Alexei Leonov and the First Spacewalk
Story 9 in the nonfiction serial, Into Danger with the Adventurers - Twelve Epic Lives of the Twentieth Century
Alexei Leonov struggled to strap the breathing apparatus onto his back in the confined space of the Voskhod 2 space capsule. He and his fellow cosmonaut, Pavel Belyayev, both had their spacesuits on. Even in the microgravity of space there was not much room.
Meanwhile Belyayev spoke on the radio to Mission Control in Russia and requested permission to extend the airlock. This was a canvas cylinder which fitted around an exit hatch on the outside of the capsule. When extended it was two metres long. On its other end was an airtight hatch. Mission Control gave permission and Belyayev activated the pumps which allowed air to run through narrow tubes in the side of the canvas. The airlock extended as the air straightened the tubes. At the same time, the airlock itself filled with air.
Belyayev slapped Alexei on his back and said ‘go.’ The time had come to be the first man to walk in space. Alexei opened the exit hatch and floated into the airlock.
Once Alexei was in the airlock, he closed the hatch on the capsule. Now he had to wait while the air in the airlock was slowly let out so that the pressure fell to match the vacuum of space. This had to be done slowly for even though he had his spacesuit on he could get what divers call the ‘bends’ if the pressure dropped too quickly. Once the air had been let out, Mission Control gave him permission to open the outer hatch. He pushed it open and craned his neck to see the view. What he saw took his breath away. There below was the deep blue of planet Earth. He could see the South Pole and then, as the spacecraft continued its orbit, Africa came into view. He gradually floated out of the cylinder. He held on to a rail as his feet reached the rim. Then he let go and floated free from the spacecraft.
He felt lost in the immensity and silence of space. He lifted the filter on his visor to get a better view of the countries passing beneath him, but the glare from the sun was too great and he soon pulled it back down. Then he became more adventurous and pushed away from the spacecraft. He drifted and spun, his arms and legs flailing until the communication cord which connected him with the spacecraft pulled tight. Belyayev saw him disappear from sight and warned him to be careful. Alexei pulled himself back towards the spacecraft using the cord.
As he drifted back Belyayev told him it was time to enter the capsule. But when he arrived at the airlock, Alexei noticed that his suit had expanded in the vacuum of space. His fingers no longer reached the end of his bloated gloves and his feet were no longer inside his boots. The suit itself had become stiff and he could not bring his feet and legs into position to enter the airlock. And even worse, the suit had ballooned so much that it would not fit into the airlock. He was trapped outside the spacecraft. And in a few minutes Voskhod 2 would be crossing into the pitch black of night.
Alexei Leonov was born on 30 May 1934 in Listvyanka, a village in Siberia in Russia. Alexei belonged to a large family. He had six sisters and five brothers although sadly one of his sisters and two of his brothers died when they were young. His family lived in a log cabin. Life was hard but they were happy. However, this was soon to change.
Russia was then a communist country and known as the Soviet Union. In every village the people belonged to organisations called collectives. One day, in 1938, the leader of the collective in Listvyanka took a horse belonging to Alexei’s father and killed it for meat. His father was very angry and threatened the leader. The leader falsely accused him of being an ‘enemy of the people’. He was imprisoned and the villagers were allowed to take what they wanted from the Leonov’s home. His mother and the children went by train to live with Alexei’s eldest sister. She was married and lived in Kemerovo, many hundreds of kilometres from Listvyanka.
His sister and her husband both worked in a power station. They had a single room in a dormitory. There was little space and at night time, Alexei had to sleep on the floor under a bed. But after two years things improved. Alexei’s father was released after a friend had proved his innocence. He joined the family in Kemerovo and also got a job at the power station. He became a respected member of the community and the family were given their own rooms to live in.
When he was six-years-old, Alexei saw a pilot in uniform. From then on he was interested in flying. He watched lots of films about the Soviet air force and one of his favourite books was a true story about a pilot. Alexei was also very good at drawing and painting. He sold pictures to make money for the family. When he finished school he wanted at first to be an artist. But in the end he decided to be a pilot and in September 1953 he enrolled in Kremenchug Pilot’s College in the Ukraine, a country in the Soviet Union.
His training lasted two years and he learned to fly propeller planes. Then he transferred to the Higher Military Pilot’s School in Chuguyev, also in the Ukraine. Here he flew jet aircraft. He was a very good pilot and always got top marks in his exams. He was also a good leader. He was promoted to sergeant and was the assistant commander of his group of pilots. The pilots were very proud to serve in the armed forces as it was a time of great tension in the world. The Soviet Union and America were enemies. They did not fight each other in the heat of battle, but in a sense they were at war, so their hostility towards each other was known as the Cold War.
