First man to walk in space

By David A. Ord

…… Это Алмаз-1: Человек вышел в космос

Almost exactly 50 years ago, those famous Russian words spoken in March 1965, heralded the first time that man stepped out into space. Translated as; “This is Almaz-1: Man has gone out into space.” – not quite the same ring to it as ‘one small step for man etc’; but it marked a memorable milestone in space exploration.

Almaz-1 was the call sign for Colonel Pavel Belyayev, the pilot of the Voskhod-2 spacecraft and the ‘Man’ who had gone out into space was Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov who became the first man to push away from his spaceship and ‘swim’ in space. At the time, the mission was officially reported as very successful and ‘smooth as silk’. But as Alexei Leonov recently revealed, this was far from the truth.

In the early days of the cold war, the space race between Russia and the USA was driven primarily by politics. ‘Failure is not an option’ was the overriding mantra and a great many risks were taken in the name of ‘one-upmanship’.

The space craft for this mission was the Voskhod; a derivative of the Vostok craft which had served the Russians well in their program of setting the pace in ‘firsts in space’. Up to 1965, the list of Russian space firsts included the first satellite (Sputnik), the first living creatures (dogs), the first man (Gagarin), the first woman (Tereshkova) and the longest time in space. Indeed, it was the plan of Korolov, the director of the Russian space effort to grab the headlines around the world to exemplify Soviet capability. It worked. Most American politicians feared the consequences of Russian domination of space.

The Voskhod was a 2-3 man crew version of the Vostok spacecraft. The ejector seat facility had to be removed to meet the payload limitation of the extra crew. This curtailed the safety options for the most dangerous stage of launch. It was accepted that if the launch got into difficulties, the crew would be lost.

Rather than using the ejector seat on landing, as was standard procedure on the tried and tested Vostok, the crew would have to land with the Voskhod craft, which was fitted with a retro-rocket on the parachute to soften the landing.

The first successful Voskhod went into orbit in 1964, carrying 3 cosmonauts creating another Russian first – the first multi-crewed spacecraft. Following quickly on from this mission was the space walk project and there was no time for major engineering modifications. The third seat was removed to allow the addition of an air-lock module for the walk.

Voskhod-2 a spherical cabin capsule, a service module at the front and an air-lock on top

The first Voskhod prototype for the space walk was prepared one month before the Leonov/Belyayev mission and exploded on launch. Fortunately, it was unmanned, but it cannot have filled the cosmonauts with much confidence. With no ejector capability, if the error was repeated, they would die.

The launch of Voskhod-2 went ahead on schedule and the first problem was that it overshot the intended orbit by 200 Km. But, it was another first for the Russians, albeit inadvertent – at almost 500 Km, it was the highest orbit achieved by a manned flight!

After suiting up, Leonov had to wait for over an hour before he was allowed to take the leap and push off from the airlock module, He was guided to do so from mission control on the ground by none other than Yuri Gagarin. The images were captured and transmitted to Earth along with sound recording from Leonov. Connected to the craft via a 5 metre tether, the cosmonaut spent just over 12 minutes enjoying free space.

 Inside Voskhod-2

Such was the secrecy of space missions that not even the families of the cosmonauts knew about the space walk. Indeed, in his book recounting his experience, Leonov says that when his 4 year old daughter saw the TV images of him leaving the spacecraft, she cried and screamed at him to get back in. His father was also distressed and thought that he must be doing something against orders and would be reprimanded on his return.

But, all was not as it appeared some 500 Km above their heads – there was another problem; Leonov was having difficulty in re-entering the airlock. The live images to TV were stopped and the audio to radio was replaced by Mozart’s Requiem.

What had happened was that the spacesuit had ballooned in the vacuum of space such that Leonov’s hands were out of the gloves, his feet out of the boots and the suit was too wide to get back through the airlock hatch.

