March 18 - Celebrating the First Walk in Space!

Posted on March 18, 2020

The "Space Race" between the United States and the Soviet Union ended up pushing both nations to do great things. The Soviets, of course, "won" many laps (first person to reach space, first person in orbit, first person to consume food in space, first person to make multiple orbits during a spaceflight, first group flight, first woman in space, etc., etc.). The U.S. "won" a pretty big lap (first - and so far only) people to land on the Moon, but the U.S. "won" a few other laps, as well, such as the first people to do a space rendezvous and the first space docking.

Today is the anniversary of the first human "spacewalk." The U.S.S.R. "won" this particular feat when cosmonaut Alexei Leonov exited the Voskhod 2 on this date in 1965.

Leonov had spent 18 months (a year and a half!) on weightlessness training before this mission. Of course he was tethered to the spacecraft so he couldn't float away, and even more of course he was wearing a pressurized spacesuit (otherwise he would have died in the vacuum of space). But at the end of the spacewalk (12 minutes after he left the spaceship), Leonov's suit at inflated in the vacuum of space to be too large to fit back into the airlock! Yikes! 

Leonov had to inch his way into the airlock while opening a valve and *carefully* letting some of his precious air out from the inside of the suit. It took a lot longer than he thought it would, and Leonov was both uncomfortable and worried before he finally managed to (barely) squeeze into the airlock. His crewmate Pasha was able to activate the airlock so that there was equal pressure in the airlock and the inside of the spaceship, and Leonov was finally able to get back into the spacecraft. He reported that when he was finally safe, he was "drenched with sweat, my heart racing."

A few months later, Ed White would become the first American to perform a spacewalk. He used an oxygen propelled gun to maneuver and loved being outside in his spacesuit that he stayed outside after his allotted time was up. He had to be ordered back into the spaceship, and he said, "I'm coming back in...and it's the saddest moment of my life." 

Two other things happened during that first American space walk - and they both concerned gloves!

(1) A spare glove floated away through the open airlock, becoming one of the first pieces of known space debris in Earth orbit. (It's not still there - as you might have guessed, when it slowed down enough, it dropped out of orbit and burned up in the Earth's atmosphere.)

(2) There was a mechanical problem with the hatch mechanism, so it was really hard for White's crewmate McDivitt to open and relatch. But McDivitt was able to use his glove to push a gear so that he was able to relatch the door and save both of their lives! Phew!

Back to Alexei Leonov:

Leonov was to have been the first cosmonaut to land on the Moon, but the project was cancelled - I gather because of some launch failures and because the Americans had already been there, done that. The U.S.S.R. decided to halt the lunar program and concentrate on creating a space station.

So Leonov lost a chance for another huge "first" - but he was able to distinguish himself from other cosmonauts and astronauts by being an accomplished space artist! This is one of his paintings.

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