Alexei A. Leonov

Alexei A. Leonov

The first man to walk in space, co-commanded the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project Flight.

Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov is a former Soviet cosmonaut who is also an accomplished artist. In 1965, he became the first person to step out of a spacecraft and walk in space. In 1975, he commanded the Soyuz spacecraft that took part in the first rendezvous between a Soviet and United States spacecraft.

Leonov was born in Listvyanka in the Altai region of Siberia on May 30, 1934. He graduated from the Soviet Air Force Academy of Arts in Riga then attended Pilot prep school in Kremenchug. In 1957, he graduated with honors from the Chuguyev Higher Air Force School and, in 1968, from the Zhukovskiy Air Force Engineering Academy. He earned a Candidate of Technical Sciences degree in 1981.

In 1960, Alexei Leonov became one of the original twenty cosmonauts chosen by the Russian space program. His first spaceflight was the Voskhod 2 mission on March 18, 1965. Pavel Belyayev commanded the 26-hour flight and Leonov was the Pilot. Ninety minutes after the launch, Leonov became the first person to walk in space, floating freely outside the Voskhod capsule for more than ten minutes high above the Earth.

When Leonov attempted to return to the capsule he could not because the pressure difference between the air in his space suit, and the vacuum of space, expanded the suit, making it so rigid he could not work his fingers. Eventually, he bled some of the air out of the suit and was able to close the lock’s outer hatch. By the time Leonov ended his spacewalk it had lasted over twenty minutes.

During re-entry the onboard computer for the Voskhod malfunctioned and the capsule landed over 600 miles off course in a remote section of the Ural Mountains. After two days and a cold night in the wilderness, the cosmonauts were finally rescued.

Alexei Leonov received the Hero of the Soviet Union award for his spacewalk and became deputy commander of the cosmonaut team, teaching other cosmonauts how to perform extravehicular activities. He also worked on the Soviet lunar landing program and was going to be the leader of the first Soviet manned lunar mission. Once that was canceled after Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, he began training for the Salyut space station project. In 1971, Leonov was assigned to the Salyut 1 mission, but he and his crew were replaced when Copilot Valery Kubasov fell ill. The three-member crew that did fly, however, died on June 29, 1971, during reentry when an air valve failed.

Ten years after Voskhod 2, Alexei Leonov re-entered space in 1975 as commander of the Soyuz 19 mission, the first joint Soviet-U.S. space project. The mission was known as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in the United States. Leonov’s training included learning the English language and making three visits to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. His friendly demeanor won over many Americans and did much to change Western perceptions of Soviet cosmonauts.

On July 15, 1975, Leonov and Valery Kubasov were aboard Soyuz 19 as it lifted off from Baikanor Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the same day the Americans launched an Apollo capsule from Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Two days later the two spacecraft docked, allowing the crews to rotate between the two spacecraft and conducted mainly ceremonial activities. Leonov was on the American side for five hours and 43 minutes, while Kubasov spent four hours and 57 minutes in the command and docking modules.

After being docked for nearly 44 hours, Apollo and Soyuz parted for the first time and were “station-keeping” at a range of 160 feet. The Apollo crew placed its craft between Soyuz and the sun so that the diameter of the service module formed a disk that blocked out the sun. After this experiment, Apollo moved towards Soyuz for the second docking. Three hours later Apollo and Soyuz undocked for the second and final time. The spacecraft moved to a 130-foot station-keeping distance so that an ultraviolet absorption experiment could be performed. With all the joint flight activities completed, the ships went on their separate ways.

On July 21, 1975, the safe landing of Soyuz 19 ended Leonov’s career in space. He logged 7.02 days in space on his two flights. He was awarded a second Hero of the Soviet Union award for ASTP. In his career, he received the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Star awards. Unfortunately, it would take another two decades and the fall of the Soviet Union before astronauts and cosmonauts would work together in space again.

From 1976 to 1982, Leonov was the commander of the cosmonaut team and deputy director of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. He retired from government service in 1991 with the rank of Major General in the Soviet Air Force.

General Leonov next chaired an investment corporation in Moscow. He is an accomplished artist, specializing in painting scenes with space themes. Leonov Crater, on the far side of the Moon, is named for him.