The Story of How the First Spacewalk Almost Ended in Disaster

March 18, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Image of first space walk by Aleskey Leonov
Photo credit: Paukrus/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Image has been cropped

51 years ago today.

Astronauts train for countless hours here on Earth, but there are always risks in space that we cannot predict. On March 18, 1965, when Soviet cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov stepped out of his spacecraft and into space, he was the first human to ever do so. It was during the Cold War and the Space Race, and the Soviets beat the Americans to the feat by almost three months.

Firsts are always exciting, but they also come with an extra element of danger — nobody knows quite what might happen. The first ten minutes of the spacewalk outside the Voskhod capsule went well for Leonov, but his re-entry into the airlock was a bit of a different story.

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“It was then [when it was time to come in] I realized how deformed my stiff spacesuit had become, owing to the lack of atmospheric pressure. My feet had pulled away from my boots and my fingers from the gloves attached to my sleeves, making it impossible to reenter the airlock feet first,” Leonov recounts in Two Sides of the Moon, a book he wrote with U.S. Apollo astronaut David Scott.

On Earth, atmospheric pressure keeps gas-filled vessels a certain size because the air inside pushes outwards with the same force as the air outside pushes inwards. However, because there is no air in space, the air inside Leonov’s suit was pushing outwards, but nothing was pushing it back in.

The cosmonaut’s best and only solution was to let some of the air out through a valve, but that wasn’t without risk; the air that caused his suit to expand was also the air he needed to breathe.

“At first I thought of reporting what I planned to do to mission control. But I decided against it. I did not want to create nervousness on the ground,” he remembers.

Despite the challenge, he managed to maneuver himself into the airlock. However, the re-entry was far from over. He needed to turn his body around in order to shut the door so that his partner, Pavel (Pasha) Belyayev, could activate the mechanism to equalize the pressure between the airlock and the capsule.

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Although most of the spacewalk was televised and Leonov’s family was quite distressed by it, as soon as it looked as though the mission might be in jeopardy, transmissions were suspended. Leonov explains that that spared his family and other viewers the anxiety they would have felt on his behalf. However, the transmissions were suspended without explanation so his audience must have wondered what was going on and why they were suddenly hearing Mozart’s Requiem playing in a loop rather than the previous radio announcements.

The spacesuit expansion was only the beginning of their technical troubles that day. Their automatic guidance system for re-entry failed, and they manually landed back on earth about 1250 miles (2,000 kilometers) from their intended target. They had to spend two nights in the forest before they could be properly rescued, yet Leonov’s report on his mission was short and clear: “Provided with a special suit, man can survive and work in open space.”

I guess that says it all.

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