Alexey Leonov, the first spacewalker, passes away

Alexey Leonov, the first space...
Alexey Leonov in 1975
Alexey Leonov in 1975
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Alexey Leonov in 1975
Alexey Leonov in 1975

The world's first spacewalker has died at age 85. According to the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, Major General Alexey Arkhipovich Leonov passed away on October 11, 2019, after a long illness. One of the original cosmonauts, he was the first person to leave a spacecraft in orbit on March 18, 1965, during the Voskhod 2 mission.

Alexy Leonov was born on May 30, 1934, in Listvyanka, West Siberia. Despite his father being caught up in the Stalinist Great Terror, he grew up to join the Soviet Airforce and was the 11th cosmonaut selected for the Russian space program.

Notable as a writer and artist, Leonov's greatest claim to a place in the history books came in 1965 when, along with fellow cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev, he lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in a modified Vostok spacecraft fitted with a backup solid-fuel retrorocket pack and an inflatable airlock.

What followed reads like something out of an adventure story. As the Voskhod circled the Earth between an altitude of 167 km (104 mi) and 475 km (295 mi), Leonov donned a specially-made spacesuit that included a life-support pack containing 45 minutes of oxygen. The fabric airlock was then inflated to form a tube and he wriggled inside. The airlock was then depressurized and Leonov crawled outside at the end of a 5-m (18-ft) tether.

Despite a view of the Earth that no one had ever seen except through a tiny porthole and the simple nature of his task, which was to merely take a few photos, things started to go wrong. Leonov's suit ballooned and he couldn't work the camera shutter. Worse, he couldn't get back into the airlock, his hands were sliding out of his gloves, and he was so hot that his boots were literally filling with sweat.

The first spacewalk by Alexei Leonov lasted only 12 minutes
The first spacewalk by Alexei Leonov lasted only 12 minutes

Facing the prospect of a very unpleasant death, Leonov took a gamble and deflated his suit enough to get back inside – a procedure that risked the bends or anoxia. After only 12 minutes and nine seconds, he was back in the capsule and after 16 orbits Voskhod 2 was ready to return to Earth.

But it wasn't that easy. First, the hatch wouldn't shut properly, then the airlock's explosive bolts failed to fire. Then the capsule started to rotate and the cabin oxygen levels spiked to a dangerous level. One spark and the capsule would turn into an incinerator.

As if that wasn't enough, the automatic re-entry system failed and they had to deorbit manually. They two men were subjected to high g forces as their craft hit the atmosphere and the capsule landed hundreds of miles east of their target area in Siberia. Then, to top it all off, the capsule automatically blew open, exposing the sweat-soaked cosmonauts to the arctic cold as the cabin heaters failed.

The result was that they spent a very nasty, cold night that would have been fatal had not a rescue helicopter dropped winter clothing and a bottle of cognac to them as they awaited the ski team that arrived the next day.

In addition to this dramatic episode, Leonov remained with the Soviet space program and on July 1975 he was the commander of the Soyuz 19 capsule during the joint Soviet/US Apollo-Soyuz Test Mission. After this, until 1982, he served as commander of the cosmonaut team and deputy director of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center and then acted as editor of the cosmonaut newsletter Neptune before retiring in 1992.

Source: Roscosmos

The courage these early space pioneers had was beyond anything I could muster. That said, people in 100 years will look back at us in our airliners and say "what? they actually flew in these aluminum tubes? They didn't just teleport???"
This news genuinely makes me sad. Not only was he a pioneer in a very dangerous venue, he was also an artist and cartoonist who recorded many of his experiences as a cosmonaut on canvas or paper. There is one piece of Alexey's in particular which still brings a smile to my face. It's of the Apollo spacecraft which was to dock with the Soyuz back in 1975, with the three astronauts sitting outside it, looking out for the Russian ship and wondering, "Where are they?"

He very well deserves remembrance, and not just for going outside "to take a walk."
Thank you for enlightening us with the details of this amazing achievement. I had no idea how risky and crazy it got for Alexei when he attempted this feat. And it ended with winter clothing and a bottle of cognac...somehow that is a unique Russian thing, even if it wasn't vodka.