Soviet Cosmonaut Conducts First Space Walk

In an experiment that nearly resulted in disaster, Soviet cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov made the first space walk, demonstrating that humans could function in the microgravity environment of Earth orbit outside the enclosure of a spacecraft.

Summary of Event

In the early 1960’s, the Soviet Union and the United States took their first, tentative steps into space. At the end of the Vostok (“east”) and Mercury missions, each country was eager to send humans to the Moon. Before the Soviet Union’s Soyuz (“union”) and the United States’s Apollo spacecraft were ready, interim missions gained some of the critical experience that would be necessary for lunar and other ambitious flights. The programs filling the gap were Voskhod Voskhod program
Space program, Soviet;Voskhod program (“sunrise”) and Gemini. Space program, Soviet;space walks
Space walks
Extravehicular activity
Astronauts and cosmonauts
[kw]Soviet Cosmonaut Conducts First Space Walk (Mar. 18, 1965)
[kw]Cosmonaut Conducts First Space Walk, Soviet (Mar. 18, 1965)
[kw]Space Walk, Soviet Cosmonaut Conducts First (Mar. 18, 1965)
Space program, Soviet;space walks
Space walks
Extravehicular activity
Astronauts and cosmonauts
[g]Europe;Mar. 18, 1965: Soviet Cosmonaut Conducts First Space Walk[08360]
[g]Soviet Union;Mar. 18, 1965: Soviet Cosmonaut Conducts First Space Walk[08360]
[c]Space and aviation;Mar. 18, 1965: Soviet Cosmonaut Conducts First Space Walk[08360]
[c]Science and technology;Mar. 18, 1965: Soviet Cosmonaut Conducts First Space Walk[08360]
Leonov, Aleksei A.
Belyayev, Pavel I.

One of the vital goals for both nations was to have astronauts work outside their spacecraft. Recognizing that this capability would be essential for any of the challenging missions of the future, the Soviet Union assigned Pavel I. Belyayev and Aleksei A. Leonov to train for Voskhod 2. The flight would test a person’s ability to survive in space without the spacecraft’s protection from the near vacuum, radiation, extreme temperatures, and micrometeoroids. There was great concern that psychological stress might prevent a human from functioning outside a spacecraft. Leonov’s two years of training for this daring journey into an unknown environment was more intensive and more specialized than that of any other cosmonaut who had made a trip into space.

After an intense blizzard, light snow was falling on March 18, 1965, when Belyayev and Leonov lifted off. Shortly after the 10:00 a.m. launch, they reached an orbit ranging from 173.5 to 497.7 kilometers above Earth, higher than any other human had been.

As soon as the crew confirmed that all systems were functioning properly, they began preparing for the extravehicular activity (EVA), or space walk. Belyayev helped Leonov put on the backpack life-support system that would sustain him during his excursion outside the confines of the spacecraft. Leonov began an hour of breathing pure oxygen to purge nitrogen from his tissues. The space suit was designed to operate at 40 percent of sea-level pressure with pure oxygen, because in the vacuum of space it would have blown up like a balloon if it had used normal atmospheric pressure. With the low pressure of the suit, flushing the nitrogen from his blood was essential to avoid the bends, a hazard familiar to scuba divers.

After Belyayev inflated the 2.5-meter air lock mounted outside the spacecraft and equalized the pressure between it and the crew compartment, he opened the hatch to the air lock, and Leonov floated in. Leonov checked the functioning of his life-support system, tested to ensure there were no leaks, adjusted his helmet, and reported back to Belyayev. Satisfied that all was proceeding well, Belyayev closed the hatch and bled the air out of the air lock. Using the air lock allowed them to keep full pressure in the main compartment of the spacecraft, which had not been designed for operation with a vacuum inside.

When Belyayev remotely opened the outer hatch at 11:33 a.m., blinding sunlight flooded the cylindrical chamber. Leonov floated to the opening and attached a movie camera to a bracket outside the air lock. He removed the lens cap and threw it toward Earth, watching it recede until it disappeared. The view beyond, of the Black Sea and the mountain range of his homeland, was overwhelmingly beautiful.

Cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov during the first sapce walk from the Voskhod 2 spacecraft and into outer space.


