On This Day: Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov becomes first man to walk in space

Julian Gavaghan

MARCH 18, 1965: Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first man to walk in space on this day in 1965.

The 30-year-old Russian floated outside the Voskhod 2 spacecraft for 12 minutes while connected to a 17ft tether.

By the end of his 'spacewalk', the vacuum effect had caused Leonov's spacesuit to expand so much that he couldn’t fit through the door.

He had to open a valve to release pressure – and even then it was a tight squeeze before he could return to relative safety.

Soviet footage in British Pathé’s archive shows him spinning outside Voskhod 2 after also filming the lift-off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

The 26-hour mission, during which Leonov was accompanied by Pavel Belyayev, made history and put the USSR further ahead in the Space Race with America.

Until then the Communist superpower had scored all the firsts – and later that year would again astonish the world by being the earliest nation to land a rocket on Venus.

It had launched the Space Race by sending the first satellite, Sputnik, into space on October 4, 1957.

A month later the Soviets would again make history after became the first nation to put a living creature – the suitably Proletarian mongrel dog Laika – into orbit.

Americans feared that the rockets used might be capable of delivering nuclear weapons thousands of miles.

 

[On This Day: USSR lands on Venus and nearly wins space race]

 

In response, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered more of his country’s superior economic resources to be devoted to what became known as the Space Race.

Sputnik – meaning satellites in Russian - particularly irked the U.S because the U.S. had previously twice failed to launch a transmitter under Project Vanguard.

They suffered another setback when, on December 6, 1957, their third rocket crashed, leading to the Daily Express nicknaming the craft “flopnik”.  
The U.S. Army finally put their own satellite in space on January 31, 1958 – with the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) being set up soon after.

By December, 1958, the Americans had sent a living creature into space and in May, 1959, monkeys Able and Baker became the first animals to survive the trip.

Yet these early American achievements were eclipsed on April 12, 1961 when the Soviet Union put the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space.

 

[On This Day: Sputnik II and Laika, the first dog in space, re-enter Earth’s atmosphere]

 

Just weeks later, Alan Shepherd became the first American to be sent into the orbit and from then on both sides competed to be the first to put a man on the moon.

The Americans got there first – and effectively won the Space Race – when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins touched down on July 20, 1969.

Yet few people at the time realised just how close the USSR came.

The secretive Soviets kept under wraps the fact that, 17 days earlier, its own N1 moon rocket exploded seconds after lift-off, causing the biggest non-nuclear blast in history.

Details of the explosion, which was powerful enough to level a town the size of Luton, were only revealed after the fall of communism in the 1990s.


[On This Day: Oil tanker Torrey Canyon was shipwrecked off the Cornish coast and spilled 120,000 tons of oil]

The lid was also lifted on how the brave Bolsheviks kept on trying – and failing – with ten launches between 1969 and 1974, when its moon programme was axed.

NASA successfully landed six manned shuttles on the moon between 1969 and 1972 when the U.S. government ended its expensive programme.