The Nightmare of Voskhod 2
A cosmonaut remembers the exhilaration-and terror-of his first space mission.
- By Alexei Leonov
- Air & Space magazine, January 2005
(Page 2 of 5)
With some reluctance I acknowledged that it was time to reenter the spacecraft. Our orbit would soon take us away from the sun and into darkness. It was then I realized how deformed my stiff spacesuit had become, owing to the lack of atmospheric pressure. My feet had pulled away from my boots and my fingers from the gloves attached to my sleeves, making it impossible to reenter the airlock feet first.
I had to find another way of getting back inside quickly, and the only way I could see to do this was pulling myself into the airlock gradually, head first. Even to do this, I would carefully have to bleed off some of the high-pressure oxygen in my suit, via a valve in its lining. I knew I might be risking oxygen starvation, but I had no choice. If I did not reenter the craft, within the next 40 minutes my life support would be spent anyway.
The only solution was to reduce the pressure in my suit by opening the pressure valve and letting out a little oxygen at a time as I tried to inch inside the airlock. At first I thought of reporting what I planned to do to mission control. But I decided against it. I did not want to create nervousness on the ground. And anyway, I was the only one who could bring the situation under control.
But I could feel my temperature rising dangerously high, with a rush of heat from my feet traveling up my legs and arms, due to the immense physical exertion all the maneuvering involved. It was taking far longer than it was supposed to. Even when I at last managed to pull myself entirely into the airlock, I had to perform another almost impossible maneuver. I had to curl my body around in order to close the airlock, so Pasha could activate the mechanism to equalize pressure between it and the spacecraft.
Once Pasha was sure the hatch was closed and the pressure had equalized, he triggered the inner hatch open and I scrambled back into the spacecraft, drenched with sweat, my heart racing.
The serious problems I had experienced when reentering the spacecraft were, thankfully, not televised. From the moment our mission looked to be in jeopardy, transmissions from our spacecraft, which had been broadcast on both radio and television, were suddenly suspended without explanation. In their place Mozart’s Requiem was played again and again on state radio. My family was therefore spared the anxiety they would have had to endure had they known how close I came to being stranded in space. They were also spared the trauma they would have suffered had they known the grave danger that Pasha and I faced in the hours that followed. For the difficulties I experienced reentering the spacecraft were just the start of a series of dire emergencies that almost cost us our lives.
Just five minutes before our retro-engine was due to start dropping us out of orbit, I checked our instruments and realized our automatic guidance system for reentry was not functioning correctly. We would have to switch off the automatic landing program. This meant we would have to orient the spacecraft before reentry manually, and would also have to select our landing point manually and decide on the exact timing and duration of the retro-rocket firing. We knew our landing would have to be performed during our next orbit and that, despite our best efforts, we would be coming down off-target—1,500 kilometers [930 miles] west of where we were supposed to land.
As our orbit brought us above the Crimea, we received the first ground control communication we’d had in some time. “How are you, Blondie? Where did you land?” It was Yuri Gagarin; he always called me “Blondie.” It was good to hear his voice. Even in such difficult circumstances he sounded full of warmth, even relaxed. But from what he was saying, it was clear mission control thought we had already landed.