It’s March 18th, 1965 about 300 miles above planet Earth.
Alexei Leonov, a Russian cosmonaut, floats outside the entry to the airlock of his spacecraft, the Voskhod-2. Leonov has just achieved a huge feat. He is now the first person to perform a spacewalk; leaving his space capsule and floating freely in orbit. Now, he is about to reenter the ship from the vacuum of space, but there’s a problem.
During the 10 minutes Leonov spent outside the spacecraft, his spacesuit has blown up like a balloon. And now, he can’t fit back into the airlock. If he doesn’t get inside soon, he’ll run out of air. With little time to act, Leonov makes a drastic, split-second decision.
He takes a deep breath. And turns a valve to release oxygen from his suit. The maneuver works to release pressure and deflate the suit, but he can start to feel pins and needles in his fingers and toes; early signs of “the bends” or decompression sickness. Fighting panic, he manages to pull himself inside. But he was supposed to enter feet first.
Now, deprived of oxygen, on the verge of heatstroke, and barely able to see through his sweat, he struggles to move his body into the correct position… and then closes the airlock.
Leonov survived 12 minutes and 9 seconds in space. His drastic decision to deflate his suit saved his life, and the life of his crewmate, Pavel Belyayev; and delivered a major triumph for the space program of his country, the Soviet Union.
Since the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States have been in a Cold War. Space exploration has been a major field of competition between the two superpowers, with each country racing to achieve a new milestone before the other.
But now, the Soviet Union is ahead in the so-called “Space Race”, thanks to Alexi Leonov’s ground-breaking spacewalk on March 18th, 1965.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 18th: The First Spacewalk.
Act One: Alexei’s Training
It's early 1963, at OKB-1, the main space center in Moscow.
Alexei Leonov and a group of cosmonauts are standing in front of a spaceship that’s different from any they’ve ever seen before.
Nearby, another man, Sergei Korolev, the head of the Soviet space program, calls for the cosmonauts’ attention. Korolev explains that this particular spacecraft, the Voskhod-2 is outfitted with an airlock. Korolev gestures to the see-through tube, approximately 9 feet long and 4 feet wide.
He's called them all together to make sure the cosmonauts can effectively exit and re-enter the airlock in a spacesuit, simulating a critical moment in a spacewalk. Korolev scans the group of cosmonauts, his eyes settle on Leonov. He says to him, “You little eagle… put on that suit.”
Leonov has been chosen to demonstrate how to leave the spacecraft through the airlock and return safely. If he succeeds, Leonov might be chosen to lead the Soviet Union’s mission to beat the United States, and completing the first spacewalk. If he fails, someone else could take the honor.
Leonov has been training for an opportunity like this since 1960 when he was selected from the Soviet Air Force to join a class of aspiring cosmonauts. His training has been rigorous. Each day he runs about 3 miles and swims 700 meters. To prepare for the g-force of space, Leonov and his classmates are frequently spun in a centrifuge at high speeds.
His training has also been dangerous at times. As part of their routine, cosmonauts were locked in a sensory deprivation chamber. The room was engineered to create a low-pressure, high-oxygen environment just like they'll experience in a space capsule. But these same conditions made the chamber extremely flammable.
In 1961, one of Leonov’s fellow cosmonauts, Valentin Bondarenko, made the mistake of dropping a cloth onto a hot plate inside the chamber. He was immediately swallowed up in flames and died only hours later.
For Leonov though, the risks and the effort are all worth it to make his country proud and to beat the Americans in the process. Now, Leonov has a chance to prove that his training has paid off and maybe, earn a chance to go into space. With his heart pounding, he hopes he can show Korolev he has what it takes.
Leonov takes a deep breath and tries to remember his training. He dons his suit and then performs the delicate acrobatic test of entering and exiting the airlock, being careful to follow protocol and procedure. He performs the exercise flawlessly.