After he had finished his jet training, Alexei went back to Kremenchug and joined an elite group of pilots known as the 10th Guard Division. He piloted MiG-15s which had been adapted to land on rough dirt airstrips, something which might be useful if they went to war. He had to fly at night as well as day and it was dangerous work. Then, one day, while he was flying he had a problem. A pipe in his hydraulic system broke and oil poured over the electrics. His radio and navigation systems failed. He was flying in heavy cloud and visibility was poor. Then things got even worse. A warning light came on which said the plane was on fire. The correct procedure was to eject, but by now the plane was too low. His parachute would not have time to slow his descent. Instead, Alexei switched off the fuel supplies and made an emergency landing at the nearest airfield. Afterwards he realized there had been no fire, the warning signal had been wrong. But he had remained cool under pressure and had saved both himself and the aircraft. His actions impressed his superiors. Soon afterwards he was invited to take part in a selection process for a top-secret test-pilot school. All he was told was that the machines they would be flying would be faster than any known aircraft. He accepted the invitation. It was a decision which would change his life.
The selection process took place at a hospital in Moscow in October 1959. There were forty candidates and eight would be chosen. They were subjected to all sorts of tests. They were put in chambers with reduced oxygen levels and extreme temperatures. They were spun in centrifuge machines until they lost consciousness. They had to perform sums whilst being distracted by a voice giving them the wrong answers. During the selection process Alexei soon became friends with another pilot, Yuri Gagarin, who also flew MiG-15s. After a month all the tests were completed. It was time for the eight who had been successful to be announced. Alexei was chosen, as was his friend, Gagarin. They were then told what they had been chosen for - they would be trained to fly into space.
In 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into space. America launched its first satellite the following year. The race was now on to be the first country to put an astronaut, or cosmonaut as the Russians call them, in space. The training began in March, 1960, at the Cosmonaut Training Centre near Moscow. By now, the group had increased to twenty. The men trained very hard. Each day began with a five-kilometre run followed by swimming. They had much to learn and Alexei would eventually gain a higher engineering degree and a doctorate. The training was dangerous - a trainee died from burns when a spark caused a fireball in a chamber with a high pressure of oxygen.
Russian spacecraft do not splashdown into the sea, but come down onto the ground. These days the capsules not only have a parachute, but also retrorockets which slow the capsule at the last moment just above the ground. But in the early days they did not have retrorockets. The landing was hard and could injure the cosmonaut if they were still inside. Instead, the cosmonaut would eject from out the side of his capsule after re-entry and land by parachute like a pilot ejecting form his plane. Alexei made many parachute jumps during training and he became an expert, eventually becoming a parachute instructor.
Alexei’s friend, Yuri Gagarin, was the first man to fly into space. He took off in Vostok 1 from the Baikonur launchpad on 12 April 1961. Alexei’s job during the mission was to assist a radio operator at a remote radio station in the far east of the country. Only the radio operator was supposed to speak to Gagarin, but he overheard Alexei in the background and sent the message: ‘Give my regards to Blondie,’ which was his nickname because of his blond hair. Gagarin was treated as a national hero when he returned. The Russians had beaten the Americans and put the first man in space. There were five more flights of the Vostok spacecraft. In the final flight, the cosmonaut was the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.
The next generation of Russian manned space vehicles was the Voskhod spacecraft. This had a larger capsule and had retrorockets to soften the landing. There were no ejector seats and the crew remained onboard until landing. The capsule was designed for two cosmonauts in spacesuits. But for the first flight the Russian politicians insisted three cosmonauts should fly. They were able to squeeze in, but without wearing spacesuits. Voskhod 1 was the first spaceflight to carry more than one person and it orbited the Earth sixteen times.
Sergei Korolev, the chief designer and brains behind the space programme, devised a bold plan for Voskhod 2. Two cosmonauts would be onboard, both wearing spacesuits. One would leave the capsule and walk in space. Korolev chose Pavel Belyayev as the commander of the mission and for the spacewalk he chose Alexei.
Alexei and Belyayev began training for the mission in early 1963. The training would last two years. An important part of the training was learning about the different phases of the spacewalk in weightless conditions. The only way this can be simulated on Earth is by a plane flying upwards and then back down in a parabolic arc. At the top of the arc the cosmonauts inside the plane would feel weightless. But the weightlessness only lasted for thirty seconds. They had to make many flights to complete the training. By March 1965 they were ready for the mission.
On 18 March, after a breakfast of bread and butter, eggs, potatoes and tea, they were taken to the launchpad by bus. They ascended the launch tower in a lift and climbed into their capsule. Then the engineers shut the hatch. As they lay on their backs they listened to the murmur of the electronics and the voices of the engineers in their headsets. Then the engine ignited and they were pinned back in their seats as Voskhod 2 sped through the atmosphere into space.
