Alexei Leonov, almost 50 years ago, became the first person to walk in space — an incredible moment in the history of humankind, and more immediately, in the race to conquer space, pitting what were then the world’s two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, against each other as the Cold War played out in the black void of space.
But while the U.S. conducted its space missions in full public view, with both its spectacular successes and tragic failures unfolding for the world to see, the Soviets conducted much of their space program in secret.
Now, for the first time, Leonov has revealed the full, terrifying story of his historic March 18, 1965, space walk — a real-life version of the movie Gravity that is every bit as suspenseful and thrilling, but far more frightening because it’s 100 percent real.
Leonov, now 80-years-old, but 34 at the time he walked in space, tells his incredible tale in the new BBC Four documentary Cosmonauts: How Russia Won The Space Race.
Leonov’s space walk lasted for all of 12 minutes — mere moments compared to the routine six-hour space walks undertaken by today’s astronauts on the International Space Station. Film of a recent space station space walk can be viewed at this link.
But on that day in 1965, Leonov had only one goal on his mind — get back inside the Soviet Voskhod 2 space capsule alive.
Problems started when it became quickly clear that the Soviet engineers who designed Leonv’s space suit did a slipshod job anticipating what the total absence of air pressure in space would do to the suit — and the man inside. Shortly after exiting the space craft’s air lock and floating into space, connected to his mothership only by a 15-foot cable.
Leonov’s suit began to puff out and fill with air, loosening around his body as he floated hundreds of miles above Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, which were clearly visible beneath him, making Leonov feel “like a grain of sand” when he looked down at the planet beneath his feet.
But when the suit began inflating, his only concern was staying alive. Time was running out. he had five minutes before the space capsule orbited onto the darkened, nigh side of the Earth, blocking out the sun and leaving him in pitch black darkness.
The bloated space suit also would have made it impossible for him to fit back through the air lock.
Leonov opened a valve to let some air out of the space suit out, a step causing rapid decompression that also could have killed him. But he had no choice.
“My suit was becoming deformed,” Leonov told the BBC. “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.”
Now he was blacking out as well, and the extraordinary effort it now took to pull himself back toward the capsule caused him to sweat so much he could no longer see out of his space helmet. Leonov says he lost about 13 pounds in the short time he was in space.
When Leonov finally got himself back to the space capsule, he entered the ship head first — the wrong way, yet another life-threatening predicament.
“It was the most difficult thing — I’m in this suit and I had to turn around in the airlock. But with the perspiration, I couldn’t see anything.”
Even when Alxei Leonov somehow made hims way back into the capsule, the danger was only just beginning. The space ship was filling with oxygen and about to explode.
For the full, hair-raising story of man’s first venture into space outside a ship, watch the amazing 90-minute BBC documentary, which can be viewed above.