On March 18, 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov stepped out from his Voskhod 2 spacecraft into the void of space and performed the first spacewalk in the history of space exploration.
Today’s (March 18) story of what happened this day in Science, Technology, Astronomy, and Space Exploration history.
The first spacewalk or EVA (Extravehicular activity) in the history of space exploration
On March 18, 1965, Soviet crewed space mission Voskhod 2 was launched into space carrying Aleksey Leonov and Pavel Belyayev aboard. On the second orbit around Earth, Leonov left the spacecraft through the airlock while still tethered to the vessel and became the first human to climb out of a spacecraft in the void of space.
While outside, he took motion pictures and practiced moving outside of the spacecraft for 12-minutes 9-seconds.
Voskhod 2 made a total of 17 orbits at between 167 kilometers (104 mi) (perigee) and 475 kilometers (295 mi) (apogee) above the earth.
Moscow, we have a problem
The first spacewalk nearly ended in disaster.
Leonov’s spacewalk was hailed as yet another great success for the Soviet Union in the space race against the United States. Yes, it was a major step forward in the history of space exploration, but it was only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the west found out the truth.
It may well have been made to look like a flawless success by the Soviet Press, but, in fact, the mission was teetering on the edge of a disaster from the moment Leonov stepped out of the airlock of Voshod 2 spacecraft until the crew was rescued from the vast frozen forests of northern Russia.
Voskhod 2 was launched at 11:00 AM on the morning of 18 March 1965.
90 minutes after the launch, at the end of the first orbit, Leonov began his spacewalk, 475 km (295 mi) above Earth, while the other cosmonaut of the two-man crew, Pavel Belyayev, remained inside.
But things didn’t go as they were expected. As he pushed himself away from the spacecraft, he immediately entered a spin, jolting to a stop at the end of his 5-meter (17 feet) tether.
Leonov’s only tasks were to attach a camera to the end of the airlock to record his spacewalk and to photograph the spacecraft. He managed to attach the camera without any problem. However, after a few minutes into the spacewalk, when he tried to use the still camera on his chest, Leonov noticed that his spacesuit was unexpectedly ballooning in the vacuum of space.
He was unable to reach down to the shutter switch on his leg. Making things worse, his hands and feet were slipping out of the boots and gloves, his suit had stiffened, due to ballooning out and he realized that it might soon become impossible to re-enter the narrow airlock.
He had only about five minutes of daylight left before the spacecraft will be on the night side and it will be totally dark. Without referring to ground control, he made the decision to slowly vent air from his spacesuit in order to be able to bend the joints, eventually going below safety limits, until there was less than half the pressure remaining. But he was under the risk of suffering from decompression sickness now.
At this point, realizing that the mission was experiencing difficulties, Soviet state radio and television had stopped their live broadcasts from the spacecraft.
The low pressure worked and the suit regained its correct size. Leonov finally pulled himself into the airlock headfirst when he should have gone in feet first, causing him to struggle as he tried to turn around in the narrow airlock. This extra struggle caused his body temperature to soar, approaching the danger zone for heatstroke.
Eventually, Leonov made it back into the capsule. But the danger was far from over. After Belyayev jettisoned the airlock, he discovered that the hatch wouldn’t seal properly, and to make things worse, Voskhod’s automatic climate control system was trying to compensate by increasing the oxygen pressure in the capsule.
In this super-oxygenated environment, any spark could ignite an unstoppable fire, the very scenario which had killed Valentin Bondarenko four years earlier as he was in training to become a cosmonaut, and what would go on to kill the crew of Apollo 1 in 1967.
The two cosmonauts worked to lower the oxygen pressure, also the temperature and humidity. They finally managed to lower the oxygen pressure under safety limits. But it wasn’t the end of problems for the mission.
Voskhod spacecraft was fitted with an automated re-entry system, but it failed. On the next orbit, the crew had to make a manual re-entry burn instead, something no one had done before. The spacecraft was so cramped that the two cosmonauts, both wearing spacesuits, could not return to their seats to restore the ship’s center of mass for 46 seconds after orienting the ship for re-entry.
During the manual re-entry, the orbital module did not properly disconnect from the landing module, causing the spherical return vehicle to spin wildly until finally, the connecting straps burned up the heat of re-entry, and the modules disconnected at 100 km.
Now the crew had little control of where they would land. They made the decision to try and land in the Taiga, a vast and almost completely uninhabited forest in the far north of Russia.
The 46-seconds delay changed their trajectory and pushed the craft 386 kilometers from its intended landing point. The spacecraft finally landed at 9:02 GMT on March 19th in the thick snowy forests of the Ural mountains.
No one at ground control actually knew where the spacecraft has landed. The two cosmonauts had to spend the night in the woods in minus 25 °C (-13 °F), as they waited for their emergency radio transmissions to be picked up and their position located. But the area was so heavily forested that the rescue helicopter had to land 9 kilometers (5.6 mi) away and the rescuers had to ski to the landing point.
Recent accounts report Cosmonaut Leonov violated procedure by entering the airlock head-first, then became stuck sideways when he turned to close the outer hatch, forcing him to flirt with decompression sickness (the “bends”) by lowering the suit pressure so he could bend to free himself. Recently, Leonov said that he had a suicide pill to swallow had he been unable to re-enter the Voskhod 2, and Belyayev had been forced to abandon him in orbit.
Despite being hailed internationally for its success, the failures of the mission led to the cancellation of the Voskhod program. Leonov’s famous spacewalk effectively marked the end of Soviet supremacy in space.
A few months later, the head of the Soviet space program, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev died unexpectedly on January 14, 1966. But the Special Design Bureau 1 (OKB-1) pushed on to develop the Soyuz, a much more capable vehicle that was first operated in 1967 and is still in use today. The Soyuz has proven itself to be the most reliable long-term ride into orbit to date.
Video of Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk, the first spacewalk in history of space exploration
Related: Top 20 Longest Spacewalks in History