-term biological response to weightlessness. The high expense of keeping them in orbit meant that they could afford little downtime. “On the average, aboard station Mir we worked 14 hours per day,” says Artsebarski of his 144 days in orbit. “I think that the majority of people do not know the complexity and amount of work carried out in space and do not understand why it is all necessary.”

Throughout the 80s and 90s, while U.S. astronauts were orbiting the earth for two or three weeks at most, Russian cosmonauts were growing accustomed to far longer flights aboard a series of space stations, which culminated with the 15-year operation of Mir. The experience acquainted them intimately with the great paradox of their profession: while the public may associate spaceflight with sexy notions of freedom and escape, the reality of life on Mir was more like being locked for months inside a space the size of an el car. Most cosmonauts say that keeping busy helps one cope. The only available relief from the confinement of Mir was a pressure-suited space walk. But such sorties are serious business, not recreation. “The job in open space is most difficult, complex, and dangerous,” says Artsebarski.

During his sixth and last space walk, while he and Krikalev were assembling a new girder structure on the outside of the station, Artsebarski got into trouble. “I found out that the cooling system of my survival suit did not work. The glass of my suit became covered by fine drops of water,” he says. The condensation fogged his faceplate, effectively rendering him blind. He climbed slowly back down the girder and into the air lock with Krikalev coaching his every move. A misstep could have sent him tumbling into the void.

During the rare breaks in their schedule, the cosmonauts communicated with earthlings by ham radio. “In orbit we received complete information from the radio amateurs of all the world about events in our country,” says Artsebarski. He also made time to simply watch the earth turn below him, and was surprised to realize that earth’s surface was really five-sixths water–“the flight passes basically above an ocean surface.”

In the reshuffling of the Russian space program that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Artsebarski left active flight status to become vice president of the Cosmonaut Federation. Before the aging Mir was brought down to a controlled crash landing in the South Pacific in March, his was among the most prominent voices arguing that it should be repaired and kept in orbit. “The end of the flight of station Mir is a large mistake of the government of Russia,” he now says. He has turned his attention to Russia’s participation in international space exploits, noting that “the flight program of the International Space Station is complex and is based on the experience of many countries. All of us should best study each other.”

Friday Artsebarski will narrate a program of film and video footage from his time aboard Mir at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. The presentation will also include an exhibit of small hardware and other memorabilia from his flight. The program starts at 8 PM; admission is $8. For more information call 312-846-2800.

–Renaldo Migaldi