MOSCOW -- The lost-in-time Soviet cosmonaut hurtled back to earth yesterday after circling the planet more than 5,000 times and spending 7,512 hours in space for his country that no longer exists.
Cosmonaut 3rd class Sergei Krikalev earned a minute on Russia's television news.
He blasted off from one country -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics -- last May. He landed yesterday in the sovereign nation of Kazakhstan -- one of the 15 countries that emerged from the U.S.S.R. -- and was lucky he wasn't asked for an entry visa.
In the next few days Mr. Krikalev, who has existed in weightlessness for the last 10 months, must learn to walk again. He'll spend three months in quarantine while he reacclimates to earth and his health is monitored.
This will give him time to get used to a whole new world.
When he left last May, a ruble was still a ruble. Today it's worth about a penny, and Mr. Krikalev's 500-ruble-a-month salary is worth about $5.
The ruble has plunged much as the space program itself. Last May his salary would have bought about 132 pounds of sausage; now it buys about 4 1/2 pounds.
In 1957, the space program was priceless and all-powerful.
The Soviet Union launched Sputnik that year, sending the West and especially the United States into a feverish race to catch up. In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man to go into orbit.
Today, the former Soviet space program is described as being on the brink of collapse.
There were hints that Russia was ready to unload the Mir space station and might even like to sell it to the United States while Mr. Krikalev was still hurtling through space.
But nothing ever came of that. The space station went into orbit in 1986 and has depreciated considerably.
The ownership of Mir and all other space program trappings remains in doubt.
The issue was supposed to be discussed last week at a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Kiev, but the leaders never got around to it.
Instead, their time was taken up in not deciding the ownership of the military.
In the meantime, the space program work force of 1 million has reportedly been cut by a third.
The scientists and technicians who operate the huge cosmodrome at Baikonur in Kazakhstan have been threatening to strike over miserable living conditions and poverty-level wages.
Even Mr. Krikalev had to pitch in with some overtime. He was supposed to return in October, but Kazakhstan was starting to argue with Russia over just who owned what. Russia agreed to send up a Kazakh astronaut, who wasn't prepared to remain for a long sojourn.
Mr. Krikalev had a craving for honey about that time, but mission control couldn't put any in with supplies sent up in a December mission. The former Soviet republics had stopped delivering it.
No wonder the cosmonaut was smiling upon his return just before noon in Moscow, right on time and on target as brilliant sunshine bathed the snowy steppe near the town of Arkalyk in north-central Kazakhstan.
Mr. Krikalev was gently lifted out of his Soyuz TM-13 space capsule, placed on a chair and carried to a group of reporters and photographers.
He was joined by two other returning cosmonauts -- Alexander Volkov, who boarded the Mir space station in October, and a German Air Force officer, Klaus-Dietrich Flade, who went up last week. They were all replaced aboard the space station by a new crew.
Someone put sunglasses on them; someone else wrapped them in warm coats. Others carefully supported them from behind.
Mr. Krikalev said he was feeling fine, though he looked a little dizzy and was given smelling salts. He is 34 and comes from Leningrad, but even that's changed. It's been renamed St. Petersburg.
With all the changes, the cosmonaut might have been relieved to discover that his wife, Lena, and their 2-year-old son were waiting for him.
Mr. Krikalev didn't manage to set a record with his long flight. He spent 313 days on the Mir space station. In 1987, Yuri Romanenko was up there for 326 days.
He's unlikely to get any monuments, the way Yuri Gagarin did. The Gagarin statue -- a huge, futuristic work -- dominates a giant traffic-filled Moscow square.
No doubt he will not be proclaimed a Hero of the Soviet Union, a traditional award for astronauts.
No matter. Sergei Krikalev made history. He ended an era. The cosmonauts now aboard the Mir platform were not sent by the Soviet Union. They are from the Commonwealth of Independent States -- at least for now.