Leonov pushed off from the air lock, still secured to the spacecraft by a 5.35-meter tether. The tether carried voice communications between him and his commander and relayed data on the performance of his life-support system and his respiration, pulse, and other vital functions. Belyayev kept careful watch over all these data while viewing Leonov’s orbital ballet on a television monitor.

Leonov was able to do little more than push off from Voskhod 2, go to the limit of his safety tether, and then pull himself back. The first time he floated toward the spacecraft, he feared that he was going to hit it with his helmet and break the visor, but he found it easy to deflect his motion with his hands. Belyayev could hear the clanging of his partner against the exterior of the spacecraft and even could hear Leonov run his gloved hand over the hull.

Leonov’s only problem was that the rigidity of the suit caused him to tire quickly. The tendency of the suit to balloon and hold its own shape meant that he had to fight it whenever he moved. Mounted on his thigh was the manipulator for a camera attached to his chest, but he was unable to reach the device because of the suit’s stiffness, so he could not photograph his spectacular view.

Despite finding the activity fatiguing, Leonov enjoyed himself tremendously. It was exceedingly clear to him that the much-feared psychological barriers to EVAs were nonexistent, as he somersaulted, floated, and marveled at the rich colors and wonderful variations of Earth, the inky blackness of space dotted with stars, and the brilliant Sun. The cosmonaut was having such a delightful time that when he was first ordered to return, he pushed off again for still another excursion to the limits of his tether.

When he did agree to end his space walk, he removed the movie camera from its bracket. Holding it with his right hand, he grasped the rail on the air lock with his left to maneuver himself in. To his astonishment, he could not enter. He struggled tremendously to get his feet in, but he just could not bend enough; the camera that recorded his historic activities kept getting stuck in the 70-centimeter hatch. Drenched in perspiration and with his pulse soaring to 168, he lowered the pressure in his suit, risking the onset of the bends. Still, he was trapped outside his spacecraft. On the verge of heatstroke, he lowered the pressure below the lowest limit considered to be safe. Finally, after about eight minutes of torturous work, he managed to push the camera in and follow it headfirst.

When he got in, he bumped the camera, and it began to float back out. He managed to grab it, turn over, and hold it with his legs while he ensured that nothing would impede the closing of the hatch. From the control panel inside, Belyayev closed the hatch and repressurized the air lock only twenty-four minutes after he opened it. When the exhausted space walker got back inside his spacecraft, he had to use towels from the first-aid kit to wipe the sweat from his body. Leonov then spent more than ninety minutes (enough time to orbit the entire planet) recording his experiences.

For the remainder of the mission, the crew photographed Earth and conducted experiments on the effects of spaceflight on humans. On their sixteenth orbit, as they prepared to return, they discovered a malfunction in the automatic orientation system of the spacecraft. One orbit later, Belyayev skillfully conducted the Soviet Union’s first manual reentry. Touchdown was at 12:02 p.m. on March 19 in a fir forest in the Urals, 2,000 kilometers from their target and the ground teams. They spent a cold night hiding in their spacecraft from a pack of wolves, hungry after a long winter. The next day, rescue teams arrived on skis; after putting on warm clothes and eating, the newest heroes in the Soviet Union skied to a waiting helicopter.


The importance of being able to work outside a spacecraft has proven itself many times in humankind’s exploration and utilization of space. The Soviet space stations Space stations Salyut (“salute”) 6 and 7 and Mir (“peace”) have required extensive repairs and experiments in the harsh space environment. The longevity and successes of these laboratories in space owe much to the ability of cosmonauts to work outside their spacecraft.

The only American space station, Skylab, also depended heavily on EVAs. It suffered damage during launch in 1973, leaving it nearly unusable. Without EVAs to repair it and to replace and retrieve film and experiments mounted on its exterior, the wealth of scientific and engineering data returned from Skylab would never have been accumulated. The Apollo missions to the Moon would have been impossible without the ability of the astronauts to work outside their spacecraft in suits independent of the spacecraft’s life-support system. Some of the greatest space shuttle missions were those where space-walking crews repaired satellites.

