To Swim in Space: The World’s First Spacewalk (Part 1)

Forty-nine years ago this month, Alexei Leonov became the first human to see the Earth, unhindered by the confines of a spacecraft, as God or another space traveller might see it. The experience almost cost him his life. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

From the moment he saw it, Alexei Leonov was captivated. He and a dozen other cosmonauts were touring the OKB-1 design bureau, near Moscow, with Chief Designer Sergei Korolev. Unlike the spherical Vostok capsules on the production line, one craft in particular was quite distinct; it possessed a long, cylindrical airlock, with a movie camera jutting out to one side. Korolev explained that sailors had to know how to swim and, by extension, cosmonauts should learn to “swim” in space. Shortly afterward, Leonov found himself in a space suit, practicing how to squeeze in and out of the airlock. When he had finished, someone clapped him on the back. It was his close friend, Yuri Gagarin. In a whisper, Gagarin told him that Korolev had just selected Leonov to perform the world’s first “spacewalk.”

Properly termed Extravehicular Activity (EVA), the spacewalk was nothing more than a cynical attempt by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to outdo the Americans, whose forthcoming Project Gemini would involve astronauts working outside their craft. In October 1964, plans accelerated for a two-man mission called “Vykhod” (“Exit”), during which Leonov would venture into the vacuum of space for 10-15 minutes. His crewmate, Pavel Belyayev, would remain inside, controlling the airlock. Unlike Gemini, whose hardened electronics could withstand the depressurization of the whole cabin, Vykhod’s avionics were more primitive and posed a greater risk of overheating. Consequently, Korolev opted for a separate airlock and his designers considered a variety of rigid and flexible designs (including a rolled-up spiral), before settling on a 36-boom cylinder which could maintain its shape, even in the event of a catastrophic pressure loss.

A metal ring would fit over Vykhod’s inward-opening hatch to provide access to the airlock, and a set of external oxygen tanks would automatically inflate and pressurize the chamber in just 7 minutes. Leonov and his backup, Yevgeni Khrunov, trained for the EVA aboard a Tupolev Tu-104 aircraft, which flew them on more than 200 parabolic arcs to simulate weightlessness for periods of around 30 seconds at a time. On the ground, they swam and lifted weights to build their upper body muscles. Elsewhere, the airlock was tested at pressure conditions equivalent to extreme altitude, and in February 1965—to avoid giving away its true nature—Vykhod was renamed “Voskhod-2.” Before committing Belyayev and Leonov to the daring mission, however, Korolev needed to run a fully automated test in Earth orbit. Late in February, Cosmos 57 roared into space, carrying a simulated airlock … and inadvertently blew itself up!

From the moment he saw it, Alexei Leonov was captivated by Voskhod-2 and its protruding airlock. Little did he know that he would be the first man to demonstrate it in space. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

Signals from the spacecraft, received by U.S. intelligence agencies, indicated that the airlock was successfully inflated and testing of the hatch was in progress, when a pair of ground stations mistakenly issued simultaneous commands. The two commands confused the spacecraft, which interpreted them as an instruction to commence re-entry, whereupon the retrorockets misfired and an on-board destruct system—designed to keep it from falling into enemy hands—was remotely triggered. Although the airlock had worked, Korolev was anxious. He had only one other Voskhod spacecraft ready to fly and needed the reassurance of a fully successful automated mission. He approached Belyayev and Leonov to give them the options: they could wait for a year or more, until another craft was ready, or they could accept the risk and fly immediately. “Very cannily,” wrote Leonov, in his autobiography, Two Sides of the Moon, “he added that he believed the Americans were preparing their astronaut Ed White to make a spacewalk in May. He knew how to get our competitive juices flowing. He must have known what we would say.”

Early on 18 March, three cosmonauts suited up together at the Baikonur launch site in today’s Kazakhstan, with Khrunov joining Belyayev and Leonov, ready to step into their shoes if necessary. He was not needed on this occasion and the men breakfasted on boiled eggs, a sip of champagne, a moment of silent reflection, and the bus ride out the launch pad. Belyayev was first aboard Voskhod-2, followed by Leonov, who had told his wife Svetlana simply that he would be embarking on “a particularly complex and challenging mission.” On the stroke of 10:00 a.m. Moscow Time, the mission got off to a spectacular start—the sensation, wrote Leonov, “felt as if we were being lifted vertically by a speeding train”—and the view of Earth from space was glorious. When the final stage of the rocket separated, the cabin fell quiet—an absolute, ethereal silence, punctuated only by the ticking of the clock on their instrument panel.

