Learning to Spacewalk

A cosmonaut remembers the exhilaration-and terror-of his first space mission

Voskhod 2 was Leonov's first spaceflight. Before becoming a cosmonaut, he flew MiGs. (NASA )
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In March 1965, at the age of 30, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov made the first spacewalk in history, beating out American rival Ed White on Gemini 4 by almost three months. Floating outside his tiny Voskhod 2 capsule for 10 exhilarating minutes, Leonov felt, he writes, “like a seagull with its wings outstretched, soaring high above the Earth.” In keeping with the secrecy of the Soviet space program, few people—not even his family—knew about the spacewalk ahead of time. Even less well known was how close Leonov and his crewmate, Pavel (Pasha) Belyayev, came to dying that day. In his recently published book, Two Sides of the Moon, written with U.S. Apollo astronaut David Scott, Leonov recounts the spacewalk and its even more dramatic aftermath.

From This Story

When my four-year-old daughter, Vika, saw me take my first steps in space, I later learned, she hid her face in her hands and cried.

“What is he doing? What is he doing?” she wailed. “Please tell Daddy to get back inside.”

My elderly father, too, was upset. Not understanding that the purpose of my mission was to show that man could survive in open space, he expressed his distress to journalists who had gathered at my parents’ home.

“Why is he acting like a juvenile delinquent?” he shouted in frustration. “Everyone else can complete their mission properly, inside the spacecraft. What is he doing clambering about outside? Somebody must tell him to get back inside immediately. He must be punished for this.”

His anger soon gave way to pride when he heard a live broadcast of President Leonid Brezhnev’s message of congratulations beamed up to me from the Kremlin via mission control.

“We members of the Politburo are here sitting and watching what you are doing. We are proud of you,” Brezhnev said. “We wish you success. Take care. We await your safe arrival on Earth.”

As I pulled myself back toward the airlock, I heard Pasha talking to me: “It’s time to come back in.” I realized I had been floating free in space for over 10 minutes. In that moment my mind flickered back for a second to my childhood, to my mother opening the window at home and calling to me as I played outside with my friends, “Lyosha, it’s time to come inside now.”

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.


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