Following the Voskhod 2 mission, the Soviet Union failed to reveal the difficulties Leonov encountered. Rather, the Soviets emphasized accounts of his wonderful experiences and the technological superiority of the Soviet Union. Voskhod 2 was launched only five days before the first astronauts flew in NASA’s new Project Gemini. Many Soviet scientists, cosmonauts, and officials described future orbiting space stations and visits to the Moon and planets. They claimed that these missions would be enabled by Leonov’s success and by the technological and ideological superiority of the socialist system. Some officials in the United States conceded that the successes of Voskhod 2 revealed a disturbing lead by the Soviet Union.

Much effort during the American Project Gemini in 1965 and 1966 was devoted to developing EVA capability, and NASA was surprised to encounter difficulties. On several Gemini flights, space-walking astronauts struggled to complete assignments, and physical exhaustion prevented some tasks. The extreme exertion required overwhelmed their space suits’ life-support systems. The astronauts experienced the same problems Leonov had with fogging inside his helmet, overheating, and being drenched with perspiration. Not until the 1970’s did details of Leonov’s harrowing experience become known to the West.

Twenty-five years after Leonov’s brief space walk, Aleksandr Volkov and Jean-Loup Chrétien conducted a six-hour EVA. Back inside the Mir space station, they were so exhausted that they could not tie their shoes or open tea bags, yet the ability of men and women to conduct useful work in space continues as a key component in the extension of humanity’s presence in space. Space program, Soviet;space walks
Space walks
Extravehicular activity
Astronauts and cosmonauts

Further Reading

  • Abramov, Isaak P., �. Ingemar Skoog, and Mikhail N. Doodnik, et al. Russian Spacesuits. New York: Springer, 2003. The authors were part of the original design team that manufactured the space suits for the first space walk and other Soviet spaceflights.
  • Clark, Phillip. The Soviet Manned Space Program. New York: Orion Books, 1988. In addition to descriptions of Soviet piloted flight, this book contains useful information on related unpiloted missions, thus helping readers understand the plans, goals, and significance of much of the Soviet space program. Speculations on intended objectives are carefully explained and make fascinating reading. Includes many drawings and photographs.
  • Furniss, Tim. Manned Spaceflight Log. Rev. ed. London: Jane’s, 1986. With a description of every piloted mission into space through Soyuz T-15 in March, 1986, this book is entertainingly written and should be enjoyed by general readers. Provides the essential facts from each flight and allows readers to understand any flight in the context of efforts to explore and work in space.
  • Harvey, Brian. Race into Space: The Soviet Space Programme. Chichester, England: Ellis Horwood, 1988. A complete description of Soviet piloted and unpiloted missions, ground facilities, key technical contributors, and the historical and political context in which the events occurred. Careful readers will find many small technical errors, but the breadth of this text makes it a rich source nonetheless.
  • Johnson, Nicholas L. Handbook of Soviet Manned Space Flight. San Diego, Calif.: Univelt, 1980. This book provides a very readable, detailed description of the history of Soviet piloted spaceflight. Suitable for college-level readers, it includes many technical descriptions and drawings of the spacecraft and their systems. Includes references and an extensive bibliography.
  • Library of Congress. Soviet Space Programs, 1962-65: Goals and Purposes, Achievements, Plans, and International Implications. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1966. Prepared for the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, this authoritative source is part of a series on the history of the Soviet Union’s space activities. College-level readers will find a wealth of detail on the missions and fascinating discussions of the political ramifications of the Soviet space activities. Includes references.
  • Newkirk, Dennis. Almanac of Soviet Manned Space Flight. Houston, Tex.: Gulf, 1990. For piloted and unpiloted missions associated with the Soviet piloted space program, provides a description of the flight, plus the dates, crew, orbital altitude, and a line drawing of the spacecraft. Particularly useful as a quick reference. Includes references.
  • Oberg, James E. Red Star in Orbit. New York: Random House, 1981. Presents a history of the Soviet Union’s human exploration of space from the first flight to midway through the Salyut 6 program. Includes accounts of spaceflights and some interesting descriptions of Soviet cover-ups in their space program.
  • Shayler, David J. Walking in Space. New York: Springer, 2004. An overview of EVA techniques with reference to original documentation and astronaut interviews about the experience of space walking.
  • Siddiqi, Asif A. Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003. An award-winning book that offers a comprehensive and detailed history of the Soviet space program, from its earliest days. An essential resource.

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