The only way Alexei could get into position to enter the airlock was by going head first. He reached out and managed to grab the end of the airlock. He started to enter, pulling as best he could on the canvas and metal. But he could only get so far in his ballooned spacesuit. With most of his body still sticking outside the airlock he knew there was only one thing he could do. He reached for the pressure valve on his spacesuit and let out a quick burst of oxygen. This, of course, was potentially very dangerous, but he had no choice. The oxygen in the tanks would soon run out. If he did not get into the capsule soon he would run out of oxygen anyway and die. He decided not to tell Mission Control what he was doing. He did not to wish to worry them and he felt that he was doing the right thing.
As the oxygen escaped the suit became less bloated. He wormed further into the airlock and once more became stuck. He opened the valve again and let out some more oxygen. Slowly but surely he moved down the airlock. But it was exhausting work and he felt his body heating up.
Finally the whole of his body and spacesuit was inside the airlock. But he still had the problem of closing the outer hatch. Somehow he had to turn up the other way so his head was back at the top of the airlock. As his temperature rose with the effort he curled up into a ball and managed to do a half somersault. He reached up, caught hold of the hatch and slammed it shut. Belyayev then activated the mechanism which let air back into the airlock. Once the pressure in the airlock equalled the pressure in the capsule, Belyayev opened the capsule hatch and Alexei slid back inside. He closed the hatch and sat in his couch soaked with sweat and his heart pounding.
The problems were not over for the mission. When they ejected the airlock the spacecraft began rolling for a while, but this eventually stopped. The oxygen pressure in the capsule also became dangerously high, increasing the risk of a fire, but this returned to normal after a few hours. Then the automatic re-entry system malfunctioned. They had to manually fire the rockets which would bring them out of orbit. They came down in a remote part of the country thousands of kilometres from the planned landing site.
The capsule landed in deep snow in a forest. They sent out a message on their emergency transmitter and aircraft soon located them, but there was nowhere for even a helicopter to land. The aircraft dropped some basic supplies, but they had to spend a freezing night in the capsule. They watched out for wolves and bears, although they had a gun to defend themselves. The next day an advance party skied to their location. They built them a log cabin and gave them fresh food. After another night in the forest, Alexei and Belyayev skied nine kilometres to a clearing prepared as a landing site for a helicopter. They were flown to an airfield and from there they flew by plane to Baikonur.
After the mission, the government promoted Alexei to lieutenant-colonel and gave him a new car. He was also given 15,000 rubles and forty-five days leave. In the following months he travelled abroad on many official visits and attended conferences on space. But he soon began to focus on the next challenge - a mission to the moon.
The Soviets had developed Soyuz, a spacecraft designed for Earth orbit, but a modified version, called Zond, was made for a flight to the moon. Alexei began training for both a mission to orbit the moon and a lunar landing mission. Then, in January 1966 Korolev, the chief designer, died. This was a big loss to the Soviet space programme. The training continued, but progress had been slowed.
In January 1969 Alexei was travelling in a motorcade to a reception at the Kremlin. A gunman thought President Brezhnev was in the car and fired several shots. The driver was hit, but Alexei escaped without injury.
In December, 1968, the American manned space mission, Apollo 8, had orbited the moon and in July, 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the moon. A few weeks before the Apollo 11 flight, a Russian giant thirty-two-engine rocket, N-1, which was the type needed to take a Soviet manned Zond spacecraft to the moon, blew up and destroyed the launchpad. After this disaster and the American success, the Soviets, much to Alexei’s anger, cancelled their moon programme.
The Soviets now concentrated on space stations. Alexei became deputy director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre and was in charge of the space station programme. The first space station, Salyut 1, was launched in April 1971. Alexei was one of a three-man crew due to go to the space station, but the doctors feared they had been in contact with an infection and may become ill. They were replaced by a backup crew hours before launch. They spent over three weeks in the station. But during re-entry a vent in the capsule accidentally opened. The air rushed out and the crew, who were not wearing spacesuits, were killed. Alexei had warned them about the vent, but they had forgotten his advice.
In 1972 the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to a joint mission in which an Apollo spacecraft would dock with a Soyuz. Alexei was chosen as one of the two-man Soyuz crew. The Apollo spacecraft would have three astronauts onboard. The crews visited each other’s countries to train and learned each other’s languages. The mission took place in July 1975. It was a great success and showed that the Russians and Americans could work together despite the Cold War.
Alexei continued working in the Cosmonaut Training Centre and was a director of Inter-cosmos, a programme to train cosmonauts from countries other than Russia. Then, in 1991, amid political turmoil as the Soviet Union came to an end, he was sacked from the space programme. He moved into the private sector, working for a technology company and later became vice-president of a bank. He also continued painting and exhibited his work across the world. He was a member of the Space Explorers Association and maintained an interest in space until his death in 2019. But nothing else he had done since the Voskhod 2 mission ever matched that moment when he floated out of the airlock and drifted into the immensity of space.
A particularly helpful source was:
Scott, D. and Leonov, A. (2004) Two Sides of the Moon (London: Simon & Schuster)