When the first human left the relative safety of a spaceship to walk in space, his father thought he looked like a juvenile delinquent.
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, cosmonaut Alexei Leonovs father told reporters after watching the television footage of the historic moment. Leonov recalled the moment 40 years later in a 2005 essay for Air & Space, but Leonovs father never learned how close his son came to disaster.
Leonov, the first person to perform an extravehicular activity (EVA), died on October 11 and will be interred on October 15.
Walking In Space
On March 18, 1965, an hour and a half after blasting off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, 30-year-old Soviet Air Force pilot Alexei Leonov floated into the inflatable airlock bolted onto the hatch of his Voskhod 3KD capsule. Leonov and the Voskhods commander, cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev, had left Earth at 11:00 AM local time, but 400 km (300 miles) above the world and its time zones, the cosmonauts were running on Greenwich Mean Time (internationally known as Universal Coordinated Time, or UTC). In low Earth orbit, it was now 8:28 AM time for Leonov to start depressurizing the airlock.
The Volga airlock was a fabric tube suspended between two metal rings, which had spent the launch folded up on the outside of Voskhods hatch. Once they reached orbit, Leonov and Belyeyev inflated the air booms that ran the length of the tube, which extended the airlock like a pop-up tent to its full 2.5m length. Inside the tube, illuminated by two electric lights and recorded by a pair of 16mm video cameras, Leonov waited four long minutes for the airlock to vent its supply of air, equalizing its pressure with the vacuum of space outside the two thin layers of fabric.
At 8:32 UTC, Leonov opened the airlocks outer hatch. Only his spacesuit now protected him from the void as he carefully maneuvered out the hatch and pushed himself out to the end of his 5.35m tether the only thing keeping him from drifting away from Voskhod and Belyeyev. Sudan and Egypt lay far below him, and Leonov hung in space while the world turned beneath him, watching the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas drift past. The capsules orbit carried it around the planet once every 90 minutes, and by the time Leonov completed his spacewalk, hed be over Siberia.
His first task was to attach a video camera to the boom mounted on the airlocks outer hatch, to provide the footage that would outrage Leonovs father. That went smoothly enough, but a few minutes later, Leonov realized he was in trouble. Without the pressure of air in the capsule to press against it, his spacesuit had ballooned outward. When Leonov reached down to press the shutter switch on the still camera strapped to his chest, he found that his puffed-out spacesuit was too stiff to allow him to move. After a brief struggle, he managed to retrieve the video camera from its boom, but he still had to get himself back inside while wearing a spacesuit that had ballooned out too far to fit through the 65cm outer hatch.
The moment things started going wrong, state-run television and radio stations back in the USSR stopped their live broadcasts of Leonovs spacewalk. Instead, stations across Russia played Mozarts Requiem in D Minor on repeat while, hundreds of miles above them, Leonov managed to vent just enough air through a valve on the side of his suit to squeeze through the airlock. If he let out too much oxygen, he ran the risk of hypoxia; if he let it out too quickly, he risked decompression illness, which happens when a sudden release of pressure causes the nitrogen in the blood to bubble up (picture what happens when you open a bottle of soda, and then picture that happening in your veins and arteries). But if Leonov didnt get back inside before his air ran out, it wouldnt matter.
Back on Earth, he had trained to slide feet-first into the airlock, so his head and arms would be in position to shut the hatch behind him. But the swollen spacesuit left Leonov no choice but to enter head-first, carefully pulling himself along. That meant he had to turn around in the tight confines of the airlock to shut the hatch, with his spacesuit still a stiff, awkward balloon around him.
By 8:49 UTC, Leonov was back inside the airlock with the outer hatch sealed behind him. He waited 3 minutes in the airlock, with sweat sloshing knee-deep in his suit and his body temperature hovering perilously close to heat stroke, while the airlock slowly refilled with air. Meanwhile, the Soviet state news agency TASS was telling the public that after returning, Leonov feels well.
