On Friday, October 11th came the news that Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, the first man to complete a space walk, and later the commander of the Russian side of the historic Apollo-Soyuz mission, had sadly passed away at the age of 85.
Leonov was born on May 30th, 1934, in the remote Siberian village of Listvyanka, Siberia, to which his father’s family had been exiled as a result of his grandfather’s involvement in the 1905 Russian Revolution. In 1936, his railway worker / miner father was falsely accused of “improper” political views during Stalin’s purges, and was imprisoned for several years, leaving Alexei’s mother to raise her children on her own.
Creative from an early age, Alexei developed a talent for painting and drawing, going so far as being able to sell some of his pieces for extra money. However, he was determined to be a military aviator, and when his reunited family relocated to Kaliningrad in 1948, he was able to pursue more technical studies that enabled him to be accepted into flight training in the 1950s. Posted to the the Chuguev military pilots’ academy, he graduated in 1957 as both a qualified fighter pilot and parachute training instructor, and served three tours of duty in both roles, gaining 278 hours flight time in front-line fighters and completing 115 parachute jumps while training others.
His skills as a parachutist saw him accepted into the new cosmonaut training programme in 1960 – it had been decided that for early flights, rather than landing in their capsule, cosmonauts would be jettisoned from their Vostok craft using an ejector seat similar to jet fighters, allowing them to complete the last part of their return to Earth via parachute.
As a part of the original intake of 20 cosmonaut recruits, Leonov trained alongside Yuri Gagarin, the first human to fly in space and orbit the Earth, and Gherman Titov, the second Cosmonaut and third human in space. Like them, he was initially selected for Vostok flights, serving as back-up pilot to the 1963 Vostok 5 mission. However, before he could be rotated to a “prime” Vostok seat, he was one of five cosmonauts selected to fly the more ambitious Voskhod missions.
Voskhod was really a Vostok system but with the ejection seat and mechanism removed to make way for up to three crew seats, and with additional retro rockets attached to the descent stage to cushion the crew on landing instead of them being ejected. It was really an “interim” designed to bridge Vostok and the much more capable Soyuz (which wouldn’t fly until 1967), allowing Russia to match the America Gemini system in launching more than one man at a time. In particular, Leonov was selected with Pavel Belyayev (as mission commander) to fly the Voskhod 2 mission in which he would undertake the world’s first space walk.
This one-day mission was launched on March 18th, 1965 with the call-sign Almaz (“Diamond”). The design of the Vostok / Voskhod vehicle meant that the cabin could not be depressurised in order for a cosmonaut to egress the vehicle. Instead, a complicated airlock had to be fitted to the vehicle’s exterior. This comprised a metal mount surrounding the crew hatch, and to which was fitted an inflatable tube with a further hatch built on to it.
Once in orbit, Belyayev helped Leonov add a backpack to his basic spacesuit that would supply him with 45 minutes of oxygen for breathing and cooling, pumped to him through an umbilical cord / pipe, and which included a second pipe and adjustable valve designed to vent small amounts of oxygen into space to carry away heat, moisture, and exhaled carbon dioxide. The airlock mechanism was then inflated and pressurised using air from the Voskhod’s supplies, extending it some 3 metres (9 ft) outward from the vehicle. After checking the integrity of the airlock tube, Belyayev opened the inward hinged crew hatch so Leonov could pull himself into the tube and the hatch re-secured behind him. Controls both inside the tube and the Voskhod allowed the airlock to be depressurised, allowing Leonov to open the inward-hinged “top” hatch.
Before exiting the tube, Leonov attached a video camera to a boom he then connected to the airlock rim, allowing live television pictures of his egress from the Voskhod to be captured and relayed to Earth. The sight of him exiting the vehicle reportedly caused consternation among some his family who didn’t understand the purpose of his mission!
When my four-year-old daughter, Vika, saw me take my first steps in space, I later learned, she hid her face in her hands and cried. “What is he doing? What is he doing?” she wailed. “Please tell Daddy to get back inside!”
My elderly father, too, was upset. Not understanding that the purpose of my mission was to show that man could survive in open space, he expressed his distress to journalists who had gathered at my parents’ home. “Why is he acting like a juvenile delinquent?” he shouted in frustration. “Everyone else can complete their mission properly, inside the spacecraft. What is he doing clambering about outside? Somebody must tell him to get back inside immediately. He must be punished for this!”
– Alexei Leonov, Two Sides of the Moon, written with U.S. Apollo astronaut David Scott.
Once clear of the airlock, Leonov encountered some difficulties. Not actually designed for the vacuum of space, his suit inflated and became semi-rigid, limiting his range of movements. He found he couldn’t reach a stills camera mounted on the front of his suit and intended to allow him to take photographs while outside the vehicle, for example. But worst was to come.
In training, Leonov had rehearsed sliding back into the airlock feet first, enabling him to easily swing the outer hatch back up into place to be secured and allow the interior of the tube to be re-pressurised so that Belyayev could then open the Voskhod’s hatch and guide him back into the spacecraft. However, he now realised he had a real problem.
With some reluctance I acknowledged that it was time to re-enter the spacecraft. Our orbit would soon take us away from the sun and into darkness. It was then I realized how deformed my stiff spacesuit had become, owing to the lack of atmospheric pressure [outside of it]. My feet had pulled away from my boots and my fingers from the gloves attached to my sleeves, making it impossible to re-enter the airlock feet first.
– Alexei Leonov, Two Sides of the Moon, written with U.S. Apollo astronaut David Scott,
describing his spacesuit issues
His only option was to enter the tube head-first and then work out how to turn himself around to close the hatch – except his suit had inflated such that it was too big to fit through the outer hatch ring. His only option was to use the oxygen relief valve to gently release pressure from the suit and deflate it. The problem? if he let out too much oxygen, he’d risk hypoxia and suffocation and if he let it out too quickly, he risked decompression sickness (or “the bends” as sea divers call it).
The first public indication that Leonov was in trouble came when the live video feed and radio broadcast were both cut and Russian state broadcasters switched to playing Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor on repeat. Meanwhile, he cautiously went about releasing the pressure in his suit until he could wriggle his way into the airlock tube and, in a feat of contortion, turned himself around so he could secure the outer hatch. This effort proved almost too much for the suit’s primitive cooling system, and by the time Belyayev opened the Voskhod’s hatch and helped Leonov back into the capsule, he was in grave danger of passing out from heatstroke. However, their problems were far from over.
Re-entry for the Voskhod was a three stage affair: eject the airlock, jettison the equipment module, then fire the retro-rockets on the descent module to drop the vehicle back into the denser part of Earth’s atmosphere. All of this was meant to be largely automated, but the guidance system failed due to an electrical fault taking out a number of systems, leaving Belyayev and an exhausted Leonov scrambling to handle things manually, literally clambering over one another to perform their assigned duties. As a result, the re-entry motors were fired 46 second late, enough to mean they would overshoot their planned landing site by over 380 km (241 mi).
However, this proved to be the least of their worries. No sooner had the rockets fired than the Voskhod went into a 10G spin, pinning the two men into their seats and rupturing blood vessels in their eyes. Through the observation port on his side of the vehicle, Leonov saw that the equipment module hadn’t fully separated from the descent module and lay connected to it via a communications cable. When the retro rockets fired to slow the decent capsule, the equipment module had shot past, causing the cable to snap taut and start the two modules tumbling around one another.
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