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Monday, March 17, 2008

The First Spacewalk, March 18, 1965

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Today in 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov became the first human being to exit an orbiting capsule and float free in space, attached only by an umbilical cord. This opened a new era in manned space flight and made possible projects such as today’s International Space Station.

Space flight was still a bit of a crude science in 1965. Yuri Gagarin had opened the age of manned space flight just four years earlier; the biggest difference in the intervening time was the introduction of multiple-man crews by both the Soviet and American programs. For this record-breaking flight, the Soviets converted their one-man ship design, called Vostok, to carry two crew chairs and an inflatable airlock to be deployed once the capsule was in orbit. The end result was called Voskhod 2.

Performing a spacewalk during the Voskhod 2 flight was important to the Soviets for two reasons. First, it would be a propaganda coup, demonstrating that the industrial and scientific might of the communist system was far ahead of the American competition. Further, as the space program continued, it would become necessary to both repair satellites in orbit and build things there from sections launched independently. Without these abilities, space exploration would continue to be nothing more than human payloads packed into tiny capsules pushed into low Earth orbit by converted ICBMs.

Voskhod 2 took to the sky on the morning of March 18th, 1965. Ninety minutes after reaching orbit, pilot Alexey Leonov extended the Volga airlock, a comparatively delicate device covered in thick fabric so it could be retracted for launch. Flight commander Pavel Belyayev remained inside the capsule as Leonov climbed into the airlock and closed the hatch behind him. After depressurizing the Volga device, he opened the outer hatch and pushed out into space, attached to the Voskhod capsule by a 50-foot umbilical cord. He stayed outside for twenty minutes as the spacecraft traveled from over Egypt all the way to eastern Siberia.

TASS, the Soviet government’s news agency, reported that the spacewalk proceeded without any problems. As was learned later, however, this was far from the truth. Leonov’s suit ballooned up, making it impossible for him to use his chest-mounted camera. He re-entered the airlock head first, then got stuck as he tried to turn around and close the outer hatch. To free himself, he was forced to bleed air from his spacesuit until the lower pressure allowed him to move his limbs once again.

Once back inside the capsule, Belyayev fired explosive bolts which jettisoned the Volga airlock. Much later Leonov revealed that he carried a suicide pill with him on the walk. If he was injured while outside the capsule or could not get back in, Belyayev would have been forced to eject the airlock and Leonov, leaving him in orbit instead of having both men die on re-entry. Whether future cosmonauts (or American astronauts) carried such pills is a matter of conjecture.

After 25 hours in orbit, Voskhod 2 began her return to Earth; one last challenge remained before the men. As with all Russian space missions, this one was slated to land somewhere inside the Soviet Union. While this did take place, the landing site ended up being a remote area in the Ural Mountains. Instead of being picked up in short order, the two cosmonauts had to spend the night in deep snow surrounded by wolves.

Alexey Leonov served as a cosmonaut for 26 more years, retiring in 1991. He was slated to be the commander of two more eventful flights: a circumlunar Soyuz flight and the first Soviet mission to the moon. After the American success in reaching that goal first, however, both flights were cancelled. Leonov only flew in space one more time as the commander of Soyuz 19, the Soviet half of the Apollo-Soyuz Mission which took place in July, 1975.

Today, EVAs (the term used for space walks, standing for ‘extra-vehicular activities’) are an essential part of manned space flight. The International Space Station could not be expanded or maintained without them. During the early days of the Space Shuttle program, NASA developed the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a propulsion pack which allowed astronauts to do EVAs without tethers. After the 1986 Challenger accident, however, the MMU was deemed too risky for regular use and was retired. As of now, tethered spacewalks continue to be the method of choice whenever astronauts or cosmonauts need to leave the safety of their

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