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Leonov performs the world's first spacewalk

On March 18, 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov exited the Voskhod-2 spacecraft, becoming the first person to float in open space protected only by a spacesuit. After several minutes outside culminating with a struggle to get back through the airlock, Leonov managed to re-join the mission commander Pavel Belyaev in the pressurized cabin.


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The spacewalk

Right after reaching orbit, the crew of Voskhod-2 started preparing for the main task of the mission — a spacewalk. According to Leonov, "a command to unseal the airlock was given immediately after the spacecraft had reached orbit." (740)

While the spacecraft was out of range of communications with Soviet ground stations, Belyaev issued commands to inflate the airlock. (71)

He also helped Leonov don his backpack life-support system and both cosmonauts pressurized their spacesuits.

During the first orbit, the spacecraft crossed the Pacific, then flew over the southern tip of South America, and crossed the Atlantic and Africa.

As the spacecraft reappeared over the USSR during the second revolution, Leonov opened the hatch into the airlock and entered it at around 11:30 Moscow Time. (741) The hatch into the descent module was then closed behind him. (84) He was apparently ready for exit ahead of schedule. (18) The airlock was then depressurized.

Around an hour and a half after liftoff, Leonov successfully exited the airlock into open space. "I am Almaz-2, I am on the edge of the airlock," Leonov radioed as he got out, "I am feeling great, see clouds below and sea."

Despite instructions to fully close his shade visor, Leonov only did it halfway. "The sunlight hit me like welding sparks," he later remembered. (18) Despite a bright sunny day, the perfectly black sky was full of stars!

He saw Bulgaria, Greece and Italy, first, then moving his head in other direction, he saw the Baltic Sea and then the Volga River and the Ural mountains at practically the same time. (740)

Leonov removed the cap from the camera on the edge of the airlock, apparently triggering its operation. He then reportedly tossed it into emptiness of space and it disappeared, sparkling in the distance. (741)

The spacewalk was recorded by a movie camera and also transmitted by a TV system. Leonov talked via voice communications through his tether. (2)

He pushed himself away from the spacecraft and floated freely in space at the full length of his five-meter-long tether, which was attached to him at three different points. He then pulled the safety tether to get himself back to the vehicle, only to repeat the process again. (739)

While floating back toward the spacecraft, he pushed the surface of the spacecraft and was even apparently able to move the six-ton vehicle. Inside, Belyaev confirmed that he was able to hear Leonov hitting the spacecraft's surfaces. (741)

"Man entered open space," Belyaev shouted into the mike. (18)

Leonov apparently also had a still camera attached to his chest with a shutter button on his side, which was supposed to make a historic shot of the Voskhod in orbit. However, no such image ever appeared or, apparently, been taken. (18) NASA astronauts would later bring back plenty of images of their Gemini spacecraft, after never having a chance to photograph the Mercury spacecraft in orbit.

One possible reason that Leonov never got around to photographing his spacecraft is that shortly after the beginning of the spacewalk his suit became overblown and deformed. Particularly, his fingers got out of the gloves and feet from the boots and he felt he was floating "free" inside his ballooned spacesuit. He became concerned that it would be impossible in such conditions to reel up his tether and return to the spacecraft. To make matters worse, in five minutes, Voskhod-2 with Leonov still outside was expected to enter darkness on the night side of the Earth. Without telling anything to ground control, Leonov claimed he had made the decision to drop the pressure inside his suit by half. (740)

Next, he struggled to detach the movie camera on the edge of the airlock and push it inside, ahead of himself. He then tried to enter the airlock legs first as required by the instructions, but after several attempts and even after lowering pressure in his suit, still failed to do it. Finally, he dove into the airlock head first, he later remembered, even though a video footage taken by a camera on the internal hatch of the spacecraft and released soon after his death, clearly showed him entering the airlock legs first.

At the time, Leonov's pulse rose to 143 beats, his breath frequency tripled, his body temperature rose by 1.8 degrees in 20 minutes, reaching above 38. (He reportedly lost six kilos in a day) His sweat apparently filled his spacesuit up to his ankles, but ultimately, he was able to turn around inside the airlock, so he could reenter the spacecraft with his feet first. (18) Once again, contemporaneous documents and available footage do not support this dramatic turn of events.

After the repressurization of the airlock, Leonov, along with the camera, rejoined his commander in the cabin of Voskhod-2, for several hours of rest and sleep. (18) As he opened his helmet and could finally wipe his forehead, sweat was filling his eyes. (740)

At the time, Voskhod was approaching the edge of communications in the East of the USSR. (741)

According to the official data, Leonov spent 20 minutes in vacuum, including 12 minutes and 9 seconds beyond the spacecraft, going as far as five meters away from the spacecraft. (2) The external hatch of the airlock remained opened for 16 minutes. (84)

However, after the closure of the hatch, the cabin was apparently not sealed properly. As a result, an automated life-support system attempting to compensate for the problem overfilled the capsule with oxygen, leading to a fire hazard inside in case of an accidental spark. The crew managed to reduce the flow of oxygen to a safe level only shortly before the scheduled reentry of the spacecraft. (18)

During the rest of the 26-hour mission, Leonov conducted observations of the night and sunset on Earth. (739)

The article by Anatoly Zak; Last update: May 19, 2024

Editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: March 18, 2020

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Leonov floats outside Voskhod-2 in March 1965. Credit: RKK Energia