Fireballs and Wolves: The Horrifying Story of the First Spacewalk

Illustration for article titled Fireballs and Wolves: The Horrifying Story of the First Spacewalk

Almost 60 years ago, we took our first steps into the big, black nothingness of space. Or more specifically, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov had the honor of taking the very first space-dip. But this was a rush job—a means for the Soviet Union to shame the US and win the space race once and for all. Which they did! While nearly killing every single astronaut on board in the process.


This was years before the US (or anyone for that matter) knew what really went on onboard the Voskhod 2 mission to space. But now that the Cold War is long over and his memories are, thankfully just that, Leonov spoke to the BBC about his historic, horrifying ordeal. As it turns out, while he did indeed complete a spacewalk, "success" might be a bit too strong of a word.

Illustration for article titled Fireballs and Wolves: The Horrifying Story of the First Spacewalk

Voskhod 2 spacecraft.

The chaos had all started when Leonov's 10 minutes were up and it was time to head back inside. According to the BBC:

The lack of atmospheric pressure in space had slowly caused his spacesuit to inflate like a balloon. He recalls, "My suit was becoming deformed, my hands had slipped out of the gloves, my feet came out of the boots. The suit felt loose around my body..."

...In five minutes he would be in the Earth's shadow, and plunged into total darkness. Without telling ground control, the cosmonaut decided to bleed half of the air out of his spacesuit through a valve in its lining. This risked starving his body of oxygen, but if he couldn't get back inside the capsule, he'd be dead anyway.

Leonov let out a little oxygen at a time to reduce the pressure. But as he did so, he started to feel the first hints of decompression sickness.

Although he was unable to see due to profuse perspiration, Leonov did eventually make it back on board. The troubles didn't end there, though; once back inside, the cosmonauts realized that their air pressure and oxygen levels were climbing dangerously high—and consequently, things were getting wildly flammable.

During training, cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko died after dropping a piece of alcohol-soaked cotton in an oxygen-filled training chamber, producing a massive fireball. And so everyone was painfully aware that a single spark here would have "vaporized" the soon-to-be heroes.


And then the reentry system failed—they had no real way of controlling where they actually landed. As the BBC explained:

The best they could hope for was that the craft would touch down somewhere in the Soviet Union's vast landmass.


And they did. Right in the middle of Siberia. Which was full of wolves and bears. During mating season—the most aggressive of seasons.

Fortunately for the cosmonauts, their signal did eventually get picked up, and they were taken home as the well-deserved heroes they were—but not before spending two nights in the freezing Siberian forest.


You can learn more about Alexei Leonov's journey on the BBC's Cosmonauts: How Russia Won the Space Race, which premiers today at 9pm and available here after. [BBC]

Image: Getty Images, Central Press/Stringer


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After his spacewalk, Leonov wanted to design a commemorative stamp (he painted as a hobby). When it was finalized, the KGB vetoed his artwork because they were worried about giving away the design of the Voskhod. Eventually Leonov got a proposal through the Politiburo by drawing a spacecraft that bore no similarity whatsoever to the one he actually flew in!