And maybe he actually did feel well, once he was back in his seat in the capsule, but Voskhod was only a tiny, flimsy shelter against the deadly vastness of space. It was time for the astronauts to go home but in the end, Earth would try to kill them just as brutally as space would have done.
Out Of The Frying Pan...
It was as if Voskhod itself didnt want to go home. The automatic guidance system malfunctioned, which meant the cosmonauts would have to choose their own landing point and orient the spacecraft correctly for re-entry using an optical sighting instrument. [Belyeyev] he had to lean horizontally across both seats in the spacecraft, while I held him steady in front of the orientation porthole. We then had to maneuver ourselves back into the correct positions in our seats very rapidly so that the spacecrafts center of gravity was correct during the reentry burn, Leonov explained in his 2005 Air & Space essay.
In the cramped confines of the Voskhod capsule, however, two astronauts in spacesuits couldnt maneuver very rapidly. It took them about 46 seconds to scramble back into position. That 46 seconds put the capsule about 386 km past the backup landing site theyd selected but there was no time to worry about it. As soon as the retro-thrusters fired, jerking the two cosmonauts against their seats, the capsule lunged into a hard spin, and kept whipping around as Voskhod and its crew plunged into Earths atmosphere. The force of the spin was about 10 times Earths gravity, so much pressure that blood vessels in the cosmonauts eyes burst.
But under the crushing pressure of the spin, Leonov managed to look out the capsules window and see the problem. Voskhod was a spacecraft in two parts, and the orbital capsule was supposed to separate from the landing capsule before re-entry but a communications cable still tethered the two capsules together, and they rotated around its center as they fell. The cable snapped about 100 km above the ground, just before the landing capsule deployed its parachutes. From there, the descent became more peaceful, but the cosmonauts were just drifting downward into even more danger.
...Into The Snow
Soviet ground control expected the capsule to land near the town of Perm in eastern Russia, but instead Leonov and Belyeyev found themselves in a dense boreal forest in the Ural mountains, blanketed by deep snow. Their mission control team had no idea where or even if the capsule had landed. And Voskhod offered pitiful shelter against the cold, with its hatch blown open and its heater out of commission thanks to yet another electrical malfunction.
The only thing working in the cosmonauts favor was the bright red fabric of their parachutes, which helped search aircraft spot them and drop some clothes and supplies but the tree cover was too dense to land, so the two men spent a freezing night huddled in their open space capsule. Meanwhile, Soviet authorities told the crews families that they were resting after a safe landing.
The next morning, a rescue party arrived on skis to build a shelter and help the cosmonauts start a fire while others set up a helicopter landing site a few kilometers away. After another night in the woods, Leonov and Belyeyev hiked through the snowy mountain forest to their long-awaited rescue.
After Making History
Leonov narrowly avoided disaster a second time in 1971. He had been scheduled to fly the Soyuz 11 mission to the USSRs Salyut space station, but when crew member Valeri Kubasov presented symptoms of tuberculosis, authorities grounded Leonovs crew and sent the backup crew. All three cosmonauts aboard Soyuz 11 died when the capsule depressurized just before re-entry.
He returned to space a decade after his historic spacewalk to command the Soviet half of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission. His Soyuz capsule, piloted by Kubasov, docked with an American Apollo capsule and spent two days conducting science experiments, practicing docking maneuvers, and sharing meals, gifts, and conversation in English and Russian. Leonov sketched his American colleagues, the spacecraft, and Earth and the Moon with the colored pencils hed brought along on the flight.
Back on Earth, Leonov spent the next six years commanding and training the USSRs cosmonauts. In 1980, he wrote a science fiction movie, The Orion Loop, about Earths first contact with aliens. And in 2006, he co-authored a memoir about the Cold War space race with Apollo astronaut David Scott.
Leonov was the last surviving Voskhod astronaut; Belyeyev, his commander on the 1965 spacewalk mission, died in 1970.