First man to walk in space ‘couldn’t get back into airlock’ in re-entry terror

The terrifying moment came at the end of Alexei Leonov’s walk outside in 1965 – one of the most historic events in mankind’s exploration of space.

Leonov, who died four years ago, left his capsule on March 18 for just over 12 minutes. He had only his spacesuit between him and outer space, and he was connected to the Voskhod 2 by a 16ft-long tether.

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“You just can't comprehend it. Only out there can you feel the greatness – the huge size of all that surrounds us,” Leonov recalled during a BBC interview a few years ago.

But when the Russian tried to get back into the spacecraft, he found his suit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he couldn’t get himself into the airlock. His suit began to stiffen dangerously, and his hands slid out of his gloves and his feet out of his boots.

This was all happening while the Voskhod 2 was hurtling towards the shadow created by the Earth, and the cosmonaut realised it was a matter of only a few minutes before he’d be in total darkness.

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Maintaining his composure during the petrifying ordeal, Leonov managed to open a valve and release some of the pressure from his spacesuit. He just about squeezed himself back into the capsule, head first, with only moments to spare.

He lost an incredible 6kg during the scary experience. In a massive understatement, Leonov later described it as being “the most difficult moments of my life”.

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On the same mission, Leonov – who was born in 1934 – drew a sketch of an orbital sunrise, which was the first art ever produced in space.

But that happened during a rare moment of calm, as the spacewalk wasn’t the last hairy thing to happen on that trip. Leonov and fellow cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev had to wait three days to be rescued after they crashed in a mountain forest on their return to Earth.

It didn’t dampen his appetite for adventure, though, and he returned to space in 1975 as the commander of Soyuz 19, which was part of the first joint US-USSR joint mission. That led to a lifelong friendship with Thomas Stafford, the US commander of the Apollo.

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