The tranquility of space was profound—far greater than anything you might imagine on Earth from diving deep beneath the surface of an ocean.
– Alexi Leonov, first spacewalker
This week we celebrate a landmark event in space history that today is taken for granted—the first human to exit a spaceship into outer space.
That brave man is 82-year-old Alexi Leonov who is Russia’s most revered spaceman and loves to tell of the time walked in space.
Now he does.
At the time of Leonov’s spacewalk on March 18, 1965, only he and fellow cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev, deceased, watching inside their Voskhod 2 spacecraft how close the hand of death was lurking.
The truth took nearly 30 years after the dangerous exit into the void of outer space.
Instead, the first spacewalk rocked the world with screaming newspaper headlines and news interruptions on television and radio. The press called Leonov’s 12-minute sortie into space “easy”…but it was extremely hard.
“Soviet Walks In Space” “Cosmonaut Exits Spaceship for 20 Minutes” “Communist Spacewalk Puts America Behind In Moon Race”
It was the height of the USA vs. USSR Space Race that had the undeclared prize of the first Moon rocks brought back to Earth. Of course, Apollo 11 grabbed the first lunar booty in July 1969. But in 1965, America was perceived to be behind.
That may or may not have been true. The uncertainty who was leading the Space Race is because of the tight secrecy in which Russia conducted its space program. And the deception, propaganda and outright lies the official USSR news agency TASS spread across the world.
That’s why it took into the 1990s and cooperative spaceflights by the American Space Shuttle to the Russian MIR space station to start breaking the code of silence.
As cosmonauts and astronauts began sharing training facilities in Star City and Houston, the vodka and beer was poured and tongues began to wag. And then new Russia emerged at the dawn of the 21st Century to ease any repercussions from telling the truth.
Cosmonaut Leonov has written and retold many times his brush with death in a harrowing Extravehicular Activity (EVA) where nearly everything went wrong.
Leonov’s spacesuit ballooned out, and he couldn’t get inside the tunnel airlock! He had to let air out of his suit, a dangerous decision, and had just enough time to squeeze in headfirst with the help of Belyayev.
Leonov struggled in a controlled panic as globs of sweat poured out of his body, his hands and feet slipped out of their gloves and boots and his body moved inside independent of the ballooned spacesuit.
The spacewalk was televised live to the Russian people after Leonov deployed two cameras, but the coverage ended when the problems arose. Safely inside, Leonov recorded notes of his EVA, and an artist, he made four sketches of Earth and space with colored pencils. Decades later he made serious paintings of his space walk.
Some of the photos released by TASS were actually staged rehearsals with a cloudy Earth background. A shadow over Leonov’s shoulder had people claiming the spacewalk was a hoax. Indeed, magazines like Popular Science had a field day speculating about Soviet space forgeries and disasters.
Even after Leonov’s personal description of crawling out a disposable, pressurized exit tunnel, photos were scarce and it was hard to imagine what it looked like.
That is until the fabulous Cosmosphere museum in Hutchinson, Kansas acquired a training Voskhod spaceship complete with the EVA tunnel and Leonov’s training spacesuit and helmet. It is a rare piece of hardware that attracts space geeks (like me) from around the world.
What is surprising about the collapsible tunnel is it is made of a heavy canvas. And the outer layer of Leonov’s EVA suit was also a heavy cloth material.
America’s first EVA was three months later on June 3 by Ed White. It was harder than everyone thought, and the following Gemini spacewalks continued to be a challenge for NASA astronauts in gaining strength and control over their bodies. And Russia wasn’t truthfully sharing their space walking experiences.
That all changed for the better.
Now about once every two months a Russian and American are found outside the International Space Station performing routine maintenance on the amazing facility.
The joint USA-USSR space ventures began with the docking of an Apollo module to a Soyuz spaceship, the famous space spectacular in July 1975 largely orchestrated by President Richard Nixon. Leonov was the Russian commander for that historic spaceflight.
The famous spaceflight of Voskhod 2 had more dangerous moments than the spacewalk. The spaceship was actually blasted about 50 miles higher than the planned orbit, and that created problems for reentry.
The Voskhod 2 spacecraft landed in a remote area of Siberia where the cosmonauts were stranded the first night in freezing temperatures, afraid to build a fire that might attract wolves. The rescue crew found them in the morning, dropped supplies and the cosmonauts skied out of the snowed-in forest.
From near death in space to fearing the thrashing from a pack of wolves, Belyayev and Leonov lived through one of the most harrowing of any manned spaceflight.