Leonov struggled for some considerable time. His body temperature rose to 39 degrees, his suit filled with sweat up to his knees and he lost several kilos of weight. He decided to release the pressure of his life support gases in an attempt to deflate the suit. This was a risky option, since if he did this too quickly he could get the bends similar to that which could be experienced by deep sea divers or he could have become unconscious.

The alternative plan for this situation was that he would take a suicide pill and the airlock with his body would be ejected from the craft by the pilot, Belyayev.

Artist’s impression of the Voskhod-2 space-walk

Fortunately, it worked and he was able to enter the airlock – but only head first. He then had to turn about face to close the hatch so that Belyayev could open the hatch to the cabin. Once inside the cabin, Belyayev could not close the air lock completely and the life support system tried to compensate by pumping more oxygen into the craft. The oxygen level became dangerously high and any spark would have led to a rapid, unscheduled disassembly of the craft.

However, the increasing gas pressure in the cabin had the benefit of causing the hatch to seal closed correctly and after an hour or so this particular danger passed.

The next phase of the mission was the re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, which would be achieved by engaging an automated landing program. However, during the instrument check in preparation for this operation, it was found that the automatic guidance system had failed. The craft would have to be landed manually.

There was only enough fuel on board for one attempt at re-entry and they would have to calculate the correct trajectory and the exact timing of the firing of the retro engine which would take them out of orbit.

Being in an orbit some 200 Km higher than originally intended added to the difficulties. It was the task of Leonov as navigator to make the determinations. The retro engine was fired; Voskhod-2 left its orbit and descended into earth’s atmosphere. But, something else was wrong.

At T+10 seconds after the firing of the retro engine, the service module should have been ejected, leaving only the landing module. But, this operation failed and the module remained connected via some cables. This caused a rapid spin, which the on-board instruments indicating forces of 10G, resulting in bursting small blood vessels in the eyes of the cosmonauts. At around 100 Km the friction of Earth’s atmosphere was sufficient to burn through the connecting cables and the service module broke free.

Eventually, the spacecraft landed; some 1,960 Km beyond the landing target – in deepest Siberia. Firing the bolts to release the hatch was unsuccessful, because they had come to rest against a large tree. By jumping up and down, the cosmonauts were able to successfully manoeuvre the craft away from the tree. Climbing out of the hatch, they fell up to their chins in 2 metres of snow. Mission control in Moscow had no idea where they were because they had not received their last transmissions and had not picked up their locator signal.

It was some hours later that a listening post in Bonn, Germany identified the signal and alerted the Russian authorities. A helicopter arrived at the site, but could not land. It threw down a rope ladder, but this was impossible to use because the cosmonauts were still in their space suits – too stiff and too heavy to clamber up a rope ladder.

A second helicopter appeared and threw down some clothes, boots and a bottle of cognac. The clothes got hung up on the trees and the bottle of cognac broke; but the boots were welcome according to Leonov. As night approached, it was clear that they would not be rescued until the following day and so they returned to the space capsule for the night, somewhat regretting having blown away the entrance hatch.

As the area was rife with bears and wolves, it was reassuring to know that standard kit for cosmonauts included a pistol. Indeed, even today it is the case that on journeys to the ISS cosmonauts can choose to be armed with a pistol for the mission return.

After surviving temperatures in the -20 degrees overnight, the next morning saw a rescue team arrive by ski. The task to create a landing area took all of the following day and the cosmonauts spent a second night in the wild.

Meanwhile, the official word from the Kremlin was that the cosmonauts were fit and well and resting in a luxury hotel in Moscow.

It turned out that the Voskhod-2 mission was the swan song for the director of the Russian space program Sergei Korolev. He had the designs for a lunar mission, and the Soyuz spacecraft program. However, early in 1966 Korolev died suddenly and with his death went much of the impetus and drive that had given the Russians a definite edge. Had Korolev continued, many believe that Alexei Leonov may have become the first man to walk on the moon.

No other missions using the Voskhod craft were flown and its demise led to the introduction of the hugely successful Soyuz program.

It was not until June 1965, that astronaut Ed White became the first American to walk in space as part of the Gemini 4 mission.


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