RIP: First space-walk badass Alexei Leonov, who made it to 85 despite best efforts of Soviet machine

Looking back on Voskhod, Salyut, Soyuz, Apollo and having the right stuff

Astronaut Donald Slayton and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov together in the Soyuz Orbital, 1975
Astronaut Donald Slayton and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov together in the Soyuz Orbital, 1975 (Image: NASA)

Obit Alexei Leonov, the first man to float out of a capsule and into space, has died at the age of 85.

As well as his Voskhod 2 antics, Leonov commanded the Soyuz portion of 1975's Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) and, in an alternate history, could have walked on the Moon. He was also notable for dodging disaster, be it his infamous spacewalk or being dropped from Soyuz 11.

Voskhod 2

Leonov was a member of the first group of Soviet Air Force pilots selected for cosmonaut training in 1960. While his colleague, Yuri Gagarin, would go on to take the first historic flight into orbit, Leonov's trip to space would come on the two-man Voskhod 2, launched on 18 March 1965.

The preceding mission, Voskhod 1, had consisted of three crew members shoehorned into the tiny capsule (without space suits) in what was arguably a bit of a publicity stunt by the Soviet authorities. The final mission of the Voskhod programme would see two cosmonauts garbed appropriately for a jaunt outside the spacecraft.

The Voskhod featured an inflatable airlock that extended once in orbit and allowed Leonov to exit the capsule. His main goal (aside actually venturing into space) was to attach a camera to the airlock in order to record his spacewalk as well as take some snaps of Voskhod 2 itself. The first task was simple enough. The second, less so.

Leonov's pressurised suit had ballooned in space, becoming rigid to the point where he was unable to operate the camera or, significantly, re-enter the airlock. He was forced to reduce the pressure of his suit below safety limits in order to get back some flexibility in the joints and eventually rejoin Pavel Belyayev in the capsule.

He wrote later: "I knew this might expose me to the risk of oxygen starvation, but I had no choice. If I did not re-enter the craft within the next 40 minutes my life support would anyway be spent."

Naturally, as soon as things began to go south for Leonov, the authorities cut all transmissions from the spacecraft, replacing them with recordings of Mozart's Requiem, usually reserved for when a senior politico had died, but before an official announcement was made.

The crew had no inkling of this, and even after the near tragedy of Leonov's spacewalk and a struggle to close the hatch, the Voskhod 2 mission had yet more challenges for its crew. Or "dire emergencies", as Leonov put it.

First there were oxygen pressure issues then the pair realised that the automatic guidance system for re-entry was not working correctly. "There was nothing for it but to deactivate the automatic system," Leonov recalled.

Belyayev would later tell US astronaut Dave Scott (retold by Scott in the book Two Sides to the Moon) that he was "the first cosmonaut to bring his mission back to Earth on manual control".

The problems continued through the descent, with the expected separation of orbital and landing module not happening as planned. "We started to feel gravity pulling us in the opposite direction," recalled Leonov. "My instruments indicated 10Gs".

With horror, he realised what was happening. A communication cable was keeping the two modules connected and sending the stack into a spin. It finally broke free at an altitude of 100km.

And the landing? Thanks to all the shenanigans, the duo landed 2,000km beyond Perm, in deepest Siberia, necessitating a freezing night in the malfunctioning capsule. The thickly forested area prevented recovery by helicopter and a failed heater combined with a jettisoned hatch made for a miserable night in sub-zero temperatures in spite of warm clothes and supplies dropped from above.

It would be another night before the cosmonauts were able to ski to a recovery zone.

Around the Moon

While the commander of Voskhod 2, Belyayev, never flew again, Leonov was picked to command a Soyuz spacecraft on a circumlunar flight. The Soviet space programme had, by this stage, begun to fall behind that of the US, at least in terms of boots on the Moon, and Leonov could only look on as preparations for Apollo 8 got under way in earnest.

His own mission was dependent on the success of uncrewed Zond missions. The first to circle the Moon and return safely to Earth was Zond 5, in September 1968. "Many of us cosmonauts," wrote Leonov, "were pushing for the next flight to be a manned circumlunar mission." However, the next launch, Zond 6, was also uncrewed and did not go so well. The capsule depressurised just before re-entry, killing all the animal subjects onboard and a premature deployment of the parachutes led to a crash landing.

As Apollo 8 successfully orbited the Moon a few weeks later, "it felt as if everything I had been preparing for so hard over the past few years had been a waste," wrote Leonov, "I was filled with a deep apprehension that they might cancel our lunar programme."

His fears were soon realised as plans for a manned circumlunar mission were dropped following the landing of Apollo 11, and Leonov's hopes to walk on the lunar surface were dashed thanks to the USSR's monster N-1 rocket proving to be explosively unreliable.

Leonov's spacewalking experience would have proven invaluable for the method planned for transferring cosmonauts from the Soyuz to the lunar lander but, like the circumlunar programme, the axe soon came down on the manned lunar landing programme as well.

"The cancellation of our manned lunar programme was a devastating personal blow," he said. "I was very upset and angry. I felt I had wasted the best years of my life on a project I was not being permitted by our political leaders to realise."

Drawing on Salyut

While the US may have beaten the Soviet Union to the Moon, the USSR's Salyut programme was a better bet for the long term, and Leonov was assigned to command the first crewed station, Salyut 1. His mission, aboard Soyuz 11, was due to launch after an earlier failed attempt to dock with the Salyut by Soyuz 10.

Launched ahead of the Soyuz carrying the crew, Salyut 1 contained everything needed for a long duration mission, including Leonov's art materials.

Leonov was a keen artist and hoped to make use of his time on orbit to sketch the experience. His desire to do so, which had involved him loading Salyut 1 with his art materials, attracted the ire of the bosses when a problem developed with the station's ventilation systems: "How come your colouring crayons are up there causing problems?"

