‘The Stars and Sun Are Everywhere’: 50 Years of Spacewalks

Today marks five decades since cosmonaut Alexey Leonov became the first human to walk in space

Gemini 4
The first US spacewalk had astronaut Edward White use a compressed gas "zip gun" for maneuvers Gemini4 Mission/NASA

Fifty years ago today, Russian Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov did something no human had ever done before. He jumped out of a spacecraft and into space. "The silence struck me," he recalls, according to RT.com. "I could hear my heart beating so clearly. I could hear my breath — it even hurt to think."

He says that his heavy breaths were recorded and broadcast back to Earth, later to be used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this video of the first spacewalk, a narrator and music hide the silence, but Leonov bobs and floats at the end of his umbilical-cord-like tether. He drifts in front of the blue Earth and across the inky blackness of space. His historical walk lasted 12 minutes.

Less than three months later, on June 3, 1965, the Americans would catch up, and Edward White would be the second human to walk in space. The early efforts especially were challenging: space suits were awkward to maneuver, and the first walkers had difficulty getting back into the spacecraft. Leonov had to bleed some of the oxygen out of his suit to fit back in the airlock, pulled himself in head first instead of feet first and apparently lost six kilos, much of it in sweat, reports the Guardian

White spent 23 minutes maneuvering to the end of his tether and back three times. At first he could use a hand-held gun designed to propel him, but after just three minutes the fuel on that device ran out, NASA writes. He had to twist his body and pull on the tether to get back. The efforts were exhausting but when asked to come back, White had the following exchange with Gemini 4 commander James McDivitt, reports Time:

McDIVITT: They want you to get back in now.

WHITE (laughing): I’m not coming in . . . This is fun.

McDIVITT: Come on.

WHITE: Hate to come back to you, but I’m coming.

McDIVITT: OK, come in then.

WHITE: Aren’t you going to hold my hand?

McDIVITT: Ed, come on in here … Come on. Let’s get back in here before it gets dark.

WHITE: I’m coming back in . . . and it’s the saddest moment of my life.

The photos of humans in spacesuits floating, tethered and free, that we’ve gathered over the last half century give some small hint as to what these explorers have experienced.

Astronauts Story Musgrave, left, and Don Peterson float in the cargo bay of the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Challenger during their April 7, 1983, spacewalk on the STS-6 mission. NASA
Astronaut Bruce McCandless II floats farther away from the space shuttle Challenger than anyone had ever been before during the first untethered spacewalk in 1984. He used the Manned Maneuvering Unit. STS-41B/NASA
Astronaut Alfred M. Worden during the first deep space extravehicular activity (EVA, the technical name for spacewalk). Worden retrieved film cassesttes from two cameras while 171,000 nautical miles from Earth, returning from the Moon NASA
Spacewalks continue to this day. Astronaut Alexander Gerst takes a selfie during an October 7, 2014 spacewalk NASA
Astronaut Stephen K. Robinson, STS-114 mission specialist, anchored to a foot restraint on the International Space Station’s Canadarm 2, participates in the mission’s third spacewalk, in 2005. NASA
Edward White during the first U.S. spacewalk. He was attached to Gemini 4 with a 25-foot tether Gemini4 Mission/NASA
Later spacewalks were routine. Here astronauts Robert L. Curbeam (USA) and Christer Fuglesang (Sweden) work on building the International Space Station STS-116 Shuttle Crew/NASA
Some of the challenges faced during space walks -- stiff suits -- can be anticipated by training underwater, NASA quickly learned. Here Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio train at NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center NASA

Of course, not all spacewalks were a dream. Many were dangerous. The third ever spacewalk lasted 2 hours and 7 minutes for Eugene Cernan of Gemini 9A. His visor fogged over completely, his pulse raced and he had trouble getting back in the spacecraft. He called it the "spacewalk from hell," BBC reports.

Yet the men and women continued to step out of the relative safety of spacecraft to make vital repairs, launch and activate the satellites and instruments we use to study space. And each and every time they get an amazing view. Leonov remembers, "While from inside the spacecraft cosmonauts could see only a small fraction of the scenery, outside the stars and the sun are everywhere… I did not expect all this."