The First Space Walk
Alexei Leonov, In Free Flow (1965). Painted by Alexei Leonov

The First Space Walk

20/09/2017Written by Will Sainty

How the first mission to walk in space nearly ended in disaster.

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Earth from orbit, 2003. Credit: NASA

Pushing himself out of the spacecraft’s inflatable airlock Alexei Leonov took the first step out into empty space.

The silence of the hard vacuum was a stark change from the spacecraft and the constant dull roar of its life-support system. Out here in space he could hear only his own breathing and heartbeat, constantly reminding him of his anxiousness. Looking out across the Earth he was the first to see it in its full breath-taking glory, horizon to horizon.

“So the world really is round”, he said to himself and for a few moments he was utterly alone.

It was 18 March 1965 and the Soviet Union had accomplished another first in space exploration: the first human to leave a spacecraft in the vacuum of space, a feat technically known as an ‘Extra-Vehicular Activity’ (EVA) or ‘spacewalk’ to most.

Having launched from Kazakhstan earlier that morning, the cosmonauts achieved orbit and Alexei’s comrade Pavel Belyayev helped him inside the Berkut (‘Golden Eagle’) spacesuit. Typical of Soviet technology in this era the Berkut spacesuit was a pioneering and untested piece of equipment that was barely enough to keep the cosmonauts alive, as Leonov would soon discover.

The Berkut spacesuit was a modified Sokol-1 suit from the Voskhod missions and provided just 45 minutes of oxygen and cooling. Unlike the sophisticated EVA suits that astronauts use today, with their complex water cooling, the Berkut suit rid itself of excess heat, moisture, and carbon dioxide by venting it directly into space via a small valve. After donning the spacesuit, checking it over, and inflating the airlock Alexei stepped out into space.

1965 Soviet Union stamp of the first space walk. Credit: Public Domain

1965 Soviet Union stamp of the first space walk. Credit: Public Domain

His moment of peace was broken by the burst of static from the radio as his comrade introduced the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, keen to learn about the progress of the mission. Alexei replied that everything was perfect, but this was not true. Things had begun to go wrong almost immediately.

As the pressure in the airlock decreased to zero, the soft spacesuit slowly ballooned to the point that Leonov’s hands were barely in his gloves and his feet slipped out his boots. Every time he moved his arms or legs he had to bend the stiff rubber of the suit and without gravity and a surface to provide leverage he was exhausted in minutes.

Adding to this was the fact that Leonov was beginning to die of heatstroke. He had exited the spacecraft facing directly toward the sun and the light was so intense that he was blinded and he began to cook inside his inadequately cooled suit. Sweat pooled inside the suit and had nowhere to go: the venting system failed and the air was saturated with moisture. When he reached the Earth, the sweat would fill up to his knees!

Despite his precarious situation, Leonov’s courage and sense of adventure won out. He wasn’t going to be the first man to put his head out an airlock; he was going to be the first man to do a spacewalk! He pushed away from the spacecraft, trusting in the umbilical, the tube attached to his suit providing him fresh oxygen, to get him back.  He tumbled through space until the umbilical stopped him and he set about accomplishing the only task that had been set for him in space: he recorded some video of his spacewalk. What might seem like a simple task took him 12 minutes in microgravity and in his awkward spacesuit.

Voskhod 2. Credit: Spacefacts.de
Berkut spacesuit. Credit: Memorial Museum of Astronautics (Moscow)

At this point Leonov knew he had to had to get back in the spacecraft despite his desire to float around longer. As he moved to push his body into the airlock – feet first as the mission commanders had planned – he quickly realised that his suit had inflated to the point that he could no longer fit into the airlock.

The normal procedure for when an astronaut encounters a problem during a mission is to radio to the control centre and wait for the scientists and engineers back on Earth to decide what they should do. This time, however, Alexei believed there was no time for discussion, he didn’t want them to panic, and he already had a plan.

Flirting with decompression sickness and oxygen starvation he opened the expulsion valve on his suit and vented the atmosphere into space.

With the reduction in pressure, going below safety limits, he could bend the suit again and pull his way into the airlock. However, the fact that he had gone in head-first meant he had to perform another seemingly impossible feat and somersault round to close the door behind him.

Somehow, he managed to flip himself in his still stiff spacesuit and cramped spacecraft, and shut the door. With the airlock re-pressurising, he was out of immediate danger.

In the 1960s, the public was not told about any of these technical faults. Instead the world heard that the mission had been a complete success, with Leonov’s manoeuvrability in space particularly exaggerated. The true details of his mission were only uncovered after the end of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The space race was in full swing and Soviet policy was to present only good news and save face where possible, and for good reason: with Project Gemini following soon afterwards, the USA finally caught up and surpassed the Soviet Space Programme.

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Learn more: Explore Deck 3 of our Rocket Tower for more Soviet space history

About the author: Will Sainty is a physics student at the University of Leicester and works as a Science Interpreter at the National Space Centre.