On 18 March 1965, a representative of humanity gained a view that only God or another space traveler had ever experienced: The view of Earth from high above the atmosphere—unhindered by the walls of any spacecraft—was truly remarkable, like a vast atlas, laid out before Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov … without the borders or lines. His Extravehicular Activity (EVA), or “spacewalk,” lasted just 13 minutes and ended as the Voskhod-2 craft passed over the frozen wastes of eastern Siberia, when his commander, Pavel Belyayev, radioed instructions to return inside. The tranquility of floating in the sea of fathomless blackness must have been difficult to leave, but Leonov started his move back toward the airlock. Not until many years later would it become clear how close the world’s first spacewalk came to disaster.
Outside, his motions had been graceful and effortless, but getting himself back into the airlock required tremendous strength, for Leonov’s suit ballooned, making it extremely difficult to bend. It was, he wrote in his autobiography, Two Sides of the Moon, “impossible to re-enter the airlock feet first,” and his sole option was to break mission rules and gradually ease himself back inside, headfirst. It was later reported that this caused the cosmonaut to get stuck, sideways, when he tried to turn and close the outer hatch. He realized that he needed to relieve some of the pressure in his ballooned suit to move more easily and began bleeding off some of the oxygen using a valve in its lining. Leonov was steadily becoming aware that the suit behaved quite differently in space to how it had behaved during ground trials.
Even after reducing the oxygen pressure, the problem of turning himself around in the 4-foot (1.2-meter)-diameter airlock remained. “I literally had to fold myself to do this,” he said later. “I spent tremendous effort trying to do this. I had a total of 60 litres [of air] for ventilation and breathing, which was not enough for this kind of action.” Doctors would later discover that he almost suffered heatstroke—his core body temperature rose by 1.8 degrees Celsius—and Leonov later described himself as being up to his knees in sweat. It was not an idle comment; the sweat sloshed around in his suit as he moved. What seemed like an eternity had actually lasted barely a quarter of an hour. Leonov was back inside the airlock by 11:47 a.m. Moscow Time, and the outer hatch was shut by 11:51 … a mere 17 minutes from depressurization to the beginning of repressurization.
Shortly thereafter, with both pilots safely inside the main Voskhod-2 craft, Pavel Belyayev fired pyrotechnic bolts to eject the airlock. Unfortunately, this explosive effect sent the ship into a 17-degree-per-second roll—10 times higher than predicted—and it was soon realised that they would have to put up with it for the remaining 22 hours of the mission; fuel levels were running low. Little could they have known that their real troubles were only beginning. First came a sharp rise in the cabin oxygen pressure, which risked an explosion if it triggered an electrical short. The cosmonauts reduced Voskhod’s temperature and humidity, but the pressure remained critical, and they spent a sleepless night with eyes warily watching the gauges. At length, the pressure fell below the critical level and, thankfully, the irritating roll stopped, allowing them a few moments of tranquil flight.
Finally, after 16 orbits of Earth, the time came for re-entry. From the outset, this went badly wrong. A solar orientation sensor had failed, probably due to the effect of pyrotechnic gas from the jettisoned airlock, and Belyayev found himself obliged to perform a manual firing of Voskhod-2’s retrorockets. The two men used the “Vzor” (“Visor”) optical viewfinder for orientation, and it would appear that this kept them out of their seats for a while, delaying the retrofire by almost a minute. Coupled with an incorrect attitude, this conspired to bring them down not onto the barren steppe of Kazakhstan, but into the snowy taiga of Siberia. Soviet relations with China were not good at this time, and neither cosmonaut found the notion of landing in the People’s Republic a desirable option.
At Belyayev’s command, the retrorockets fired. Next, the Voskhod’s instrument section should have separated from the main body of the craft. It failed to do so, and with growing horror the two men could only watch as it trailed behind them, still connected by cables. Not until they reached an altitude of 60 miles (96 km), when the cables burned through and the instrument module fell away, did the plunge through the atmosphere begin to stabilize. Descending lower, the capsule dropped into a thick canopy of cloud. Darkness surrounded them. Then it grew even darker. “I started to worry that we had dropped into a deep gorge,” Leonov wrote. “There was roaring as our landing engine ignited, just above the ground, to break the speed of our descent.” At last, Voskhod-2 settled to Earth with a thump.
