New Mexico Museum of Space History Home Page
What's NewAboutHall of FameExhibitionsEventsNew Horizons TheaterEducationPlan a VisitGet Involved

Friday October 11th, 2019

Pioneering Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov Passes Away at 85

World Mourns a True Space Hero

International Space Hall of Fame Inductee Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, a former Soviet cosmonaut who was the first man to walk in space, has passed away at 85 after a long illness. Leonov had been in Moscow’s Burdenko Hospital and died Friday, October 11, 2019. He will be buried at a memorial cemetery outside of Moscow on Tuesday.

IMAGE: Soviet Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first human to walk in space on March 18, 1965, just ten weeks before U.S. Astronaut Ed White performed his spacewalk during the Gemini 4 mission. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Soviet Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first human to walk in space on March 18, 1965, just ten weeks before U.S. Astronaut Ed White performed his spacewalk during the Gemini 4 mission. (Credit: Roscosmos)

The staff and friends of the New Mexico Museum of Space History and International Space Hall of Fame, in Alamogordo, NM, send their deepest condolences to the family. Museum Executive Director Chris Orwoll expressed his personal sympathies, “I was privileged to spend some time with Alexei in 2008 in Kazakhstan for a Soyuz launch. He had a great wry sense of humor. It was a cool day and I wasn’t wearing a coat and his first laughing comment to me was the he “must get picture with hearty American!” He was a hero of space exploration and a true gentleman.” Orwoll added, “Leonov was a huge proponent of the Russian space program his entire life. I believe his curiosity drove him.”

Cosmonaut No. 11, as Leonov was referred to, was twice decorated as the “Hero of the Soviet Union”, the country’s top honor. He made history on March 18, 1965, when he stepped out of his Voskhod 2 capsule for a 12-minute spacewalk, preceding the first U.S. spacewalk by less than three months. Decades later, details of his history making experience revealed the unexpected dangers that he and fellow cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev faced during the trip.

During an interview with AFP in 2015, Leonov said of his spacewalk, “I gently pulled myself out and kicked off from the vessel. There was an inky black, stars everywhere and the sun so bright I could barely stand it.” Millions of people on Earth followed the mission which was beamed live via television and radio, but what they didn’t know was that as Leonov tried to re-enter the spacecraft he realized that his spacesuit had inflated in the vacuum of space and made it nearly impossible for him to fit back through the hatch. He performed an incredibly risky manuever, bleeding off oxygen from his suit manually until he was able to push himself headfirst back into the craft.

But the frightening challenges of the mission were just beginning. After Leonov managed to rejoin his comrade inside the Voskhod, they realized their reentry guidance system had malfunctioned. They had to manually take control of the spacecraft for its return to Earth. To make matters worse, the landing module failed to separate from the orbital module and the spacecraft spun wildly around from the connecting cable as the two cosmonauts rocketed towards Earth. They landed safely, but were 2,000 kilometers from their intended target at Kazakhstan. "We waited three days in the forest to be rescued, and Soviet radio reported we were on holiday after the flight," Leonov said later, laughing. Their landing site was deep in snow in the Ural Mountains, home to wolves and bears. Rescuers brought a large cauldron that was filled with snow and heated up so that the new heroes could have a warm bath.

Ten years later, Leonov would command Soyuz 19, the first joint space mission between the Soviet Union and the United States. According to Phys.org, Leonov was quoted in regards to political tensions between Moscow and Washington, “There have never been frontiers between astronauts. The days this notion sinks into the minds of politicians, our planet will be different.”

Leonov was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in 1976, the year the facility opened.

Alexei Leonov quote:

“The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.”