Worries that the thread holding Leonov's supplies together had somehow become entangled with the spacecraft's machinery were soon shown to be unfounded. Although Leonov had other problems on his hands.

Thanks to one crew member coming down with a lung problem (later traced to an insecticide used at Baikonur), the trio were switched out for the backup crew. First, just the affected cosmonaut, Valery Kubasov, was swapped for his substitute, Vladislav Volkov. Then, with just 11 hours before launch, the entire crew was changed amid fears that Kubasov might have been infectious.

Leonov was due to launch a month after the return of Soyuz 11.

During the preparations for the return of Soyuz 11 as the mission concluded, Leonov was at the Mission Control centre in Kalingrad, near Moscow. While the crew were setting up the air vents between the landing and orbital modules of the Soyuz, "I advised them to close the vents and not to forget to re-open them once the parachute had deployed."

The instructions, Leonov admitted, "deviated from the flight regulations", but he reckoned this was the safest the procedure, having trained for the mission. "There was a danger," he wrote, "that if the automatic procedure was followed, that the vents might open prematurely at too high an altitude and the spacecraft depressurise."

The pressure equalisation vents did indeed open too early and the crew were dead before the Soyuz reached the ground.

Salyut 1 burned up in the Earth's atmosphere before investigations were complete and another crew could visit and, once more, Leonov was reassigned. This time to the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP).

A last hurrah for Apollo

Leonov's second, and last, flight to space was in 1975 as commander of Soyuz 19, the Soviet portion of the ASTP. The mission occurred during a brief thawing of relations between the US and Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and saw the last Apollo capsule dock with Leonov's Soyuz on 17 July 1975. The two spacecraft were connected by an airlock also hauled up by NASA's last Saturn 1B to fly.

The mission, the first time a US astronaut and Soviet cosmonaut come face to face in orbit, was a great success, and a relief for the all-too-often disappointed Leonov. As he wrote in Two Sides of the Moon: "At that moment I felt that everything I had been through in my career as a cosmonaut – all the disappointments and very difficult years – had been worth it. This was the highlight of the mission. Few experiences before and after have been able to touch the elation I felt then."

To celebrate the mission, Leonov handed two of the American crew, Tom Stafford and Deke Slayton, tubes branded as Russian vodka. To the alarm of those watching from the ground he proceeded to down the contents and invited Stafford and Slayton to do the same. Stafford followed suit, only to discover that the promised vodka was actually borscht and blackcurrant. Leonov had replaced the labels.

Leonov also presented the Americans with sketches he had made of them during training, writing on the bottom: "Welcome to Soyuz – come again".

It would be many years before another US astronaut clambered into Soyuz as politicos on the ground resumed their stand-off.

Leonov's last mission ended with him able to further his passion for art in space: "Once again I had taken my crayons and paper with me" before a successful landing on 21 July.

Chief Cosmonaut, Buran and retirement

After his final mission, Leonov went on to become "Chief Cosmonaut" but would be faced with more frustration as the Soviet space programme began to struggle.

Leonov had been part of a group set the task of designing a "winged spacecraft of a shuttle type" in 1968, the proposal for which was summarily rejected by the Ministry of Defence. As NASA's Columbia crept closer to launch, a worried USSR kicked off work on its own effort – the Buran.

Leonov observed one major difference between the two orbiters. And no, it wasn't the missing Space Shuttle Main Engines in the aft of Buran. "While the Americans brought the shuttle in to land under pilot control, Buran was brought back to Earth by an automatic guidance system, which was a great deal more costly and time-consuming."

The argument over manual versus automatic control had been ongoing throughout the Soviet programme: "I had always believed that the manual control system should be primary, not secondary." Certainly, the Voskhod 2 experience had taught Leonov a valuable lesson.

"But the engineers won," he recalled. "Buran was designed with an automatic system. We lost time because of this." Buran would eventually fly just once before a lack of funding and political will did for the vehicle.

As for Leonov, he "retired" from the space programme in 1992 having been in discussions to take over as director of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre during 1991.

Unfortunately, those he had been in discussion with went on to play a role in the attempted coup against then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. When the coup failed, Leonov received an order that his military service, and with it his duties with the cosmonaut corps, was to be terminated.

Despite being twice Hero of the Soviet Union (following Voskhod 2 and ASTP), Leonov's time was at an end. "It was a stab in the back," he wrote later, "I felt betrayed. Everything I had dedicated my life to seemed to count for nothing."

Leonov would go on to pursue a career in private industry as well continuing to work with the Association of Space Explorers. He was also hauled before a meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee to explain the naming of the spacecraft in Arthur C Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two.

"The crew of the spaceship Alexei Leonov consists of Soviet dissidents!" he was informed.

Declaring the committee "not worth the nail on Arthur C Clarke's little finger", Leonov left in disgust.

Writing in 2004, Leonov declared he had few regrets, other than not getting to walk on the Moon. A favourite expression of his, he wrote, was "Seize the day."

"It is the motto by which I believe life should be lived."

Further Reading

The life of Alexei Leonov has been well documented over the years, although we'd recommend a dip into the excellent Two Sides of the Moon, published in 2004 and co-authored by Leonov with US astronaut David Scott. Energiya-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle published by Springer Praxis is also well worth a read. Slayton's book Deke! was a handy resource for us, as was We Have Capture: Tom Stafford and the Space Race by the eponymous astro.

To get a feel for Leonov's famous spacewalk, we'd recommend a viewing of the 2017 film Spacewalk (also referred to as The Spacewalker or The Age of Pioneers), which can be picked up on a variety of media or viewed on Amazon Prime. ®

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