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The Race for Space II

Goggles, Pilot, Aleksei Leonov, USSRGoggles, Pilot, Aleksei Leonov, USSR, National Air and Space Museum, Gift of Aleksei Leonov.

Continuing our theme from last week . . .

The 1960s were a volatile time around the world, and one of the most difficult relationships involved the competition between the Unites States and the Soviet Union over who would be the first to achieve the monumental task of sending a human to outer space. During the early years of what was to become known as the “Space Race” the Soviets were most often the leaders, and were responsible for the first orbiting satellite, first man in space, the first woman in space, and the first person in orbit, among others. In 1965 the Soviets extended their lead in the Space Race when Cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov became the first human to leave the safe confines of his spacecraft and complete a space walk.

In 1960 the Soviets put together their first group of Cosmonauts, and Leonov was among them. As a Soviet Air Force pilot, Leonov was just 25-years old when he was selected to be among the history-making members of the Soviet Space Program. He was also a gifted artist, and in addition to being the first man to complete a spacewalk, Leonov became the first artist in space when he flew on the Voskhod 2 flight.    

The Vostok Program was the Soviet plan for manned space flight, and was successful at putting both the first man and the first woman in space. Leonov was originally scheduled to complete his space walk on the Vostok 11 flight, but the program was ended after 6 missions and replaced with the Voskhod program.   During this time Leonov was completing a rigorous 18 months of training, including extensive weightlessness training to prepare him for the Voskhod 2 flight and historic spacewalk. Following completion of their training, Leonov and mission commander Pavel Belyayev, blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on the 8th Soviet manned space mission.

Leonov was connected by a 5.35 meter (17.5 foot) tether when he exited his spacecraft through an inflatable airlock. He was outside the spacecraft for 12 minutes and nine seconds, floating in the zero gravity environment with the Earth behind him. In this video Leonov is seen during his space walk, and in translation describes his experience as “extra-ordinary.” The mission was not without problems, and a potentially life-threatening issue arose at the end of the spacewalk when the vacuum of outer space caused Leonov's spacesuit to inflate so much that he could not re-enter the airlock. In a risky move he opened a valve to release some of the limited oxygen in the suit, and was able to struggle back into the airlock to safety.

Leonov brought his love of the arts with him during his flight, and he became the first person to sketch the view of earth from space. He created a “bracelet” to hold a set of colored pencils, and was able to create several color sketches during he mission, which he has used as the basis of numerous paintings and other art works. His keen artistic eye is evident in a recent quote about his experience with the spacewalk.   Leonov said:

"The Earth is shrouded by a light grey mantle. Not very beautiful, but when you look at the Earth from the side of the Sun, it's emerald green like a shiny ball from a Christmas tree. And you know, the Black Sea is indeed the darkest one, and the Baltic is grey, and the Caribbean is emerald blue. All depends on sedimentary rock and the depth."

Leonov served as the commander of the cosmonaut team and deputy director of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center from 1976 to 1982. He retired from the Soviet Air Force in 1991, holding the rank of Air Force General. In 2007 he was a contributor to a non-fiction book called Into Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era 1961-1965. The book is an account of the American and Russian space programs from 1961 onwards. He continues to show active interest in international space programs.

—Carrie Carter


  1. James

    I once spoke to Cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin regarding this event while sharing a drink during his last day in Houston, Texas after a long assignment at Mission Control. He took great joy in explaining to us how much more “creative” the Cosmonaut corps are than the US Astronauts, because an astronaut would never have opened his/her oxygen valve and would have waited for NASA to come up with a solution, test it, and transmit the plans up to the space craft. We disagreed about that Cosmonaut vs Astronaut judgment that he had made, but had a good time talking about these events (which were unreleased by the Soviet government for a long time).
    This is a great article regarding more of the history of the space programs of our little blue planet. I am sure Nikolai (and the rest of the Astronauts and Cosmonauts of our respective space programs) will enjoy it as well.

  2. Carrie

    Just wanted to thank you all for reading!

  3. I have found so many interesting articles & information on various topics in your blog especially its discussion. I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! keep up the good work. I like your presentation.

  4. Dimitri Neos

    Keep the great posts on space coming!

  5. Tom

    Fascinating information. A lot of technology has been produced from the space programs, including many items that make everyday life much easier. I hope it will continue.

  6. Chip

    Fascinating article with focus on Leonov and relevant to the recent news of a resurgence of the “Cold War” (though I realize serendipitous)! I remembered that one of the cosmonauts was an artist and this article put a face on him for me.

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