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Voskhod-2 at 50. Part 1: They were not supposed to survive!

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Mar 18, 2015, 14:22 UTC

Sen—"You were not supposed to survive" was a chilling verdict the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov heard decades after he had successfully completed the world's first spacewalk outside the Voskhod-2 spacecraft in March 1965. It was delivered to Leonov by one of the patriarchs of the Soviet space program Boris Chertok. A top engineer in the Voskhod project, Chertok was responsible for flight control avionics—only one of several systems, whose inadequate testing, put the lives of Leonov and his fellow commander Pavel Belyaev in clear and present danger as many as seven times during their 26-hour mission—unquestionably, the most daring adventure of the early Space Age.

Like most Soviet space firsts, the spacewalking mission of Voskhod-2 was hastily prepared to upstage the same feat by the Americans. However, unlike six Vostok ("east") missions, which were gradually building on the experience of Yuri Gagarin's first orbital flight in 1961, a follow-up pair of Voskhods ("sunrise") was really pushing the limits of available technology beyond reasonable safety margins.

In October 1964, three cosmonauts were squeezed into what had originally been a one-seat Vostok capsule, requiring to do away with safety spacesuits to save room. When that mission ended without fatalities, the de-facto head of the Soviet space program Sergei Korolev decided to gamble on achieving the first spacewalk, which he knew NASA had been planning for one of the early Gemini missions scheduled in the first half of 1965.

In addition to challenges of developing a specialized spacesuit known as Berkut ("golden eagle"), the "exit strategy" became a major hurdle for the Soviet spacewalking mission. Simply opening a door into the vacuum of space, like Americans planned for Gemini, was ruled out for Voskhod due to the unpredictable nature of Soviet-built avionics inside the spacecraft.

Instead, an inflatable tube-shape airlock was quickly developed to be mounted onto the hatch of the spacecraft. To test the new device, an unmanned Voskhod was launched on Feb. 22. The new airlock was successfully inflated by remote control commands from the ground. However, suddenly the spacecraft stopped all communications and disappeared from the radar. The final telemetry soon revealed that an interference between ground stations generated a faulty command to deorbit the ship, followed by self-destruction of the crewless vehicle to prevent it from falling into wrong hands, which in the Cold War meant anybody outside the USSR.

Still, Korolev classified the test flight as a near-success and, soon thereafter, cleared the Voskhod-2 for launch. The spacecraft blasted off from Tyuratam in Kazakhstan on Mar. 18, 1965, with Pavel Belyaev and Alexei Leonov onboard.

Once in orbit, Belyaev helped Leonov don his backpack life-support system, crawl into the deployed airlock and closed the hatch behind him. After final checks of the spacesuit, the airlock was depressurized and its outer hatch opened into space, as Voskhod-2 was flying over the USSR.

Leonov first stack his upper torso out of the airlock: "I am Almaz-2 ("diamond")," Leonov radioed his call sign to ground control, "I am on the edge of the airlock, I am feeling great, I see clouds below and sea."

Leonov then proceeded to exit the airlock, while still holding on to railings around the edge of the hatch. Despite instructions to close his shade visor, Leonov did it only half way. "The sunlight hit me like welding sparks," he later remembered. Despite a bright sunny day, the perfectly black sky was full of stars! Leonov removed the lens cover from a movie camera on the edge of the airlock, tossed it into space and watched it sparkling and disappearing in a distance.

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The movie camera activated by Leonov took this picture of him, which could be considered to be the first "selfie" in space, even though some credit this "first" to Buzz Aldrin's self-portrait taken a year later.

Finally, Leonov pushed himself gently away from the spacecraft, then pulled his umbilical to float back toward the mothership. He repeated this out-of-the-world exercise several times, slowly unwinding his tether to reach a maximum distance from the spacecraft of around five meters.

Peculiarly, Leonov's sometimes chaotic movements (as those of Ed White's onboard Gemini-4 three months later) brought to life science-fiction illustrations of the day, depicting space travelers floating freely in space, in contrast to the absolute majority of spacewalks today conducted solely on the surface of the space station.

What happened next has been a matter of interpretation for years. In a number of interviews, including one with the author, Leonov remembered his spacesuit "ballooning" so much that his fingers got completely out of gloves, and his toes no longer felt the boots!

However Berkut developers, while not being unbiased witnesses, argued that the dual rubber skin of the Berkut suit had been enclosed into a high-strength nylon-like fabric, which had no ability to expand. They explained Leonov's impressions by the less-than-perfect fitting of the suit for his body size and by the high-pressure setting of the suit leading to its extreme stiffness in the vacuum of space.

In any case, the controversy would be purely academic for Leonov, who first struggled to activate a tiny Ajax spy camera mounted on his chest, which had been provided with personal permission of the KGB chief. As a result, history books were left without any pictures of the Voskhod spacecraft in orbit, unlike spectacular shots of follow-on Geminis.

Much more seriously, the unruly spacesuit created a major obstacle for Leonov on his way back into the airlock. After some fruitless struggle with his limbs, Leonov resorted to a potentially dangerous move of reducing half the pressure inside the suit. (There were only two pressure modes available in the Berkut).

Fortunately, Leonov was correct in his estimate that he had been breathing pure oxygen long enough for his blood not to boil under much lower pressure conditions. "I did not ask ground control about it, I figured I don't have time for that, just imagine all their discussions (what to do)," Leonov said, "...it would be me who had to do it anyway."

As soon as his spacesuit softened, Leonov grabbed the movie camera from the edge of the airlock, shoved it inside and dived into the hatch head first, despite instructions to enter legs first. The outer hatch of the airlock could probably be closed remotely, but Leonov still had to turn around in order to fit into the cabin. "I literally had to fold myself, to do this," Leonov remembered, "I spent tremendous effort trying, I had total 60 litres (of air) for ventilation and breathing, which was far not enough for this kind of action."

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The actual Berkut spacesuit and its outer garment (right) worn by Alexei Leonov during his historic spacewalk on March 18, 1965. The suit was badly battered following a botched landing in the wilderness of Northern Russia. Image credit: Anatoly Zak / RussianSpaceWeb.com 

With sweat filling his spacesuit up to his ankles, Leonov finally squeezed himself back into the capsule. Again, despite all the rules, he opened his helmet to wipe his sweat-filled eyes before closing the hatch between the cabin and the airlock, but, fortunately, without any consequences.

Soon, however, the exhausted cosmonauts watched oxygen pressure in the cabin shoot up three times above normal, threatening an inferno from the slightest spark or a short-circuit. Until this day, there are two explanations for the potentially fatal problem: an accidental oxygen release from one of the life-support units or the overreaction of the main life-support system to a temporary air leak through the airlock hatch. To the relief of the crew and ground control, the pressure eventually came down and the next morning the Voskhod-2 was ready for the return home. Little did the cosmonauts know that another ordeal was about to unfold…

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The actual descent module of the Voskhod-2 spacecraft with a prototype of an inflatable airlock and a Berkut spacesuit shown during the spacewalk. Image credit: Anatoly Zak / RussianSpaceWeb.com

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