Alexei Leonov (1934-2019)

Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov,the first human to walk in space, has died in Moscow aged 85. One of the legendary pioneers of the first decade of crewed spaceflight, he later commanded Soyuz 19 as the Soviet part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Following the announcement by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, NASA interrupted its live coverage of a spacewalk outside the International Space Station to report his death.

Although I’ve been fascinated by science, astronomy, and spaceflight since at least the age of five I have little memory of the early spaceflights, but Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk on 18 March 1965 sticks very strongly in my mind. It was just after lunch at school when a teacher told us that a man had walked in space from the spacecraft Voskhod 2 and the class was given the unusual (in a school where there was pretty well zero interest in science) and extremely welcome assignment of painting a picture of the event.

The extraordinarily rapid pace of developments in spaceflight was a product of Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thanks to the efforts of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, the Soviet space program had racked up a remarkable series of ‘firsts’ including the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1), the first photographs of the far side of the Moon (Luna 3), and most dramatic of all, the first human in space (Yuri Gagarin). The United States was galvanised into a response – in 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA; and in 1962 Kennedy made his famous speech committing the United States to reaching the Moon before the end of the decade.

By the end of 1963, six Russians and six Americans had flown in space, all of whom had flown solo (to this day, Valentina Tereshkova remains the only woman ever to have gone into space alone). Following the conclusion of the successful Mercury program, the US was now working on Gemini, a spacecraft that would carry a crew of two and intended to pave the way for the Apollo Moon-landing project. The Russian response was Voskhod, which basically involved shoehorning three cosmonauts into a modified single-seat Vostok spacecraft. Safety features including ejector seats and spacesuits were omitted to save space. Despite this, the Voskhod 1 mission on 12 October 1964 was a success, though the flight only lasted just over a day. It was also an eventful day back on Earth: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was deposed and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.

As intended, the mission sent a strong message to the Americans that the Soviet space program meant business, and the Russians still hadn’t finished. Thus, on 18 March 1965 at 07:00 UTC, Voskhod 2 was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. On board were mission commander Pavel Belyayev, 39, and Alexei Leonov, then aged 30. Instead of a third crew-member, Voshkod 2 was equipped with an inflatable airlock.

Ninety minutes after liftoff, Leonov exited the spacecraft via the airlock to perform his epoch-making EVA. In his own words “I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in. I was mesmerised by the stars. They were everywhere – up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”

Only much later was it revealed just how close the essentially makeshift mission had come to disaster. The inflatable airlock was necessary because Voskhod 2’s instrumentation had not been designed to operate in a vacuum, and hence the spacecraft itself could not be depressurised. When, after an EVA of 12 minutes, Leonov attempted to return to the spacecraft, he found that his spacesuit had ballooned and its joints had consequently stiffened to the point where he could not re-enter the airlock. He was forced to take the drastic step of bleeding off air from the spacesuit, to below safety limits, before he could bend the suit’s joints. The problems did not end there. There were difficulties in resealing the hatch after the spacewalk, and problems during re-entry resulted in Voskhod 2 landing 386 km (240 miles) away from the intended landing site. Leonov and Belyayev spent an uncomfortable night in the forests of Upper Kama Upland at temperatures of -5 degrees Celsius before a rescue party arrived the next day.

Gemini made its first crewed flight just days later, on 23 March, and its second between June 3 and June 7. On this second flight, on June 3, Ed White became the first American to perform an EVA. Alexei Leonov’s space walk would be the last time that the Russians would beat the Americans in space. Leonov was slated to land on the Moon in a craft known as the LK (‘Lunniy korabl’, or lunar craft), which was basically a much smaller single-seat version of the US Lunar Module. But the mission never took place: problems with the N1 rocket and Korolev’s death early in 1966 finally ended Soviet hopes of beating the Americans to the Moon. The Russians turned their attention to space stations in low earth orbit, which in the long run was far more useful than simply duplicating the efforts of the United States.

Leonov’s second and final space flight took place nine years after his first, in July 1974. It was the era of Détente, and relations between the two superpowers had improved to the point that a joint spaceflight was planned. This became known in the West as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in which an Apollo and a Soyuz spacecraft would rendezvous and dock in low earth orbit. The Soyuz 19 crew comprised Leonov in command and Valeri Kubasov as flight engineer. The unnumbered Apollo spacecraft was crewed by Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton.

Both spacecraft were launched on 15 July. The rendezvous and docking took place two days later at 16:19 UTC. Three hours later, Leonov and Stafford shook hands through the open hatch of the Soyuz: it had been calculated that the handshake would take place over Bognor Regis, but delays meant that the two spacecraft were over France by the time it happened. After just under two days docked, Soyuz and Apollo parted company at 15:26 UTC on 19 July, and Soyuz landed back on Earth on 21 July. Apollo remained in space for a further three days, splashing down on 24 July. Although relations between Russia and the West have remained fractious, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program opened up an era of cooperation in space that continues to this day.

Following his second spaceflight, Leonov became head of the cosmonaut team and oversaw crew training. He remained in this role until his retirement in 1992. He was also an accomplished artist whose works include the painting Near the Moon. On the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, he took coloured pencils and paper with him into space, where he sketched the Earth and drew portraits of the Apollo astronauts.

Alexi Leonov is commemorated by a lunar crater to the south of the Moscow Sea on the far side of the Moon. Arthur C. Clarke’s 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two features a spacecraft named Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov
Born: 30 May 1934
Listvyanka, West Siberian Krai, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union

Died: 11 October 2019 (aged 85)
Moscow, Russia