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 5 of 5)
As news of our whereabouts was relayed from pilot to pilot in the area, more aircraft started to circle above us. There were so many at one point that we worried one would collide with another. But the pilots meant well. A bottle of cognac was tossed out of one plane; it broke when it landed. A blunt axe was thrown from another. Of far more use were two pairs of wolf-skin boots, thick pairs of trousers, and jackets. The clothes got caught in branches, but we managed to retrieve the warm boots and pulled them on.
But the light was failing fast and we realized we would not be rescued that night. We would have to fend for ourselves as best we could. As it grew darker the temperature dropped rapidly. The sweat that had filled my spacesuit while I was trying to reenter the capsule after my spacewalk was sloshing around in my boots up to my knees. It was starting to chill me. I knew we would both risk frostbite if we did not get rid of the moisture in our suits.
We had to strip naked, take off our underwear, and wring the moisture out of it. We then had to pour out what liquid had accumulated in our spacesuits. We went on to separate the rigid part of the suit from its softer lining—nine layers of aluminum foil and a synthetic material called dederone—and then put the softer part of the suits back on over our underwear and pull our boots and gloves back on. Now we could move more easily.
We tried for a long time to pull our capsule’s vast parachute out of the trees so we could use it as extra insulation. It was exhausting work, and we were forced to rest briefly in the snow. But as it grew even darker, the temperature dropped further still, and it began to snow much more heavily. There was nothing to do but return to the capsule and try to keep as warm as we could. We had nothing to cover the gaping hole left by the detached exit hatch, and we could feel our body heat dropping sharply as the temperature plummeted to below –22 degrees Fahrenheit.
The next morning we woke to the sound of an airplane circling overhead. Above the roar of the engines we could just hear voices in the distance. I took a signal gun and fired a flare. Slowly, a small group of men on skis came into view. Led by local guides, the rescue party included two doctors, a fellow cosmonaut, and a cameraman, who began filming as soon as he saw us.
It was to be another 24 hours before another team of rescuers could chop down enough trees to make a clearing big enough for a helicopter to land. We would have to survive another night in the wild, but this night was a great deal more comfortable than the first. The advance party chopped wood and built a small log cabin and an enormous fire. They heated water for us to wash in a large tank flown in especially by helicopter from Perm. And they laid out a supper of cheese, sausage, and bread. After three days with little food, It seemed like a feast.
By the next morning, we were ready to ski nine kilometers to a clearing where a helicopter was standing by to fly us to Perm. From there we were flown to our launch site at Baikonur, where we disembarked to find a large group waiting for us, headed by Sergei Korolev, our chief, and Yuri Gagarin. At first they looked serious, and seemed confused by our heavy jackets, polar hats, and wolf-skin boots. But as we approached, their faces suddenly broke into broad smiles. We hugged each other, laughed, and joked.
We were then driven in an open-top jeep to the town of Leninsk, followed by a motorcade that stretched for several kilometers. A government committee was awaiting our arrival, ready with many questions about our 26-hour spaceflight. We had to deliver reports on how our mission had gone. Mine was brief and to the point: “Provided with a special suit, man can survive and work in open space. Thank you for your attention.”