After successfully completing the assignment, Leonov debriefs with Korolev who is impressed by Leonov’s skill and intelligence. As a result, Leonov is given the nod. He will be the first Soviet to complete an extravehicular activity, EVA, official jargon for a spacewalk.
Leonov is assigned to the mission with his friend, Pavel Belyayev, a veteran fighter pilot from World War II. To prepare for the mission, the two ride on parabolic flights, reproducing gravity-free conditions in an aircraft by sudden climbs and steep drops. The flights are physically and mentally taxing, but they are nothing compared to the rigors of outer space.
As Leonov and Belyayev prepare for their mission, it's unclear whether it will ultimately get the green light. There are doubts about the safety of the spacecraft and their space suits. But Korolev is highly motivated to proceed. In no small part because the United States has just announced that one of their astronauts, Ed White, will conduct the first space walk in June.
At this point, the Soviet Union has been ahead of the United States at just about every point of the Space Race. They were the nation to successfully launch the first satellite, the first animal, the first man, and the first woman into orbit. They are not about to be beaten now.
So, despite the concerns of many of his scientists, Korolev gives the spacewalk mission the go.
It’s launch day, March 18th, 1965 in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Leonov and Belyayev are preparing to board their spacecraft, the Voskhod-2. Leonov’s heart is racing with excitement.
Outside the spacecraft, fellow Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin greets them with a bottle of champagne. This is a tradition he started when he embarked on the mission to become the first Soviet cosmonaut in space. He hopes it will bring the same good luck to Leonov and Belyayev as it did to him four years ago.
Leonov takes a sip of the champagne, savoring the bubbles for a brief moment. Then he and Belyayev make a promise to finish the bottle when they return safely. With this tradition complete, Leonov and Belyayev board the Voskhod-2.
Soon after, at 7:00 AM, they are launched into space. As they leave Earth’s atmosphere and enter into orbit, Leonov breathes a sigh of relief. They have just completed a dangerous step in their journey, making it to outer space safely. But now, Leonov faces his true challenge - leaving the safety of the spaceship safely and entering the cold blackness of space. If he can, he will bring another win to the Soviet Union, another embarrassment to the United States.
Act Two: Vokshod 2 Mission
It’s 11:32 AM, on March 18th, 1965, a little more than four hours since the Voshkod-2 was launched into outer space. It’s now time for Leonov to complete his mission and become the first human to conduct a space walk.
As his crewmate Belyayev opens the door to the airlock, Leonov hopes Sergei Korolev knew what he was doing when he authorized the use of this spacesuit - the only thing that will be keeping him alive in the blackness of space - as he takes his last step out of the airlock and leaves the spacecraft.
Looking down at Earth, Leonov has a view that only a tiny fraction of humans have ever seen. What he notices above all is the absolute silence. It’s so quiet he can hear his heart beating. It’s unlike anything he has ever experienced.
But it's time to get on with the mission. He pushes himself off the side of the spaceship. Right away he starts spinning out of control, but thankfully he’s connected to the ship by a 15-foot-long tether, the only thing that connects Leonov to anything that resembles safety.
After about 10 minutes, Belyayev calls Leonov to come back into the ship. During those 10 minutes, Leonov showed that the Soviet space suit worked, and more importantly, he helped the Soviets beat the Americans to complete the first spacewalk.
Even after struggling to fit back into the airlock, and making the rash but ultimately successful decision to release oxygen from his suit, the danger for Leonov is just beginning.
Before returning home, first, the cosmonauts will need to eject the airlock so the spacecraft can safely reenter Earth’s atmosphere. But when the Soviet cosmonauts fire the explosives to release it from the ship, capsule starts spinning out of control. As they turn round and round, the cosmonauts notice oxygen levels are spiking, making the cabin dangerously flammable. A single spark would mean an explosion that could vaporize the Voskhod-2 and the two cosmonauts inside. But Leonov and Belyayev don’t panic; they rely on their training and work together to lower the temperature and humidity and regain control of the ship.
