It has been just over 51 years since the first man freely floated in space. Alexei Leonov, a Soviet cosmonaut. Leonov spent 12 minutes floating in space above planet Earth tethered to his ship by a 16ft cable.
Though the idea of walking in space seems to be somewhat routine in the exploration of space; there have been more than 200 astronauts that have floated in space on EVAs since Leonov, undertaking tasks that range from making repairs to the Hubble telescope to building the International Space Station.
Leonov’s Space Walk
On 18th March 1965, Leonov took off in the Voskhod 2 capsule that he shared with Commander Pavel Belyayev.
Leonov was no stranger to the idea of space travel, he had been the man who trained Yuri Gagarin after all, and he was going to make his own journey amongst the stars.
In an interview last year with the Observer, Leonov commented, “It was so quiet I could even hear my heart beat. I was surrounded by stars and was floating without much control. I will never forget the moment. I also felt an incredible sense of responsibility. Of course, I did not know that I was about to experience the most difficult moments of my life – getting back into the capsule.”
The capsule made one orbit around the Earth before Leonov was given the green light for his spacewalk. The first portion of the spacewalk was a success, but when it came to getting back into the capsule, things started to go wrong.
The vacuum in space had caused his spacesuit to begin to balloon out of shape. The fabric became dangerous stiff, his hands slipped out of his gloves and his feet slipped out of the boots – worst of all, Leonov couldn’t fit back through the airlock.
The spacecraft was moving in an orbit around the Earth all the time Leonov was out making his spacewalk, and he had only five minutes to get back into the capsule before they reached the dark side of the Earth.
In order to shrink the suit, Leonov began to bleed the air from it and the suit began to return to normal size. However, it was at this point that Leonov realised that he was exhibiting the first signs of decompression sickness.
Despite this, Leonov managed to squeeze himself, head first, back through the airlock. His temperature was through the roof and he collapsed back in his seat, beside Belyayev in an exhausted state. But his troubles were not over yet.
The airlock was no longer needed, so it was fired off into space. The force of the explosion caused Voskhod 2 to rotate, causing both Leonov and Belyayev to become disorientated. The instruments showed that the oxygen levels in the capsule were rapidly climbing and threatened to start a fire that would have burned both men alive. For several hours the two men worked tireless to get the oxygen levels back to normal, and they were successful.
The two men were due to return to Earth, however there was yet more drama to unfold for the two men. The automatic re-entry system no longer worked. This meant that the men had to fire the re-entry rockets manually. The rockets were designed to separate the landing capsule from the orbital module, but things didn’t work out quite as they planned.
“A few seconds after the firing of the engine, we felt a jolt as the orbital module separated from our cabin – but something went wrong. We felt a tugging force pulling us back! I looked out of a window and saw the orbital module was still connected to us by a communications cable. As a result, both modules were spinning rapidly as we fell steeply to Earth!”
Fortunately for both Leonov and Belyayev, the heat generated by the re-entry burned through the communications cable, finally separating the landing capsule and orbital module.
The two men landed 2,000 km away from their intended landing zone in the Siberian forest. It took two days for the two men to be found and rescued. The two cosmonauts had to survive in temperatures below zero in a forest that was inhabited by wolves and bears.
Both men survived until they were rescued, however, Belyayev died five years later. He contracted peritonitis after an operation on a stomach ulcer. Leonov was scheduled to be the first cosmonaut to walk on the moon, however the rocket that was to take him there was scrapped after several failed test flights.
Leonov’s space career didn’t end with floating in space though, in 1975 he commanded the Soviet Soyuz that docked with the Apollo capsule, an event that marked the end of the space race.
A movie, due to be released in Russia this year, goes through the events of Leonov’s spacewalk, including the moments that almost ended in disaster.