For a few minutes, Leonov felt uncomfortable. His confused senses convinced him that he was suspended, upside down, but at length the two men acclimatized and prepared to extend the airlock. Oxygen was pumped into small rubber tubes along the length of the chamber, inflating it from a stubby “coil” to a full extent of almost 7 feet. As Belyayev worked the controls, Leonov strapped on his breathing apparatus, with enough oxygen for 90 minutes outside, and entered the airlock. “I closed the hatch,” he wrote, “and waited for the nitrogen to be purged from my blood. With the pressure inside the airlock finally equal to zero pressure outside the spacecraft, I reported I was ready to exit.” When the outer hatch opened, Leonov was positioned on his “back” … and this orientation revealed the grandeur of the Home Planet in its entirety. His heart began to race as he pushed his upper body outside and beheld the deep blue vista of the Mediterranean Sea, fringed by the recognizable shapes of Greece and Italy and, farther east, the Crimea, the Caucasus Mountains, and Russia’s mighty Volga River.

Belyayev (foreground) and Leonov during Voskhod-2 mission training. For Sergei Korolev, who masterminded the planning for the world’s first EVA, it would be his life’s last great work. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

By now, he had pulled his feet onto the outer rim of the airlock and, confident that his tether would keep him securely anchored to the spacecraft, Leonov pushed away. The minutes which followed were electrifying in their drama and he would recall them, with the utmost clarity, even decades later. Humanity’s first EVA had begun at 11:34:51 a.m. Moscow Time, only 94 minutes after launch, and the first images from the bracketed movie camera were received at the Yevpatoria control centre in the Crimea shortly afterward. Unsurprisingly, the Soviets crowed about these images in the days that followed; they were fuzzy, revealing the top of Leonov’s helmet, together with his shoulders and arms, and later his entire body. Much speculation would arise over the years that the film was faked, that Sun-glint angles were not “quite right” for it to be authentic … but Leonov was disinterested in the politics. “I did not believe in all this boasting about who did what first,” he wrote. “If you did it, you did it!”

One man who was interested, though, was the new head of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev.

The world’s first spacewalk was as tranquil as a boat ride on a still lake. The rest of the mission would prove to be anything but tranquil.


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.



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  1. […”they could wait for a year or more, until another craft was ready, or they could accept the risk and fly immediately. “Very cannily,” wrote Leonov, in his autobiography, Two Sides of the Moon, “he added that he believed the Americans were preparing their astronaut Ed White to make a spacewalk in May. He knew how to get our competitive juices flowing. He must have known what we would say.””]

    Be careful with Leonov’s years-later recollections, he is a prodigeous story teller not averse to spicing up tales of heroism with later-learned facts. Prior to Leonov’s walk, the most ambitious plan for GT-4 was a hatch opening, stand-up in seat, then a hatch closing. After his walk, NASA began intensive simulations and training on the air-bearing floor [then located in Building 4, the astronaut office] to clear the way for a MUCH more ambitious activity. Leonov’s account here [as in many other portions of his book] seems to include themes he could only have learned AFTER the event.

  2. Ben, thanks for your continued high-quality, thoroughly-researched products. And thanks to Jim Oberg for his reminder about decades-old recollections (something I experience daily in my own memories).

    Note that you wrote, “he first images from the bracketed movie camera were received at the Yevpatoria control centre in the Crimea shortly afterward.” But you meant TV camera, of course.


  3. There is an interesting photo of Leonov and Belyayev riding the bus to the launch vehicle. Leonov is holding a pin wheel novelty and someone standing behind him (in military garb) is air brushed out of subsequent issues of the same photo (credit: Jim Oberg). I never knew the identity of this person.

  4. Belyayev could not have been the first to enter the vehicle prior to liftoff. Through the Voskhod hatch, the left seater must enter first before the right seater…the pilot. Training videos show this.

  5. Does anyone know how Belyayev and the commander before him, Komarov on Voskhod 1, position themselves to use the Vzor optical system out the left-hand seat to position the spacecraft prior to retro fire? The confines of the two spacecraft cabins must of made this alignment very difficult for the pilot to accomplish.

  6. I have been able to piece together much of this first spacewalk from both the TV camera angle and the film camera angle after years of collecting tidbits here and there. What I have never seen is the full raw footage taken from either one to this day from official Soviet sources. After a life’s work on the subject, I would love to see both. Can anyone assist me in recovering this most important, and historic, footage for all to enjoy?

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To Swim in Space: The World’s First Spacewalk (Part 2)