Then the cosmonauts fire the retro rockets to get them home. But when they do, another challenge arises.
Designed to fire rockets for the exact amount of time required to bring the spaceship safely into earth’s atmosphere, the automatic reentry system has failed. If the rocket burns too short, the ship could be forced back out into outer space. If the rocket burns too long, the ship could come in too steep and burn up in the atmosphere. The malfunction forces Leonov and Belyayev to fire the rockets manually. But the two cosmonauts are well-trained, and their calculations are accurate.
After re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, the Voskhod-2 lands somewhere in the Soviet Union, as expected. But that's a country that covers one-seventh of the Earth’s land surface. The cosmonauts find themselves in six feet of snow in Siberia, more than a thousand miles away from their intended target.
Around them, they see nothing; no civilization and no help arrives.
They don't attempt to journey home. It's too far and too cold. So they spend the night in below-freezing temperatures before the Soviet space agency’s recovery team finally finds and reaches them the next day.
But it took so long for them to arrive, it’s too late to start the journey back. The rescue team helps build a makeshift cabin and a large fire. They also have brought brandy to celebrate Leonov’s achievement as the first person to complete a spacewalk.
Then early the next day, Leonov, Belyayev, and the rescue crew get up and prepare for the final leg of the journey home.
Leonov knows it’s nothing short of miraculous that he is alive. His heart is full of gratitude and pride. He has helped the Soviet Union achieve another first in the space race. But technical problems like the ones that plagued the Voskhod-2 mission will continue to stymy the Soviets. Leonov will not be able to return to space, until ten years later. And by then, the rivalry will be over.
Act Three: Apollo-Soyuz
It’s July 17th, 1975 in outer space. It’s more than ten years since Alexei Leonov helped the Soviet Union beat the United States to complete the first spacewalk.
Today, Leonov looks out a small portal window from inside his craft, the Soyuz-19. The expanse of space never fails to amaze him. But this time, his ship and crewmates are not alone. They have just docked with an American spaceship, the Apollo 14.
Since Leonov’s successful spacewalk, the United States overtook the Soviet Union in the space race. Leonov’s mission was one of the last victories for the Soviet Union. In 1969, the United States accomplished its crowning achievement by landing men on the moon.
Now, Leonov opens the hatch of his Soviet capsule, and sees the face of United States astronaut, Thomas Stafford. Leonov welcomes Stafford and his crewmate, Deke Slayton, onto the Soyuz. Leonov grins and says, “Hello Tom, hello Deke,” in thickly accented English, and the three men shake hands.
Over the next two days, Leonov and his crewmate Valery Kubasov conduct a number of experiments together with the United States’ astronauts.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project is the first mission of its kind. It signals the end of the space race and a new collaboration between superpowers.
It’s October 11th, 2019 on the International Space Station. Christina Koch, an astronaut from the United States, closes the airlock behind her and fellow astronaut, Drew Morgan. She’s exhausted, but grinning with pride. During the 6 hours and 45 minutes, she and Morgan spent outside the space station, they repaired six batteries on the station’s solar power circuit. Spacewalks are now a routine part of work on the International Space Station, but she still finds them thrilling.
But then, after returning from the spacewalk, her heart sinks when she hears news that has just been broadcast from Earth. Alexei Leonov has passed away. One of the astronauts on board the space station will radio their condolences to Earth, saying, "This is a bittersweet day for all of us on the International Space Station… Although we mourn his passing, it is somewhat fitting that Leonov left us on the day of a spacewalk.”
Soon, Koch and Morgan complete what is one of the 246 spacewalks that have happened on the ISS since its launch. But Alexei Leonov will always be the first, an honor he earned when he spent 12 minutes and 9 seconds walking in space on this day, March 18th, 1965.
Next on History Daily. March 21st, 1963. The U.S. federal prison on San Francisco Bay's Alcatraz Island shuts down.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.