Martyn McLaughlin: Remembering the first spacewalk

Alexei Leonov's 12 minutes of fame were captured on camera and broadcast on Russian television. Picture: Getty
Alexei Leonov's 12 minutes of fame were captured on camera and broadcast on Russian television. Picture: Getty
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ON the eve of the anniversary of a landmark in space exploration, Martyn McLaughlin recalls the heroism of cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Fifty years ago, a miner’s son from the hinterlands of Siberia became the most famous man in the world. Alexei Leonov’s moment in the spotlight was fleeting, lasting just 12 minutes and nine seconds. But what an exalted 12 minutes they were. The world below watched on in awe as he floated far above its majestic roof fretted with golden fire, a man at one with space’s dark infinity.

On the morning of 18 March 1965, the sharp dressing Soviet cosmonaut, known to his friends as a talented landscape artist and companionable drinker, changed the way we think about the universe and our place within it. At precisely 8:35am GMT, as the Voskhod 2 space capsule was on its second orbit, the 30-year-old unlocked its outer hatch and embarked on the first spacewalk in history. Swimming in the black, he watched entire continents come in and out of view as the Earth turned on its axis like a marble tossed idly by a giant toddler.

Concern over whether a mere mortal would have the capacity to cope with such a vision led to drastic measures. Leonov, his superiors feared, would lose his mind, and so sensors were attached to his skull to record his descent into dementia. In the end, however, he proved himself a composed and expressive chronicler of an extraordinary event. “Only out there can you feel the greatness and enormity of all that’s around us,” he said.

Given the scale of his achievement, it seems remarkable that those 12 minutes and nine seconds that defined Leonov’s life are not better known, but he had the misfortune of making history in an era when mankind reached for the heavens and often came back clutching stardust. His spacewalk formed the midpoint of a prodigious eight-year period in space exploration, bookended by Yuri Gagarin’s orbital space flight in April 1961 and the journey in July 1969 which took the son of a travelling auditor from Wapakoneta, Ohio, all the way to the Moon’s surface.

Through a mixture of accident and design, I have had the pleasure of interviewing several astronauts and cosmonauts over the years, including John Fabian, Sergei Avdeyev and Helen Sharman. Scientific ignorance meant my questions were doubtless of the callow variety asked of them a million times before in a hundred different tongues, but each member of this elect fraternity met them with courtesy and warmth, none more so than Leonov.

Eight years ago, over coffee in an Edinburgh hotel, he spoke passionately about his pioneering spacewalk, recalling how the Earth looked beautiful from his unique vantage point, yet fragile and delicate too. What struck me most was the way Leonov had reconciled himself for the worst possible outcome. “There were times I thought we would die,” he told me. “But what a way it would have been to die.”

Crippling multi-billion pound costs and a lack of political commitment means that there are no modern-day Leonovs. With the lustre fading on the golden age of space exploration, my generation no longer seeks to stretch out its realm amidst the stars. Although the work of Chris Hadfield shows we retain an insatiable appetite for the world above and beyond our own, the field is increasingly the preserve of commercial interests and robotics-led environmental projects which, though vital, fail to capture the public imagination.

The great many requiems for these curbed ambitions focus on how the outer reaches of our solar system are once more falling into darkness, diminishing our understanding of the grand canvas on which we are but a pale blue dot. There is no doubt these dwindling horizons should give cause for concern, but the greatest loss is the demise of the inward journey made by men like Leonov, which showed how space travel can throw up astounding discoveries about our own species.

With the Soviet propaganda machine concealing the truth about the mission for decades, the history books recorded Leonov’s 12 minutes outside the Voskhod 2 as a resounding success. Yet the events of that March morning half a century ago might easily have turned to tragedy were it not for the Russian’s guile and fortitude.

One of many doubts surrounding the mission was over how Leonov’s suit would react in the vacuum of space. The answer, it turned out, was abysmally. As he floated above the Earth, tethered by a five-metre cord, he felt his hands begin to slip out of his gloves. The suit was shifting shape, and rapidly. Soon, his feet came loose as a lack of atmospheric pressure caused his protective clothing to inflate and deform. The Russian television broadcast was suspended, with Mozart played over the airwaves instead.

Faced with the realisation he would not be able to fit back inside the Voskhod’s hatch, Leonov went against orders and lowered the pressure in his suit. Reducing it too much would cause his blood to boil, but there was no alternative and no-one else to rely on.

“I opened a valve and let out oxygen a little at a time,” he told me in Edinburgh. “I didn’t want to make people on the ground nervous and, anyway, it was only me who could bring it under control.”

Eventually, Leonov was able to squeeze through the hatch on his knees. Back inside, he took out a sketchbook and coloured pencils and created the first eyewitness sketch of Earth from space. To mark the anniversary, Leonov, now 80, will no doubt spend tomorrow telling old stories to new audiences. They deserve to be heard as widely as possible.

In a field of endeavour marked by glory and sorrow, space exploration has too many martyrs and saints to mention. But living ambassadors from that first wave of pioneers are few and far between. These days, we may look up to the stars for a future that will never come, but Alexei Leonov has already seen it, and it sounds beautiful.

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