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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We had to get out of the spacecraft to assess our location, but that was not easy. When we flicked the switch to open the landing hatch, the explosive bolts holding it shut were activated and a smell of gunpowder filled the cabin. But, though the hatch jerked, it failed to open. Looking out of the window, we could see the hatch was jammed against a big birch tree. We had no alternative but to start rocking the hatch violently back and forth, trying to shift it clear of the tree. Then, using all his strength, Pasha managed to push the hatch away from the remains of the bolts, and it slid back and disappeared into the snow.

We took in a deep draught of fresh air and felt our lungs contract with the sudden blast of cold. After so many emergencies, the relief at drawing breath on Earth again was indescribable. We threw our arms round each other, slapping each other on the back as best we could in our bulky spacesuits.

We both squeezed out through the hatch, and sank up to our chins in snow. Looking up, we could see we were in the middle of a thick forest, a taiga of fir and birch. I tried to determine our approximate location by measuring the sun’s height above the horizon. But it soon disappeared behind the clouds. The sky grew darker and it started to snow, so we sought shelter back in the spacecraft.

Fortunately, Pasha and I were used to harsh climates. He had been born in the Vologda region, north of Moscow, and had spent much of his childhood hunting in the forest close to his home; his first ambition had been to become a hunter. I, dreaming of becoming an artist, had spent my childhood in central Siberia.

We were only too aware that the taiga where we had landed was the habitat of bears and wolves. It was spring, the mating season, when both animals are at their most aggressive. We had only one pistol aboard our spacecraft, but we had plenty of ammunition. As the sky darkened, the trees started cracking with the drop in temperature—a sound I was so familiar with from my childhood—and the wind began to howl.

Even though mission control had no idea where we were or whether we had survived, our families were informed that we had landed safely and were resting in a secluded dacha before returning to Moscow. Our wives were advised to write us letters welcoming us home.

We had no idea if our rescue signal had been received. It turned out later that Moscow had not received it, but it had been picked up by listening posts as far away as Bonn, Germany. More importantly, a cargo plane flying close to our landing site had also picked it up. A search party had been dispatched, and late in the afternoon, we picked up the sound of a helicopter approaching. We plowed through the thick snow into a clearing and stood waving our arms. The pilot spotted us. But we soon realized it was a civil aircraft, not a military one. He and his crew would have no idea how to rescue us.

They saw it differently. Eager to help, they tossed a rope ladder down to us and signaled that we should grab it and clamber aboard. It was impossible. It was a flimsy ladder and our spacesuits were too heavy and stiff to allow us to scale its rungs.

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.


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