It has been 50 years when a man first set foot in space and that very first time almost took his life.
On March 18, 1965, Alexey Leonov stepped outside the thin metal shell of Voskhod-2 to float in the harsh void of space. For 12 minutes and 9 seconds, Leonov opened the doors on an entire new branch of exploration as the first spacewalker that was unluckily yet fortunately, nearly a disaster.
Leonov and the crew who followed him wore specially designed space suits, were tethered and later had helpful gadgets to move them around. Without the tether astronauts, they would have floated into empty space, with nothing to slow or change direction in frictionless space, with no rescue possible and only an inevitable death as their oxygen supply ran out. If this sounds daunting, imagine being the first ever to have faced this.
On March 18 , the Voshkhod-2 spacecraft had launched out of Baikonur, a spaceport in Kazakhstan still used by Roscosmos for launches today. The craft carried cosmonauts Alexey Leonov and Pavel Belyayev into orbit for a deceptively simple mission: to make the planet’s first spacewalk.
At 11:32:54 on that same day, Belyayev opened the outer airlock, exposing Leonov to space. Just under two minutes later, Leonov floated free of the Voskhod-2 spacecraft on a 5.35-meter tether. Between the hatches opening and closing again, Leonov spent just over 12 minutes in space.
Leonov’s mission was simple: to attach a camera to the airlock, document his spacewalk with a still camera on his chest, and survive. He managed the first and last task but the middle one proved impossible. His spacesuit inflated too much to use the chest-mounted camera. He couldn’t reach the camera’s shutter-switch on his thigh.
That first epic spacewalk was a very frightening event. No one knew that would happen.
Medical reports recorded that Leonov’s core body temperature jumped 1.8°C in just 20 minutes, pushing him dangerously close to heatstroke. He floated within his spacesuit, or as he’s more recently described it during interviews, sloshed in sweat within his spacesuit. Despite the restricted communication during the Cold War, even American publications acknowledged both the risk and the impressiveness of the feat. For its Marh 26, 1965 cover story, TIME described it:
As air escaped from the [spacecraft’s air lock], the vacuum of space reached into it like a monster’s claw. Though it must have been rehearsed on earth over and over again, this was surely a moment of hideous crisis.”
Leonov’s spacesuit had bloated and stiffened in the vacuum, and was too large and inflexible to reenter the inflatable 1.2-meter-wide airlock. Knowing that other nations were eavesdropping on their transmissions, Leonov broke protocol and didn’t report the situation to ground control.
He opened a valve to slowly release oxygen, depressurizing his suit until it was small enough to squeeze within the relative safety of the spacecraft. Despite breathing pure oxygen before exiting to reduce nitrogen in his bloodstream, this unplanned depressurization brought him to the edge with pins and needles.
But that’s still not the end of the story, when he was safely inside the Belyayev, ejecting the inflatable airlock sent the spacecraft into a spin. Worse, a malfunction sent oxygen levels climbing. They knew how risky this was: cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko died in a training accident in a low-pressure high-oxygen environment, after dropping a cloth on a hotplate. A single spark could cause an explosion and vaporize the craft.
Both astronauts tried every trick they could to drop temperature and bumped up the humidity to reduce the risk, but they were lucky that no later malfunctions caused any sparks within the craft. In an interview, Leonov reflects on how dangerous that first spacewalk was, still amazed they succeeded:
I keep going over the mission and I keep finding mistakes that could have been avoided. They could have led to tragedy, everything was on the edge. We were thrown to an altitude of 495 kilometers by an error, it [was]…200 kilometers higher than planned. And it so happened that we were flying some 5 kilometers below the radiation layer.”