For 12 minutes on March 18, 1965, the 30-year old cosmonaut Alexei Leonov experienced what it felt like to be completely out of control.
It was early afternoon at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where Leonov and his commander Pavel Belyayev had launched atop a Voskhod rocket only an hour and a half prior, but for the two cosmonauts hurdling through space 300 miles above the Earth, the multiplicity of a clock face had collapsed into the stark duality of day and night. As Leonov and Belyayev completed their first orbit of the Earth, they deployed an inflatable airlock attached to their cramped two-person capsule. Shortly after completing the first orbit, Leonov entered the airlock and waited for the all clear from his commander.
Somewhere over the Sudan, Leonov opened the airlock hatch and thrust himself into the cosmos, thereby becoming the first human in history to perform a spacewalk. It was a monumental technical achievement, but for the moment, Leonov’s mind was overwhelmed with a mix of terror and awe as he found himself floating in the void.
“My feeling was that I was a grain of sand,” Leonov would later recall of his time outside the capsule. “I was surrounded by stars and was floating without much control. I will never forget the moment. I also felt an incredible sense of responsibility.”
Yet Leonov’s existential ruminations were quickly cut short. Leonov was attached to the Voskhod capsule by a 17-foot cord and soon after leaving the airlock he had entered an uncontrolled spin. Far more concerning, however, was Leonov’s pressure suit, which rapidly inflated and made it impossible for him to pull himself back to the capsule using the cord.
“The suit felt loose around my body,” Leonov told the BBC. “I couldn’t pull myself back using the cord. And what’s more with this misshapen suit it would be impossible to fit through the airlock.”
Leonov had only been outside of the craft for ten minutes, but in five more minutes the Voskhod capsule would be in Earth’s shadow and Leonov’s movements would be obscured by total darkness. His only option was to manually deflate the suit, so without alerting the Soviet ground control Leonov slowly released oxygen from his spacesuit. After deflating half of his suit, Leonov made his way back to the capsule airlock, racing against the orbital trajectory of the craft as well as decompression sickness, colloquially known as the bends. No doubt the suicide pill Leonov carried with him in case he was unable to re-enter the craft and had to be abandoned in orbit was on the forefront of his mind.
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With his arms and legs feeling like pins and needles, Leonov forced himself into the airlock headfirst. He was pouring sweat from the ordeal and extreme physical exertion — he ended up losing over 10 pounds to sweat — and his vision was obscured as beads of sweat floated around his helmet. The airlock was cramped and Leonov found himself hunched in a ball as he closed the hatch. It was a close brush with death, but the mission was far from over.
Over the next several hours, Leonov and Belyayev circled the Earth and awaited re-entry. The space was cramped and the two cosmonauts sat shoulder to shoulder. It is tempting to imagine the cosmonauts growing restless with their sublime view of our planet. In any case, at some point Leonov produced a small sketchpad and a box of colored pencils so that he could pass the time with his original love: Art.
Although he had come into the cosmonaut training program the typical way — through the Soviet air force — unlike his peers Leonov also had a passion for the arts. When he was 19 years old, Leonov enrolled himself in the Latvian Academy of Arts, but dropped out soon thereafter because he was unable to afford its high tuition. After dropping out of the Academy he joined the Soviet air force, but continued studying art by taking evening classes. Leonov had started out drawing scenes of the Baltic seaboard, but once he was in space he found himself contemplating a landscape that most artists can only dream of and he wasn’t about to waste the opportunity.
Leonov’s box of colored pencils was affixed to a rubber band that Leonov wore around the wrist of his spacesuit and each pencil was attached to a bit of string to prevent them from drifting off inside the spacecraft. Affixing the rubber band around the wrist of his spacesuit, Leonov decided to draw his view of the sunrise. Without knowing better, the resulting picture would appear rather unremarkable — almost like a rainbow viewed on a faulty television screen. Given Leonov’s remarkable artistic abilities, the drawing feels constrained, which make sense given that Leonov was in fact physically restrained by the cramped spacecraft and bulky spacesuit gloves.
Yet lurking beneath the picture is a deeply personal drama of trauma and triumph as two world superpowers approached the pinnacle of the space race. It is a picture drawn by a man who had just seen the face of death etched in the inky blackness of cosmos, but was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sunshine upon the Earth.
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