They had landed in 6 feet (1.8 meters) of snow, somewhere in the western Ural Mountains, to the north of the industrial city of Perm. It was a little after midday in Moscow, and the recovery forces were hundreds of miles away. In the outside world, no one knew what had happened to Belyayev and Leonov. Radio Moscow played Mozart’s Requiem and Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, in a somber manner, which convinced many that the pair had been killed. Tracking stations quickly confirmed where the craft had landed, but it was four hours before any word came through as to the men’s health. A message over the high frequency radio channel, picked up by a station in Kazakhstan, reported “Everything normal,” but no one could breathe easily until contact was made. Eventually, the capsule was spotted by a search and rescue helicopter. It was wedged between a pair of fir trees on the forest road between Sorokovaya and Shchuchino, not far from the town of Berezniki.
Despite having been found, it was not possible to get to the cosmonauts, so inhospitable was the terrain and so treacherous was the snow. Helicopters were unable to land until loggers had cleared a path for them, and although one civilian pilot attempted to lower a rope ladder the men’s suits were too heavy to risk climbing it. As dusk neared on the 18th, other aircraft dropped supplies—wolf-skin boots, thick trousers, jackets, an axe, and even a bottle of cognac—to sustain Belyayev and Leonov through the night.
As the last vestiges of daylight vanished, the temperature dropped precipitously and the pool of sweat in Leonov’s boots started to chill him. Fearful of frostbite, both men stripped naked, wrung out their suits and underwear and separated the rigid sections from the lining, which they then donned, together with boots and gloves. Their attempts to pull the snagged parachute from the trees for extra insulation proved fruitless. As night approached, the snow started falling and temperatures plummeted still further to -30 degrees Celsius. Leonov related a cold night in the capsule, but stories would abound over the years that they were harassed by wolves which prevented them from disembarking and building a fire. Still others argued that mountain bears drew near Voskhod, and others that they were troubled by other “strange noises” from the dense taiga.
Leonov, for his part, mentioned nothing of this, although he admitted that when an Ilyushin-14 aircraft flew overhead at daybreak, the pilot revved his engine to scare away wolves. Later that morning, another helicopter reported seeing the cosmonauts chopping wood and setting a fire. At 7:30 a.m. Moscow Time on 20 March, a helicopter lowered a rescue team, including two doctors, a mile (1.6 km) from the capsule, and the first efforts began to fell trees to provide a suitable landing spot. Visibility was too poor to risk lifting them to a hovering helicopter, and, as a result, the cosmonauts spent a second night in the dense taiga, together with their rescuers. “But this second night was a great deal more comfortable than the first,” wrote Leonov. “The advance party chopped wood and with it built a small log cabin and an enormous fire. They heated water in a large tank flown in especially by helicopter from Perm … And they laid out a supper of cheese, sausage and bread. It seemed like a feast after three days with little food.”
It was a welcome relief to be with other human beings. At length, two landing spots were cleared, one of which lay just a few miles from the capsule, and on the morning of 21 March the cosmonauts skied there. They were then airlifted to Perm airport for a telephone call from Leonid Brezhnev and finally returned to Baikonur, more than two full days after landing. Belyayev and Leonov would be rewarded and decorated for their efforts: both received the coveted Hero of the Soviet Union award, together with 15,000 roubles, a Volga car, and six weeks’ leave. Their mission had secured yet another propaganda victory with which to taunt the United States, but the cosmonauts of Voskhod-2 had learned through bitter experience that the space environment is a harsh and notoriously unforgiving mistress.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on Gemini VIII, a March 1966 mission whose intention was to clear several key hurdles in America’s race to the Moon … but which almost ended in the deaths of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott.