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Soviet cosmonaut who conducted first ever spacewalk passed away at the age of 85 in Moscow

Alexei Leonov has died in Moscow this Friday, according to Russia’s Cosmonaut Training Center officials. The cosmonaut who made history by exiting his capsule for 12 minutes almost 54 years ago will be laid to rest next Tuesday at a federal military cemetery.

A Siberian native, he was one of the 20 Soviet Air Force pilots carefully selected to become part of the first cosmonaut group in 1960 where he made friends with Yuri Gagarin.

The 1965 mission, dubbed Voskhod 2 (or Dawn 2 in English) came amid the contentious space race between the USSR and the United States. Despite an array of glitches – from Leonov having troubles to re-enter the airlock, to his capsule missing the landing zone – the historic flight was considered a success.

Interestingly, Leonov was initially slated to become the first man to land on the Moon, but the costly project was cancelled when the US Apollo crew touched down on the Earth’s satellite in 1969, leaving the Soviets behind.

Still, he pioneered another space endeavor six years later, commanding the Soviet crew during the 1975 Soyuz-Apollo experimental mission, in which the American module was docked to the Soviet one thus forming a temporary space station.

Prominent public figures in Russia commented on Leonov’s passing later in the day, expressing sadness and sympathy for his family. “This is an immeasurable loss,” said cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, who said he was “a living legend.”

RT’s “Earth 360˚” documentary featured Leonov and NASA astronaut Thomas Stafford, commander of the second manned mission to orbit the moon. In the film, the pair, who made history when they shook hands after the successful Apollo-Soyuz docking in 1975, compare their first-hand spaceflight experiences to RT’s SPACEWALK 360, the first-ever panoramic video filmed in open space.

Though Leonov was able to complete his spacewalk successfully, both that task and the overall mission were plagued with problems. Leonov’s only tasks were to attach a camera to the end of the airlock to record his spacewalk and to photograph the spacecraft. He managed to attach the camera without any problem. However, when he tried to use the still camera on his chest, the suit had ballooned and he was unable to reach down to the shutter switch on his leg. After his 12 minutes and 9 seconds outside the Voskhod, Leonov found that his suit had stiffened, due to ballooning out, to the point where he could not re-enter the airlock. He was forced to bleed off some of his suit’s pressure, in order to be able to bend the joints, eventually going below safety limits. Leonov did not report his action on the radio to avoid alarming others, but Soviet state radio and television had earlier stopped their live broadcasts from the spacecraft when the mission experienced difficulties. The two crew members subsequently experienced difficulty in sealing the hatch properly due to thermal distortion caused by Leonov’s lengthy troubles returning to the craft, followed by a troublesome re-entry in which malfunction of the automatic landing system forced the use of its manual backup. The spacecraft was so cramped that the two cosmonauts, both wearing spacesuits, could not return to their seats to restore the ship’s center of mass for 46 seconds after orienting the ship for reentry and a landing in Perm Krai. The orbital module did not properly disconnect from the landing module, not unlike Vostok 1, causing the spherical return vehicle to spin wildly until the modules disconnected at 100 km.

The delay of 46 seconds caused the spacecraft to land 386 km from the intended landing zone, in the inhospitable forests of Upper Kama Upland, somewhere west of Solikamsk. Although flight controllers had no idea where the spacecraft had landed or whether Leonov and Belyayev had survived, the cosmonauts’ families were told that they were resting after having been recovered. The two men were both familiar with the harsh climate and knew that bears and wolves, made aggressive by mating season, lived in the taiga; the spacecraft carried a pistol and “plenty of ammunition”, but the incident later drove the development of a dedicated TP-82 Cosmonaut survival pistol. Although aircraft quickly located the cosmonauts, the area was so heavily forested that helicopters could not land. Night arrived, the temperature dropped to −5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), and the spacecraft’s hatch had been blown open by explosive bolts. Warm clothes and supplies were dropped and the cosmonauts spent a freezing night in the capsule or Sharik in Russian. Even worse, the electrical system completely malfunctioned so that the heater would not work, but the fans ran at full blast. A rescue party arrived on skis the next day as it was too risky to try an airlift from the site. The advance party chopped wood and built a small log cabin and an enormous fire. After a more comfortable second night in the forest the cosmonauts skied to a waiting helicopter several kilometers away and flew first to Perm, then to Baikonur for their mission debriefing.

General Nikolai Kamanin’s diary later gave the landing location of the Voskhod 2, about 75 kilometres (47 miles) from Perm in the Ural mountains in heavy forest at 59:34 N 55:28 E on March 19, 1965 9:02 GMT. Initially there was some confusion and it was believed that Voskhod 2 landed not far from Shchuchin (about 30 kilometres (19 miles) south-west of Bereznikov, north of Perm), but no indication was received from the spacecraft. Apparently a commander of one of the search helicopters reported finding Voskhod 2, “On the forest road between the villages of Sorokovaya and Shchuchino, about 30 kilometers southwest of the town of Berezniki, I see the red parachute and the two cosmonauts. There is deep snow all around …”

The capsule is currently on display at the museum of RKK Energiya in Korolev, near Moscow.

The government news agency, TASS, reported that, “outside the ship and after returning, Leonov feels well”; however, post-Cold War Russian documents reveal a different story—that Leonov’s Berkut space suit ballooned, making bending difficult. Because of this, Leonov was unable to reach the shutter switch on his thigh for his chest-mounted camera. He could not take pictures of Voskhod 2, but was able to recover the camera mounted on Volga which recorded his EVA for posterity but only after it stuck and he had to exert considerable effort to push it down in front of him. After 12 minutes walking in space Leonov re-entered Volga.

Later accounts report Cosmonaut Leonov violated procedure by entering the airlock head-first, then became stuck sideways when he turned to close the outer hatch, forcing him to flirt with decompression sickness (the “bends”) by lowering the suit pressure so he could bend to free himself. Leonov said that he had a suicide pill to swallow had he been unable to re-enter the Voskhod 2, and Belyayev been forced to abandon him in orbit.

Doctors reported that Leonov nearly suffered heatstroke—his core body temperature increased by 1.8 °C (3.2 °F) in 20 minutes; Leonov said he was up to his knees in sweat, which sloshed in the suit. In an interview published in the Soviet Military Review in 1980, Leonov downplayed his difficulties, saying that “building manned orbital stations and exploring the Universe are inseparably linked with man’s activity in open space. There is no end of work in this field.”

Note:

The TP-82 (Russian: ТП-82) was a triple-barrelled Soviet pistol that was carried by cosmonauts on space missions.

It was intended as a survival aid to be used after landings and before recovery in the Siberian wilderness.

The TP-82 was the result of cosmonaut Alexei Leonov’s concerns after being stranded in the Siberian wilderness when his Voskhod capsule malfunctioned. He feared that the 9mm pistol that was provided in the survival kit would be ineffective against the Siberian wildlife, namely bears and wolves.

The upper two shotgun barrels used 12.5×70 mm ammunition (28 gauge), and the lower rifled barrel used 5.45×39mm ammunition developed for the AK-74 assault rifle. The TP-82 has a large lever on the left side of the receiver that opens the action and a small grip-safety under the trigger-guard that resembles a secondary trigger.

The pistol could be used for hunting, to defend against predators and for visible and audible distress signals. The detachable buttstock was also a machete that came with a canvas sheath. TP-82s were carried regularly on Soviet and Russian space missions from 1986 to 2007.