Today in History: First Man Walked in Space, 1965
On March 18, 1965 — 50 years ago today — the first man walked in space, but not without drama. Soviet Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov exited his Voskhod* 2 spacecraft and spent 12 minutes “walking” in space at 30,000 kpm (18,600 mph), some 500 kilometers (310 miles) above the Earth’s surface. Leonov was tethered to his spacecraft by a 5.35 meter-long (17.5 feet) umbilical cord of cables. Leonov later said that he felt “almost motionless, floating above a vast blue sphere.” But his thought to himself, “Wow, the Earth really is round,” was quickly interrupted by an unexpected call from Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, asking Leonov how he was doing in a live television and radio broadcast across the Soviet Union. Leonov responded perfunctorily, “I’m feeling perfect…” and then, feeling energized by Brezhnev’s call, Leonov later said,
“The tranquility of space was profound — far greater than anything you might imagine on Earth from diving deep beneath the surface of an ocean. And I felt a huge desire to disturb this motionless environment by moving my body … as much as I could... I felt like a seagull with its wings outstretched, soaring high above the Earth.”
Leonov’s desire to “disturb” the peace caused him to make a “hefty push” away from the airlock; and he started immediately tumbling uncontrollably. Only the umbilical cord stopped his out-of-control tumble into space. As Leonov grabbed the cord and pulled himself back toward the spacecraft and its airlock from which he emerged and would have to re-enter, he realized it was time to end his walk. But during these first 12 minutes alone in space, Leonov had become hot and sweaty from being in the sun and from his exertion to reel himself back toward the spacecraft. Even more critically, Leonov’s spacesuit had inflated like a balloon in the vacuum of space, and he could not fit back into the spacecraft through the airlock. The airlock was a narrow, collapsible set of interconnected rubberized canvas cylinders. After trying to squeeze into the airlock feet first as he had practiced during hundreds of hours of weightlessness training (in 30 second segments of airplane created weightlessness), Leonov concluded he would have to go in head first by opening the pressure valve on his suit and letting out a little oxygen at a time, as he tried to squeeze back into the airlock. And he had no time to discuss the matter with ground control as his oxygen supply would be running out in minutes.
Leonov was able to re-enter the airlock head first, and then he had to curl his body around in a condensed somersault in order to close the airlock and activate the mechanism to equalize pressure between it and the spacecraft. When he finally got back in the spacecraft, he was drenched in sweat and his heart was racing. But the first space walk by man had been achieved safely!
About an hour and a half later, the airlock contraption was jettisoned by detonating small explosive devices. Unplanned, the explosions caused the spacecraft to twirl (about 3 complete rotations a minute), and there was only enough fuel left to make one correction for proper re-entry alignment. And then Leonov and his partner noticed the oxygen pressure in their cabin was moving from its normal 160 mm to 460 mm, and the possibility of a single spark from electrical circuitry causing a massive explosion. By lowering the temperature and humidity in the spacecraft, they were able to stabilize the oxygen pressure. When the automatic landing systems went into operation, the twirling of their space capsule finally stopped. However, the automatic guidance system for re-entry began to malfunction and the twirling started again. So the two cosmonauts took manual control of their spacecraft. Ground control had thought the spacecraft had landed, but the cosmonauts explained what had happened and that they would be landing far off-course — in deepest Siberia in 2 meters of thick snow! Leonov joked to his fellow cosmonaut when they landed, “In 3 months, maybe, they’ll find us with dog sleighs.”
Fortunately, although Mission Control was not receiving radio communication (because the spacecraft had landed so far off-course), a cargo plane picked up their signals. All military and civilian aircraft in the area were ordered to join in the search. A day later a team of skiers, including 2 doctors, found their spacecraft. Another day later, a larger rescue team arrived to chop down trees so that a helicopter could land and take the cosmonauts home safely!
*Voskhod means “sunrise.”
•First Spacewalk (length 02:20): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYIsICOWAxQ
•Rare color footage of first spacewalk (length 01:08): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAPBRvd8OTY
•Alexei Leonov. At the Edge of the Abyss (2009 documentary in Russian) (length 52:00): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eelrj_j5UNE
• Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race
by Astronaut David Scott (first man to drive on the Moon) and Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (first man to walk in space)http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0312308663/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0312308663&linkCode=as2&tag=historyknowledge-20&linkId=YOFYYURA5BMYUBOV
•Top: Actual photo of Alexey Leonov, first space walker: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/2014/newsspec_9035/index.html
•Bottom Left: Alexey Leonov in his spacesuit. http://ut-images.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Alexei-Leonov.jpg
•Bottom Center: drawing of Voskhod 2 showing airlock extension:
•Bottom Right: model of Voskhod 2 and spacewalker Leonov.