The first man to ‘walk’ in space was the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov on 18 March 1965 during the Voskhod 2 orbital mission.
The Space Race
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, USA and the USSR were embroiled in the conflict known as the Cold War. Whilst there wasn’t any direct fighting, they competed in proxy wars, as well as competitions to demonstrate their technological superiority on a global scale.
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One such manifestation was the “Space Race”, where the two sides would attempt to beat the other to the next milestone in space exploration, whether that be the first human in space (Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961), or the first person on the moon (NASA’s Neil Armstrong in 1969).
In 1965, the milestone achieved was the first EVA, or “spacewalk”, involving a person exiting a spacecraft whilst outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
The first spacewalk
Wearing his spacesuit, Leonov exited the capsule via an inflatable external airlock. This airlock had been specially designed to take away the need to depressurise the entire capsule, which might have damaged the instruments.
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Leonov spent just over twelve minutes outside the capsule, secured to it by a short tether.
But disaster struck. During his short ‘walk’ Leonov’s spacesuit inflated due to the lack of atmospheric pressure in space. This made it impossible for him to fit back into the cramped airlock chamber.
The space suit worn by Alexei Leonov on the first human space walk. On display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Image Credit Nijuuf / Commons
Leonov had only a limited supply of oxygen and soon their orbit would pass into the Earth’s shadow and he would be in pitch darkness. He took the decision to reduce the pressure inside his suit using a valve. He risked decompression sickness (the ‘bends’) but he had no choice.
To compound his problems, the effort of pulling himself back to the capsule using the tether caused Leonov to sweat and his vision became impaired due to the liquid in his helmet.
Finally, Leonov managed to squeeze back into the chamber.
Yet more close calls
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But Leonov’s close-call wasn’t the only misfortune to strike the Voskhod. When it was time to return to Earth, the spacecraft’s automatic reentry system failed meaning the crew had to judge the right moment and fire the retro-rockets manually.
They successfully reentered the Earth’s atmosphere but ended up landing far outside the planned impact area, in a remote snow-bound forest in the Ural Mountains.
Leonov and his companion cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev spent an uncomfortable and cold night surrounded by wolves. They were rescued the next morning.
Leonov’s later career
Apollo-Soyuz Test Project commemorative painting.
Leonov later commanded a similarly significant mission — the Soviet half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. This was the first joint US and Soviet space mission, a symbol of the easing relations the USSR and the USA were pursuing at that time. It was a symbol of co-operation that literally exceeded earthly limits.
He would then go on to command the cosmonaut team, and oversee crew training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.
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