Space walks wouldn’t be an uncommon thing or it has become a kind of routine stuff in today’s space explorations. But when it was done at the first time, when a man walked in space for the first time, how extraordinary it should be!! How mind blowing it would be to have stars all around you, to your right, left, top and bottom!!
Before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, there was this Russian cosmonaut – Alexei Leonov, to walk in space for the first time in history. It was on 18th March 1965. (Any time an astronaut gets out of a vehicle while in space, it is called a spacewalk. A spacewalk is also called an EVA. EVA stands for extravehicular activity.)
What actually happened behind the fabulous scenes of a space walk is really a terrifying and breath taking story as it was nearly costing the lives of two cosmonauts. It was approximately fifty years ago the human had the historic space walk. The mission, named Voskhod (Sunrise) 2, had Leonov as the space-walker and Pavel Belyayev as the commander to pilot the ship.
Free floating in space
In space means, you are in a floating free position. If not properly connected to the craft, you would obviously drift away to space without a return. So there was a 5m long umbilical chord (tether) connecting Leonov to the space craft. He crawled in to the airlock. And when an all- clear signal was given to open the external hatch, Leonov got into the outer space. He swam in the space for 12 minutes and nine seconds on 18 March 1965. And he became the first to witness the wonderful panorama of our earth’s geography. The artist in him would have painted the most beautiful picture in the canvas of his mind.
Mishaps behind the scenes
And when he was about to return, he realized something being wrong with his space suit. It was getting inflated like a balloon due to the lack of atmospheric pressure in the outer space. It was a stressful situation where it was so tough for him to reenter the airlock feet first as planned with his inflated space suit. And more over in a five minutes time, he was gonna be in the Earth’s shadow, and plunged into total darkness. (His terrifying experience is well featured by BBC.)
There was no other means than to open a valve of the suit to release the pressure. He did this at the cost of his own life, because opening a valve means he is releasing oxygen too and thus eventually it can result in a shortage of his life breath. It made him experience decompression sickness with pins and needles in his hands and legs. But if he hasn’t done that he would have died anyway. Of course it was his mindfulness which saved the great cosmonaut.
Leonov was supposed to re-enter the airlock feet first and ensure that hatch was locked properly. But that time, Leonov was struggling himself to get inside the airlock, he was holding on the cord and trying his best to coil it and reach near the airlock. So finally when he got in, he had his head first in. And that made him turn around that too in that narrow space of air lock and ensure the proper lock.
As Leonov told the BBC: “It was the most difficult thing: I’m in this suit and I had to turn around in the airlock. But with the perspiration, I couldn’t see anything. I don’t normally sweat much, but on that day I lost 6kg in weight.”
And finally he made it. The mishaps didn’t end there too. Further to the struggle to close the hatch, the Voskhod 2 mission had yet more challenges awaiting.
One of them was the increased oxygen pressure in the space craft, making the whole thing inflammable if any spark happened in engine. But the cosmonauts could rectify the issue and eventually the oxygen level was normalized. Several hours passed by and when it was just minutes before preparing for their return journey, the spacecraft’s automatic re-entry system failed. Again the stressful moments as the rockets needs to be fired manually. That moments were also surpassed. The rocket firing went well, but the cosmonauts had little control over where they would land.
Lost in the woods and Rescue
The problems continued even through the descent, as the expected separation of orbital and landing module was not happening as planned. Finally it broke free. They made it, even though it was a crash land in Siberian woods. It was a dangerous zone of frost bite as well as home to many wolves and bears.
For two freezing nights, the men waited in minus temperatures before they were finally rescued. And when they were saved by the rescue team, wolf tracks had also arrived around the spacecraft to investigate on the intruders of their home.
After the cosmonauts returned, the authorities said nothing to the press about the problems encountered on the mission. It took many years for the truth to emerge about the first, historic spacewalk mission.
Though no words can comprehend the greatness of those moments while being encompassed by the silence of space, I couldn’t hold myself from writing this as a tribute to the great Cosmonaut, Leonov who died on 11 October 2019 after a long illness in Moscow. He was the last living member of the five cosmonauts in the Voskhod programme.
Writing in 2004, Leonov declared he had few regrets, other than not getting to walk on the Moon. A favorite expression of his, he wrote, was “Seize the day.”
“It is the motto by which I believe life should be lived.”