Two great space heroes from different countries are still friends after not knowing they were competing against each other for the greatest prize in adventure, the Moon.
Russian Alexi Leonov, 83, is still a space advocate, reminiscing about his near-death experience performing mankind’s first spacewalk 53-years ago this week, and his training to put his foot prints on the Moon.
Four-time NASA space flier Tom Stafford, 87, shook hands in space with Leonov in the first international mission of Apollo/Soyuz in July 1975, paving the way for today’s global citizens from 16 countries sharing the International Space Station.
Through the decades, Leonov and Stafford have remained best friends, comrades in space arms and believers in the future of manned space travel.
Stafford is one of those unsung heroes of NASA’s Moon Race with the Soviet Union, flying two important Gemini missions, and then commander of Apollo 10—the full-dress rehearsal down to 9 miles of the Moon’s surface with future last man-on-the Moon Gene Cernan, clearing the way for Apollo 11 in July 1969.
All of NASA’s manned space mission were openly reported to the world, but the Communist Soviet Union operated in complete secrecy. Their new agency, TASS, was a propaganda machine with the goal of touting the superiority of the Russian man and woman.
So, when TASS announced on March 18, 1965 that their cosmonaut had performed the first human spacewalk, the details were vague, but the boasts of space leadership were loud.
Exiting the two-man Vostok spacecraft for a short stroll in outer space, Leonov took the big leap outside while Pavel Belyelev was inside their spaceship, 200 miles above Earth, traveling 17,500 mph. And the propaganda made it sound so easy.
But Leonov’s historic Extravehicular Activity (EVA) of only 12 minutes into space was difficult and dangerous every step of the way, though that wasn’t revealed for decades until détente between the two Superpowers disclosed the truth about many space secrets.
So secretive was the details of Leonov’s spacewalk, that space observers only speculated about the specifics. There was even a conspiracy theory in the 1970s that the Soviets had faked their spacewalk in a studio.
Now Leonov tells the tale in a freer Russia. The Vostok 2 had an inflatable airlock cylinder that he crawled into to keep pressurized Belyelev and the vacuum tubes of the controls. The training airlock is on display attached to a real Voskhod mockup at the fabulous Once outside the spacecraft, Leonov said his suit ballooned larger than expected. That made it difficult to get back inside the tunnel, shut the airlock hatch and then get inside the spacecraft hatch. He had to let air out of the spacesuit, barely squeezing inside, making him overly exerted. This difficulty would have been nice to share with NASA before the first American spacewalk by Ed White during Gemini 4 on June 3, 1965.
Not only was the Russian EVA difficult, but Voskhod 2 landed 200 miles off target in a snowy forest. The rescue team couldn’t arrive until the next morning, and it was a freezing 23 degrees. The spacecraft had no working environment system, the heavy hatch was blown off, and the cosmonauts got wet and cold. Then a pack of wolves arrived on the scene and had to be scared off a pistol. Because of that near disastrous encounter with wolves, every Russian spacecraft has a special weapon, called a TP-82, under the commander’s seat. It’s a combination shotgun, 22-rifle and machete, and yes, the docked Soyuz spacecrafts to the International Space Station each have one under the seat!
NASA astronaut Stafford and Leonov met when training for the Apollo Soyuz Text Project, when three American astronauts docked and shared two days with two cosmonauts. It was a major publicity stunt by the Nixon Administration, but had the benefit of sharing space technology between the two Moon Race rivals.
After decades of mystery, finally a complete picture of the Soviet Union’s moon program has come to light. While Stafford was barnstorming the Moon in 1969, Leonov was also training to be the first man on surface. The plan was two cosmonauts on the Moon voyage, one left in orbit in a spacecraft called Zond and the second landing in the vehicle called LK, Lunar Craft.
Leonov has told the tales of his training for the Moon landing, often saying that in 1969 the lack of training and equipment reliability made it a suicide mission for himself.
Leonov is also an artist and the first man to sketch impressions with chalk while in orbit. He is a popular world celebrity while his health holds out.
Stafford, too, enjoys the continued limelight as his mind is alert though his has back troubles standing up straight. Air Force Lt. General Stafford grew up in Weatherford, Oklahoma where he has built a fabulous air and space museum that rivals any of the Smithsonian institutes.
Gen. Stafford’s space career included two Gemini flights, a trip to the Moon and the final mission using an Apollo module. He had several harrowing moments, least of which is an aborted launch of Gemini 6 when it engines shutdown two seconds after ignition. Commander Wally Schirra, a veteran of a Mercury flight, felt nothing move so he didn’t pull the “D-ring” for the ejection seats. The rocket got fixed after Gemini 7 was launched, and Schirra and Stafford rendezvoused their Gemini 6 to within two feet of each other on Dec. 15, 1965.
Stafford was in space again just six months later Gemini 9 as backup commander because the prime crew were killed in a plane crash. He and Gene Cernan took over the mission, but in orbit discovered the target rendezvous rocket’s docking shroud didn’t eject. And Cernan had trouble on his EVA, overheating and blinded from a fogged visor, aborting the spacewalking plans.
The Apollo/Soyuz docking mission in July 1975 garnered the international attention of two superpowers working together. And the outgoing personalities of American Stafford and Russian Leonov provided a perfect end to the Apollo era as both nations turned to building space stations.