Aleksei Leonov, 1934–2019
The cosmonaut who made the first spacewalk
On March 18, 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov left the inflatable airlock of his two-person Voskhod 2 capsule and became the first person to walk in space. Leonov spent 12 minutes maneuvering outside the craft, marveling at the stars as he orbited Earth at 18,000 mph. But when he tried to re-enter the capsule, Leonov found he couldn’t fit through the hatch. His pressurized spacesuit had ballooned in the vacuum of space and become almost rigid. Leonov slowly deflated his suit by releasing oxygen, putting himself at risk of decompression sickness, and eventually squeezed back inside the spacecraft. “I was drenched with sweat, my heart racing,” he said, but that “was just the start of dire emergencies which almost cost us our lives.”
Leonov was born in Siberia, one of 12 children of a coal miner turned farmer and his wife, said The New York Times. When Leonov was 3 years old, his father was “falsely denounced as an enemy of the state” and sent to a gulag; he was cleared and released several years later. At age 6, Leonov “met a Soviet pilot and became enthralled by aviation.” He joined the air force in 1953, trained as a fighter pilot, and in 1960 was part of the first group selected for cosmonaut training. It would be decades before the world learned how close Leonov and fellow cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev came to disaster on their historic mission, said The Times (U.K.). While re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, the Voskhod 2 spun out of control so furiously that “blood vessels burst in the men’s eyes.” The cosmonauts crashed in the remote Siberian forest more than 1,000 miles from their intended landing spot and spent two freezing days in the wilderness awaiting rescue.
In 1969, Leonov had another brush with death, said The Washington Post. He was in a motorcade entering the Kremlin when a gunman opened fire; the shooter had wanted to kill Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. “I looked down,” Leonov later said, “and saw two bullet holes on each side of my coat where the bullets had passed through.” He returned to orbit in 1975 for the first joint U.S.-Soviet space effort, docking his capsule with an Apollo spacecraft. Through a connecting portal, Leonov shook hands with NASA astronaut Thomas Stafford. “If we could have gotten together earlier,” Leonov said in 1990, “we would be flying to Mars right now.” ■