Last week’s 55th anniversary of the world’s first spacewalk proved yet again that some of the most iconic events of the early Space Age can still be greatly misunderstood.
Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov made his historic sortie from the Voskhod-2 spacecraft on March 18, 1965, less than four years after his comrade from the original Soviet cosmonaut group—Yuri Gagarin—opened the human spaceflight era. Leonov’s 20-minute venture outside his spacecraft, attached to a five-meter safety tether, was one of the last of the early Soviet space firsts. It kept the USSR ahead in the Space Race until American astronauts finally caught up in the second half of the 1960s, culminating in the Apollo lunar missions.
After the tragic death of Gagarin in an airplane crash in 1968, Leonov emerged as one of the most prominent figures of the early Soviet space program. A talented artist, he dazzled the public with his depictions of historic missions and humanity’s future in space. He also served as a crew commander on the Soviet side of the 1975 Soyuz-Apollo flight, the high point of Russian-American space cooperation until the 1990s. Outgoing and approachable, Leonov granted numerous interviews over the years, including to me.
Not surprisingly, the story of Leonov’s dramatic spacewalk became familiar to historians and the general public alike, and the episode is commonly depicted as a close brush with death. Numerous books and articles have cited Leonov’s vivid descriptions of his desperate struggle to get back inside the spacecraft, while struggling inside a grotesquely ballooned spacesuit. His last-ditch, risky decision to drop pressure in the suit was the only thing that allowed him to squeeze himself back into the narrow, flexible airlock. With his air supply running low, Leonov recalled plunging into the airlock head-first instead of feet first, as he was supposed to. That led in turn to a seemingly impossible flip inside the claustrophobic airlock tube, before the exhausted cosmonaut could open a second hatch in the spacecraft and rejoin his commander Pavel Belyaev.
Except that’s not how it happened.
Contemporary documents and video footage have become available over the past year that tell a different story. In his own words—written immediately after the Voskhod-2 mission but made public only this month—Leonov said he had planned to drop the suit pressure all along: “(My) first attempt to (re)enter (the airlock) did not succeed...” he wrote. “Back on Earth, I thought up what to do if the first entry would not work. I was planning back on Earth to switch the pressure to 0.27 atmospheres (from nominal 0.4 atmospheres). My estimates were confirmed, that is exactly how it happened...”
In the same report, Leonov confirmed that he had been tired at the end of his spacewalk, but hardly exhausted, and only in comparison to his 25-second training sessions during parabolic flights on a weightlessness-simulating aircraft. Leonov describes a rather minor struggle to re-enter the airlock, but makes it clear he entered legs-first. He never mentions a desperate head-first dive.
“I had a thought about dropping the camera, but I felt very bad about giving it up and losing all that great material,” he wrote. “Then, I grabbed again with my both hands...the airlock’s edge and inserted both legs simultaneously, in advance, holding the camera in the right hand. After this, pulling myself in and holding with my left hand, I began inserting the camera with my right hand.”
The recently released footage [start watching at about the 1:00:30 mark of the Russian-language video below] unequivocally proves that Leonov re-entered the airlock feet-first, holding the camera exactly as described in his post-flight report. Which means, of course, that there was no harrowing flip inside the airlock.
In fact, unlike later accounts—including his own—of what’s often referred to as a near disaster, Leonov’s contemporary report is somewhat anticlimactic: “Oxygen supply in space was perfect, enough. The work was stressful but breathing was provided for. I did not experience a (major) heating of the whole body. The only thing I felt were the hot rays of the sun, (it) burned the face.”
This more toned-down account was hidden from magazine editors and documentary makers for more than half a century. Maybe there’s a reason we call the first Soviet space missions legendary!