On March 18, 1965, Alexey Leonov, a Russian cosmonaut, stepped out of a thin metal shell of a spacecraft, and floated into space. The name of this craft was Voskhod 2, and Leonov spent 12 minutes and nine seconds of what was to be glorious exploration outside the craft. It nearly cost him his life.
The Russians were intent on being the first to carry out a spacewalk, and cosmonauts Leonov and Pavel Belyayev were sent into orbit on the Voskhod 2 in order to do just that. Once the outer hatch was opened, it took Leonov just two minutes on his 5 meter tether to achieve free floating bliss in space.
But that bliss was just a dream
Leonov had but three orders once arriving in space, attach a camera to the airlock, document the spacewalk with a camera attached to his chest, and well, survive.
He survived and he was able to attach the airlock camera, however, documenting the first spacewalk via the chest camera proved impossible. His space suit inflated too much, due to the camera attached to his chest, therefore he was unable to reach the shutter button attached to his thigh.
This may seem innocuous, however, due to the suit inflating beyond Leonov’s true size, it caused the suit not to perform its duties properly. His body temperature increased by 1.8 degrees Celsius, almost causing a heat stroke in the cosmonaut. In interviews, he noted that he felt as if he were “sloshing around in his suit”.
In a BBC report he stated: “My suit was becoming deformed. My hands had slipped out of the gloves [and] my feet came out of the boots. The suit felt loose around my body. I had to do something. I couldn’t pull myself back using the cord. And what’s more, with this misshapen suit, it would be impossible to fit through the airlock.”
He was able to use a valve fitted on the suit to release enough pressure to fit through the airlock, however, the nitrogen content in his blood caused what could be best described as the “bends”, space version.
Even after he was safely inside the spacecraft with Belyayev, the problems didn’t stop. The inflatable airlock’s ejection caused the spacecraft to spin, and another malfunction had sent oxygen levels climbing.
Leonov has stated in many interviews in the following years that thinking back, the mission was fraught with errors. Their trajectory was off, by quite a bit, and they were flying some 200 kilometers higher than planned, 5 kilometers below the radiation level.
Sounds like they needed Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson to work out those figures.
But what impressed Leonov the most, was what has been said by many cosmonauts and astronauts alike; the feeling of being small compared to the universe. Being able to see Earth from space, and realizing how tiny we are in comparison to the rest of what’s out there. At times, he said, it was overwhelming for him, being able to hear his breath, looped through his helmet, being fed to control, that his own thoughts seemed to reverb through his head.
A fun fact, the very sound of Leonov’s breathing was recorded and later infused into the soundtrack of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It may not have been a perfect mission, but Leonov got to take a walk, 53 years ago today, that’s surely a walk to remember.