When you think of the big personalities in space flight, two names immediately spring to mind: Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. However, I think it's high time we added a third name to that list: Soviet cosmonaut, Alexey Leonov.
Of course, Gagarin is most commonly known as the first human in space, however that's also a claim Leonov could make - if he was a bit more pedantic. You see, Leonov was the first human to ever conduct a spacewalk, meaning he was literally the first astronaut to leave the relative safety of a spacecraft and enter the void of space.
His daring feat recently celebrated its 50th anniversary on March 18, 2015, and in celebration of this fact, we present this color footage of Leonov on his debut spacewalk.
Although the success of the spacewalk - and the Voskhod 2 mission of which it was a part - was seen as a great scientific and propaganda success for the Soviet space program, it actually nearly ended in tragedy several times. In fact, in a recent interview with the BBC, Leonov spoke frankly about the events of the spacewalk and the descent.
A Perilous Return to Earth
Although everything initially went as planned, about 10 minutes into the spacewalk Leonov noticed things were starting to go wrong. The lack of atmospheric pressure in space had caused his suit to slowly inflate like a balloon. His hands slipped out of his gloves, while his feet similarly came out of his boots, limiting his ability to pull himself back in using the tether. What's more, Leonov's suit had inflated so much he was now unable to re-enter the Voskhod's airlock. He knew that in five minutes he would also be entering Earth's shadow, throwing him into pitch black.
Faced with this dilemma, Leonov decided to act quickly and without consulting ground control. He began to bleed off half the air in his suit, reducing its size and allowing him to re-enter the vessel. However, as he did so, he began to feel the symptoms of decompression sickness. He told the BBC:
I began to get pins and needles in my legs and hands. I was entering the danger zone, I knew this could be fatal.
Leonov eventually re-entered the ship, but his commander, Pavel Belyayev, and he had other issues to content with. The ship was quickly filling with oxygen, creating a very real threat of an explosion. Leonov explained:
Fortunately the engines produced no sparks. A spark would have caused an explosion and we would have been vaporized.
To make matters worse, the ship's automatic re-entry system also failed, meaning they had to manually fire the rockets to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. This was something which had never been attempted before. Firing them for too short or too long a time would mean either bouncing back into space or entering the atmosphere at too high a speed - destroying the ship.
Luckily, Leonov and Belyayev timed their re-entry just right and returned to Earth, although they were not out of the woods yet... literally.
The ship had come down hundreds of miles off target, and had landed in a heavily forested region of Siberia. As both crew members had grown up in similar areas, they knew the dangers of these wild regions, which included temperatures of -25C, wolves and bears.
After two nights in the woods, the two history making cosmonauts were eventually rescued by members of the Soviet space program - although it seemed some of the native wildlife almost got to them first. Leonov recalled:
When we flew out of there, the rescuers said they saw wolf tracks around the spacecraft. Wolves are very smart, they came to look at what had come down from the sky into their territory.
Although NASA's later achievements, especially lunar landings, may have eclipsed some of the early successes of the Soviet space program, it is worth remembering that in the early 1960s, the Russians really were the trail-blazers. Indeed, it seems the Soviets were much more willing to take risks, especially if it meant beating the Americans. So even though the US arguably won the space race, cosmonauts such as Georgy Grechko are still adamant there's plenty to be proud of. He told the BBC:
If there are some people who think that what we did was primitive, not very interesting, not worthwhile - let them fly into space, go for a spacewalk and experience the air leaking from your suit, or a safety hatch refusing to shut. Then they will understand that our pride and happiness is deserved.