50 years of spacewalking

In 1965, Alexi Leonov became the first human to exit an orbiting spacecraft

Leonov's spacewalk was followed three months later when Ed White performed NASA's first spacewalk
Credit: NASA

Leonov’s spacewalk was followed three months later when Ed White performed NASA’s first spacewalk. Image Credit: NASA

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Fifty years ago today, on 18 March 1965, Russian cosmonaut Alexi Leonov made history by conducting the first spacewalk.

After opening the airlock on the Voskhod 2 spacecraft, he became the first human being to venture out into the vacuum of space.

“You just can’t comprehend it,” Leonov told the BBC in 2014.

“Only out there can you feel the greatness – the huge size of all that surrounds us.”

The event would be heralded as a triumph for Russia, but in reality the mission nearly had a tragic ending for both Leonov and his fellow cosmonaut, Pavel Belyayev.

After 10 minutes of floating in space, Leonov attempted to return inside the spacecraft when he realised something was wrong.

The pressure in his spacesuit had gone wrong, causing it to balloon around him.

“My suit was becoming deformed, my hands had slipped out of the gloves, my feet came out of the boots. The suit felt loose around my body.

I had to do something,” says Leonov.

He didn’t tell ground control what was going on, knowing there was no time for debate.

There was only one way to solve the problem: vent half of the air in his spacesuit to reduce the pressure.

It was risky, leaving him with little oxygen, but if he couldn’t get back inside the capsule, he knew he was going to die anyway.

Alexi Leonov in 1974.Credit: NASA
Alexi Leonov in 1974.
Credit: NASA

Troubled descent

The venting was enough to allow him to clamber back into the airlock and onto the ship, but the ordeal was far from over.

Just as the pair were about to enter the atmosphere, the re-entry system failed. They would have to burn their rockets manually.

Too short a burn, they would bounce off into space, too long and they would crash to Earth.

As they commenced re-entry, they could feel something was wrong.

The cable connecting the landing module to the rest of the spacecraft hadn’t detached, and they were spinning wildly.

The spin subjecting them to 10G of force, the limit of what the human body can handle and far higher than was expected.

Fortunately, at 100km above the Earth the connecting cable burned away, freeing the landing module and allowing its parachute to deploy, and Leonov and Belyayev landed safely in the middle of Siberia.

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After a night spent in the wilderness alone, surrounded by wolves, they were rescued and brought back to safety.