First Person to Walk in Space: Historic Milestone in Space Exploration | History Hit

First Person to Walk in Space: Historic Milestone in Space Exploration

Celeste Neill

29 Apr 2023
Alexei Leonov on 1965 USSR 10 kopek stamp
Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first person to walk in space marked a historic milestone in space exploration. On 18 March 181965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov achieved this remarkable feat during the Voskhod 2 mission. Stepping out of the spacecraft, Leonov floated freely in the vacuum of space for approximately 12 minutes, tethered to the spacecraft by a 5.35-meter-long umbilical cord. This groundbreaking event paved the way for future spacewalks and opened up new possibilities for human exploration beyond the confines of Earth’s atmosphere.

Leonov’s spacewalk was not without challenges but his pioneering accomplishment marked a significant advancement in space technology.

The race for space

During the latter half of the 20th century, the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were engaged in a conflict known as the Cold War. Although there was no direct fighting between them, they competed in proxy wars and sought to demonstrate their technological superiority on a global scale.

One prominent manifestation of this competition was the “Space Race”, in which both sides vied to achieve milestones in space exploration ahead of the other. These milestones included sending the first human into space, which was achieved by Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961, and landing the first person on the Moon, accomplished by NASA’s Neil Armstrong in 1969.

Space historian Jay Gallentine tells Don how World War 2 weapons paved the way for space rockets, igniting a space race between the USA and the USSR that would see the first projectiles, satellites and people leave Earth’s atmosphere.
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The first spacewalk

On 18 March 1965, Soviet astronaut Alexei Leonov made history by becoming the first human to perform a spacewalk. Leonov, wearing his spacesuit, exited the Voskhod 2 spacecraft through an inflatable external airlock. This innovative airlock had been specially designed to eliminate the need to depressurise the entire capsule, which could have potentially damaged the instruments on board.

During his spacewalk, Leonov spent just over 12 minutes outside the capsule, secured to it by a short tether. However, the spacewalk was not without challenges. Leonov faced difficulties with the stiffness of his spacesuit, making it challenging to control and complete tasks. He also encountered issues with the length of his tether, which caused him to float away from the spacecraft, requiring him to use his thrusters to return to safety.

Dangerous return

On the return from the historic spacewalk, Alexei Leonov faced a dangerous dilemma. His spacesuit inflated due to the lack of atmospheric pressure in space, making it impossible for him to fit back into the cramped airlock chamber. With a limited supply of oxygen and the orbit of his spacecraft soon passing into the Earth’s shadow, Leonov made the risky decision to reduce the pressure inside his suit using a valve, risking decompression sickness.

To further compound his problems, the effort of pulling himself back to the capsule using the tether caused Leonov to sweat, resulting in impaired vision due to the liquid in his helmet. Despite these difficulties, Leonov persevered and eventually managed to squeeze back into the chamber, overcoming the obstacles and safely returning to the spacecraft.

Leonov (left) with Deke Slayton in the Soyuz spacecraft. Image credit: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet more close calls

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

Alexei Leonov played a pivotal role in the history of space exploration. In addition to his groundbreaking spacewalk, Leonov later commanded a historically significant mission – the Soviet half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. This mission, which took place in 1975, marked the first joint space mission between the United States and the Soviet Union, representing a symbol of the improving relations between the two superpowers during that time.

Following this historic mission, Leonov went on to command the cosmonaut team and oversee crew training at the prestigious Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre. His leadership and expertise in space exploration continued to contribute to the advancement of Soviet space programs, leaving a lasting legacy in the field of space exploration.

Celeste Neill