On March 18, 1965, during a crewed mission on board the Soviet spacecraft Voskhod-2, for the first time ever a human being ventured into outer space. Enjoy a glimpse of this historic achievement through the eyes of the man who accomplished it — Alexei Leonov!
The crew of Voskhod-2 — 39-year-old commander Pavel Belyayev (callsign Almaz-1 (Diamond-1)) and 30-year-old pilot Alexei Leonov (callsign Almaz-2 (Diamond-2)), both members of the first team of Soviet cosmonauts. Their mission was the 12th crewed orbital flight in the history of space exploration. Voskhod-2 was a modified version of the three-seated Voskhod-1, sent into space a year earlier. In the reconfigured spacecraft one of the three seats was replaced with an exit hatch into an exterior inflatable airlock.
About one hour into the mission, the Voskhod-2 crew began preparations for the spacewalk, otherwise known as the EVA (extravehicular activity). From the main control panel, Belyayev activated the airlock. First, he turned the power on. Then he sent a command to the explosive bolts that kept the airlock folded. After that, air began to be pumped into 12 airbooms that unfolded the structure and made it rigid. The last preparatory step was to pressurize the airlock. At last, the exit chamber was ready. Next, it was Leonov’s turn.
A special space suit dubbed the Berkut (Golden Eagle) was designed for the Voskhod-2 crew. In contrast to its predecessors, the Berkut had an extra airtight layer and multilayer screen vacuum protection from low temperatures. The backpack life support system incorporating 3 two-liter tanks of oxygen was another unique solution. Assisted by Belyayev, Leonov put it on and hooked it up to the space suit. From that moment on, he was independent from the spaceship’s air system. The backpack tanks contained a 45-minute supply of oxygen. Belyayev flipped a switch on the control panel to open the hatch between the spacecraft and the airlock.
Once inside the airlock, Leonov attached a seven-meter-long lifeline to the space suit. The umbilical-cord-like lifeline consisted of a steel rope, an oxygen hose, that would provide oxygen in case the backpack life support system went out of order, and wires connecting the spaceship’s electronics to spacesuit sensors.
In case of any malfunction, there was a smaller set of backup controls inside the airlock in addition to the main one that Belyayev utilized to run the EVA equipment. Also, the outer and inner hatches could be opened and closed manually. Everything worked normally, though. Belyayev closed the inner hatch using the remote controls and then slowly depressurized the airlock. Starting from that moment, Leonov was in a vacuum. Belyayev opened the outer hatch. Then they had to wait for several minutes for permission from Mission Control to start the EVA. The diagram shows very clearly the surge of emotion at the moment Leonov heard the long-awaited command to go ahead.
Leonov’s first move after exiting the airlock was to take off the cover from the cine-camera that would film the legendary footage recording the first-ever spacewalk. Simultaneously, a Topaz-25 television camera was transmitting the image to Mission Control live, but the picture quality was far worse, though. Leonov made a slight push and slowly drifted away from the spacecraft. Belyayev solemnly proclaimed: “Attention! Man has gone out into outer space!”
The historical first-ever spacewalk was to occur while the spacecraft was flying over the Soviet Union. Firstly, for the sake of greater emphasis — the event was to become symbolic. And secondly, for clear communication. Several antennas (in Simferopol, Moscow, Leningrad and Ussuriysk) had been tuned to pick up the television signal. All of them were on Soviet soil. The closest upcoming orbit with a suitable trajectory was second. From the moment of lift-off, the crew had just 90 minutes to get ready for the experiment. The first two things that Leonov saw the moment he left the airlock was the Sun and the Caucasus Mountain Range: “There’s the Caucasus! I can see the Caucasus below!” And when he was back inside the airlock again, Voskhod-2 was already flying over Yakutia, in Siberia.
Although the main task had been successfully accomplished, Belyayev and Leonov had to wait for nearly 24 hours for a suitable moment for landing in the Soviet Union. They had enough time to take turns napping and eat four meals. At 12 hours and 2 minutes on March 19, 1965 the re-entry capsule touched down on the Earth’s surface in a dense taiga forest 180 kilometers away from the city of Perm.
The entire planet learned about Leonov’s spacewalk from the Soviet Union’s breaking TV newscasts. Pictures of Leonov floating in outer space next to the spacecraft were aired live. Newscaster Yuri Levitan read out a TASS report. It was the fifth “cosmovision session” — a term coined in the Soviet Union in those days for live telecasts from space. A short while later, a TV recording and the footage from the cine-cameras would be put together at the Shabolovka TV studios and made into a brief documentary entitled: In a Spacesuit Over the Planet. The Roscosmos TV Studio kindly shared the extracts from that film with TASS.
During the Voskhod-2 mission, several things went wrong. First, Leonov had problems with re-entering the spacecraft. Then, at a certain moment, the content of oxygen inside the spaceship expanded to a point where a fire could have erupted. Lastly, the spacecraft’s automatic control system went out of order. The crew had to carry out re-entry and landing manually and then spend two days in a dense forest waiting for rescue teams to arrive. The first major emergency, though, occurred when the spaceship was being orbited.
By mistake, Voskhod-2 was sent into an incorrect orbit, its perigee reaching 497.7 kilometers, while normal crewed missions hover at altitudes ranging 200–400 kilometers. As fate would have it, in spite of this all, Belyayev and Leonov set a record. Never before and never again has any other crew in the history of domestic space exploration ascended to an orbit so high. The world record would be established a year later when the US crew flying Gemini-11 entered an orbit at an apogee of 1,368.9 kilometers.
The EVA airlock, developed by the Zvezda research and production association, was the groundbreaking innovation that made the Voskhod-2 stand out. Its functionality had been tested during crewless flights by the Kosmos-57 and Kosmos-59 space probes. The Kosmos-57 was the Voskhod-2’s crewless version, orbited on February 22, 1965. The full cycle of airlock operations was tested. The airlock was unfolded and inflated, air was pumped into the Berkut spacesuit and a television signal was received. In the testing process, contact with Kosmos-57 was lost, though, and the self-destruction system activated itself. Although most of the operations were performed successfully, the system that was to jettison the airlock before re-entry remained unchecked. That test had to be made during the Kosmos-59 flight on March 7, 1965, just two weeks before the launch of Voskhod-2. The crewless Vostok-based spacecraft then successfully jettisoned the airlock before re-entry.
Several months after the Voskhod-2 mission, a Gemini 4 crewmember, Edward White, spent 20 minutes in outer space. And starting from the mid-1970s, EVA turned into a habitual routine. US astronauts Susan Helms and James Voss conducted the longest-ever spacewalk — 8 hours and 56 minutes — and Russia’s Anatoly Solovyov made a total of 16 spacewalks, having spent a total of 78 hours and 47 minutes outside the spacecraft. But it was Leonov who went down in history as the one who made the first step into the unknown.
Photos from the Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documents and the Cosmonautics Museum.
TASS expresses its acknowledgements for assistance in working on this project to the Russian space rocket corporation Energia, the Zvezda research and production association, the Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documents, Roscosmos TV Studio, the Cosmonautics Museum and personally to Sergei Gerasiutkin, Nikolai Dergunov, Mikhail Dudnik, Natalia Seliukina, Darya Simakina, Olga Filimonova and Irina Yakimenko.
This 3D reconstruction of Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk is a docufictional interpretation of the event. It is by no means a historically authentic chronicle.
Russian News Agency TASS (media registration certificate №03247 issued on April 2, 1999 by the State Committee of the Russian Federation for the Press). Some publications may contain information not meant for audiences under 16 years of age.
© TASS, 2020.