Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, First Man to Walk in Space, Dies at 85

Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, the first person to make a spacewalk, a member of the joint American and Russian Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission, and the cosmonaut most likely to have walked on the moon if Russia’s moon program had not ended catastrophically, died Oct 11 in a Moscow veteran’s hospital at age 85.

Leonov was one of the Soviet Union’s first group of cosmonauts, and he trained alongside Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go into space. During the Voshkod 2 mission in March 1965, Leonov exited the spacecraft, becoming the first person to perform an extra-vehicular activity. The event was nearly a disaster. Leonov struggled to re-enter the spacecraft because his space suit had ballooned beyond the diameter of the hatch. Risking death by bleeding off suit air pressure, Leonov was ultimately able to re-enter the Voshkod after 12 minutes and make a safe return to earth.

The first American to conduct a spacewalk was Maj. Ed White, who floated free of Gemini 4 later that same year.

Despite the mishap, Leonov remained a cosmonaut of high regard and he was decorated as a “Hero of the Soviet Union.” He was named commander of what was meant to be the first Soviet mission to orbit the moon, but the flight was canceled when the American Apollo 8 mission achieved that milestone first.

He was then chosen to be the first cosmonaut to land on the moon, but the catastrophic explosion of the Soviet N-1 moon rocket in 1969 abruptly ended Russia’s moon aspirations. The explosion destroyed the launch pad, killed more than 70 technicians, space engineers, and the director of the program. Leonov was later to have commanded two Salyut space station missions that were also scrubbed due to hardware mishaps.

Leonov was one of the two cosmonauts to participate in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). The détente-inspired mission saw the last Apollo spacecraft rendezvous in space with a Soviet Soyuz, as a demonstration of supposedly thawing US-Soviet relations. The special adapter allowing the spacecraft to dock was never used again, and it was not until US space shuttles began visiting the Russian Mir space station that such linkups in space became routine. Leonov’s two space flights totaled just over seven days in orbit.

After the ASTP, Leonov was chief cosmonaut and later deputy director of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, where he supervised crew training. He retired from the Russian air force in 1992 as a major general. After a stint in bank management, he wrote books, science fiction movie screenplays, an autobiography, and became a painter. “Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race,” co-authored with Apollo 15 commander David Scott, was published in 2006. Leonov attended several anniversary commemorations of the Apollo 11 moon landing as a guest of NASA. A crater on the moon is also named for him.