Space Sunday: the man who first walked in space

Alexei Leonov’s self portrait of his (and the world’s) first space walk, 1965.

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.

Leonov was known as a quick leaner with a keen sense of fun and light-heartedness, as this 1960s shot – taken before his first space flight – with his cap jauntily cocked to one side shows. Credit: RIA Novosti

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.

Alexei Leonov (back row, left), with some of his cosmonaut comrades, including Yuri Gagarin (first man in space), 2nd from the left, front row; Valentina Tereshkova (first woman in space), Gherman Titov (second cosmonaut in space, next to Leonov) and Pavel Belyayev (mission commander, Voskhod 2), right side, front row. This images was taken some time between April 1965 and March 1968 Credit: RIA Novosti archive

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.

Alexei Leonov and avel Belyayev (r), pictured after their historic Voskhod 2 mission. Credit: unknown

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.

How it might have looked: a still from the 2017 Russian film Spacewalk, recreating Leonov’s historic 1965 space walk

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.

Fortunately, friction from re-entry burned through the cable about 100 km (62.5 mi) above the ground, stabilising the decent capsule enough for it to survive re-entry and for the descent parachutes to correctly deploy. Shortly before touchdown, the landing motors fired and the capsule thumped down to a safe landing.

There, you might have thought, the worse must have been over. Wrong.

Our orientation system indicated that we had landed 2,000 kilometres beyond Perm, in deepest Siberia … We had to get out of the spacecraft to assess our location, but that was not easy. When we flicked the switch to open the landing hatch, the explosive bolts holding it shut were activated and a smell of gunpowder filled the cabin. But, though the hatch jerked, it failed to open.

– Alexei Leonov, Two Sides of the Moon, written with U.S. Apollo astronaut David Scott

The capsule had in fact come down in woodland, pinning the hatch against a tree trunk and leaving the two men having to rock the capsule from side to side to try and free the hatch. This they managed, only to then find themselves in almost 2 metres (6 ft) of snow and in freezing conditions – and the capsule without a hatch or heating system. Such was their location, both men feared the signal from their emergency beacon might too far off the beaten track to be picked up.

Fortunately, it was heard by a civilian aircraft passing overhead, and was reported to local authorities. A helicopter was dispatched to the area, but could not make a landing due to the trees. Instead, more local aircraft were called out, some dropping supplies to the cosmonauts, who were forced to endure a night in their capsule. The following day a small relief team arrived on skis, bringing with them equipment and supplies to effect a rescue, but it took another 24 hours to clear a space for a helicopter to land so it could fly Leonov and Belyayev to hospital.

A rescuer greets Leonov in the Siberian wilderness 24 hours after Voskhod 2 returned to Earth, 2,000 km from the planned landing point. The coat Leonov is wearing was provided by another rescuer; all he and Belyayev  had to wear where their space suits, which they cannibalised in order to keep warm during their first night in the wilderness Credit: unknown, via Anatoly Zak

This odd mix of good and bad fortune that dogged Leonov’s Voskhod 2 mission followed him through the next several years of his career. In 1968, he was selected to command Russia’s first crewed Soyuz 7K-L1 “Zond” circumlunar flight, only for it be cancelled when Apollo 8 flew around the Moon during Christmas of that year. The good fortune here was that the Zond had no launch abort system, and its launcher, the Proton rocket, was not rated for crewed launches and was at the time infamous for suffering launch failures.

Then in 1969, Leonov was travelling in a motorcade along with cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova, Georgy Beregovoy, and Andriyan Nikolayev. They were on following another limousine bearing four other cosmonauts and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, on their way to a celebration at the Kremlin when a would-be assassin opened fire on their vehicle, mistaking it for Brezhnev’s. All four escaped with minimal injury, although the car’s driver was killed.

In 1971, Leonov had been due to command Soyuz 11, the second crewed flight to Salyut 1, the world’s first space station. However, his crew was grounded when it was believed Valery Kubasov had contracted tuberculosis. They were replaced by their back-up crew, who became the only people to thus far be killed in space when a value on the vehicle failed, causing their capsule to rapidly depressurise prior to re-entry into the atmosphere at the end of the mission.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Programme crews. Left: Donald “Deke” Slayton, Vance Brand (c) – both seated and Thomas Stafford, US mission commander. Right: Russian mission commander Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov. Credit: NASA

Leonov’s next opportunity to fly in space came when he was selected to command the Russian 2-man half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test project (ASTP), the first joint space mission between the Soviet Union and the United States. Following separate launches on the same day, July 15th, 1975, this saw an Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) combination, fitted with a special docking adapter, rendezvous with Soyuz 19, commanded by Leonov, two days later.

Three hours after successfully docking, the, the hatch between the adapter and the Soyuz was opened, and Leonov and his opposite number, Thomas Stafford, exchanged the first international handshake in space. Over the next 47 hours, the two crews conducted joint scientific experiments, exchanged flags and gifts, signed certificates, visited each other’s ships, ate together, and conversed in –  as Leonov jokingly put it – three languages: Russian, English and “Oklahomski”, a reference to Stafford’s pronounced drawl when speaking.

Left: Soyuz 19 as seen from the Apollo Command Module during the ASTP rendezvous, July 17th, 1975. Right: the Apollo CSM sporting the Apollo Docking Module, as seen from Soyuz 19, during the ASTP rendezvous. Credit; NASA Internet archive

During this time, several docking and redocking manoeuvres where also performed, in which the two spacecraft reversed roles between being “active” (the one manoeuvring to dock) and “passive” (the one sitting still). During the final one of these tests and before they re-docked, the Apollo vehicle moved to put itself between the Soyuz and the Sun to create an artificial solar eclipse and allow the Soyuz crew to photograph the solar corona. Following the final undocking, Soyuz 19 spent a further two days in orbit before returning to Earth, and Apollo a further five.

Soyuz 19 was Leonov’s final flight in space. In 1976 he was appointed “Chief Cosmonaut”, managing all operational cosmonauts and deputy director of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, through until his retirement in 1992, after which he took on various business-related roles. He also became an ambassador-at-large for space exploration, including jointly establishing the Association of Space Explorers in 1985, with NASA astronaut Rusty Schweickart. Throughout his career he kept up with his painting and drawing, and also became an accomplished author and  writer, including producing a science fiction novel and a screenplay. His story and the Voskhod 2 mission were also dramatically re-told in the 2017 Russian film, Spacewalk.

In 2017, Alexei Leonov donated his 2006 painting, Alexei Leonov. Voskhod 2. March 18, 1965. First Spacewalk, to Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. Credit: TASS via Getty Images

The last surviving member of the “Voskhod Five” – the five cosmonauts who flew the short-lived Voskhod missions, Leonov reportedly died after a “long illness”. He is survived by his widow Svetlana and his younger daughter Oksana. News of his passing came as two astronauts were completing  an extended EVA on the International Station, prompting astronaut Jessica Meir on the ISS to radio:

As the first human to walk in space on March 18th, 1965, and the commander of the Soyuz spacecraft 10 years later that gave birth to the human spaceflight cooperation that thrives today, and that we cherish on the International Space Station, Alexei Leonov was a pathfinder and pioneer in human spaceflight.

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