A hero of the Soviet space programme died on 11 October aged 85. Alexei Leonov was a friend and comrade of the legendary Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and his own major contribution was to be the first person to walk in space.
This feat was achieved in 1965 when Leonov was 30 years old. It took place 311 miles above the earth’s surface, while orbiting at about 19,000 miles an hours, where he exited his spacecraft, the Voskhod 2, and was plunged into the void, albeit at the end of a 5-metre long tether. He remained outside the craft for 12 minutes and 9 seconds.
At the time his actions seemed effortless, but that was very far from being the case. He in fact faced huge dangers, as those who are pioneers in exploration necessarily always know they are risking. In Leonov’s case, what had not been foreseen is that the absence of air pressure in space would cause his space suit to expand like a balloon, forcing his hands out of his gloves so that he could not grasp the tether so as to pull himself back inside the spacecraft, or even fit inside the craft’s airlock. The only option was to deflate his suit by dangerously releasing and letting out most of his oxygen supply, which enabled him to scramble back in just in time.
Even then he and his fellow cosmonaut on the voyage, Pavel Belyayev, were not out of danger because oxygen levels within the spacecraft were inexplicably rising, creating the possibility of an explosion should a single spark be engendered.
Worse was to follow when the automatic re-entry guidance system malfunctioned and subsequently the landing module failed to separate from the orbital module as fast as it should have done, with the result that the craft went into a spin with such force that blood vessels burst in the men’s eyes. Somehow the resourceful cosmonauts were able to avert disaster.
All this put the spacecraft off course for its landing, which took place not as scheduled but in the midst of dense, freezing, Siberian forest, 2,000 miles off course, where it took several hours for the craft and its two crewmen to be located and rescued. The cosmonauts wondered whether wolves or the rescue party would arrive first!
Notwithstanding the dangers he had faced on his first visit to space, Leonov continued his work as a cosmonaut and made another trip to space in 1975 as commander of the Soviet crew for the US-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. He later became the deputy director of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.
Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov was born in Listvyanka, Siberia, in 1934, one of 12 children. He trained as an air force and in 1960 was chosen to take part in the cosmonaut training regime. He married Svetlana Pavolovna in 1959, with whom he had two daughters, Oksana and Viktoria. His wife and daughter Oksana survive him.
Alexei Leonov, cosmonaut, was born on May 30, 1934 in Siberia. He died after a long illness on October 11, 2019, aged 85.