Tag Archives: cosmonaut

Former Cosmonaut Recalls Taking the First Ever Spacewalk

It’s been fifty years now, but Alexei Leonov can still remember the moment he opened the capsule and wandered into the cold vastness of space for the first time – the moment when he was the first and at the time, the only human to float through the heavens.

“I gently pulled myself out and kicked off from the vessel,” recalled the former cosmonaut Leonov, who is now a youthful 80 years old. He is the last survivor of the Soviets’ Voskhod space program.

“[There was] an inky black, stars everywhere and the sun so bright I could barely stand it.”

Hanging from a fifteen foot cord, he took in the jaw-dropping view of Earth, slowly turnings his face towards home, where he would get a view unlike any of his neighbors.

“I filmed the Earth, perfectly round, the Caucasus, Crimea, the Volga. It was beautiful.”

The date was March 18, 1965, when tensions were at a high between the Soviet Union and United States, foes of the Cold War, both determined to set forth on a conquest of space.

At the time, Americans were still preparing the way for a spacewalk, which they would successfully complete in June of that same year on the Gemini 4 mission. Leonov alongside the ship’s pilot Pavel Belyayev (codenamed Almaz-1 and Almaz-2) were sent nearly 310 miles above Earth, where millions witnessed their mission unfold, live on both the radio and television.

As Leonov watched over the Crimean Peninsula from space, he heard Belyayev report back to Earth on the broadcast: “This is Almaz-1: Man has gone out into space.” Then he heard the recognizable voice of Yuri Levitan, who was then a famous broadcaster on Soviet radio, confirming the pilot’s words. “But who are they talking about?” he wondered momentarily.

Leonov spent 12 minutes in outer space on this voyage – a fairly short amount of time, considering the years of frantic efforts by the USSR’s scientists and engineers as they pushed endlessly to stay ahead of the Americans in the space race. The race had more or less begun in 1957 when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite and the U.S. government in response, passed legislation that led to the establishment of NASA, along with a call for a greater emphasis on math and science in public school curriculum.

In 1962, the Soviets met another one of their goals: The first person to orbit Earth, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. 12 months later, still not fully content with their success, the Soviets laid out a metaphor for their new objective: “Swimming in space like a sailor in the ocean.”

Russia’s space chief, who is often called the father of practical astronautics, Sergei Korolyov, handpicked Leonov to embark on this historic mission. Because of Korolyov’s ingenuity, Soviet officials since the regime of Stalin referred to him solely as “the Chief Designer” until his death, fearing that he would be targeted by American spies and assassinated were his identity known.

“Korolyov chose me because I had already piloted several aircraft, I scored highly and I could paint, which is rare among cosmonauts,” smiled Leonov, who after his retirement proved himself a rather talented space artist with portraits of himself floating in orbit.

For his 12 minutes floating outside the Voskhod 2 spacecraft, Leonov endured 18 months of intense physical training.

As ready as he might have been for that spacewalk, the same couldn’t be said of Voskhod 2.

“The spacecraft had no ejection system,” he said. “We would either have to wait nine months to revamp it or use this model. We chose the second option.”

Since NASA was preparing their own spacewalk with Ed White, the second option was the only viable one.

“It wasn’t about courage. We just knew it had to be done,” Leonov said.

As triumphant as he may have felt at his first glimpse of Earth from space, the feelings subsided rather quickly.

As the spacecraft’s orbit quickly drew it from the sun, and the view grew dark, Leonov had to re-enter the craft, but his spacesuit suddenly inflated, releasing atmospheric pressure that made the suit deform. As small as it sounds, this could have prevented him from entering the Voskhod 2’s airlock.

Rather than bothering to alert the control center, which could have risked more time and oxygen, Leonov released some of the oxygen already available in his suit, putting himself at risk of oxygen starvation.

After a long orderal, he successfully managed to struggle back through the airlock head first, rather than feet first. This series of difficult maneuvers left him covered in sweat. During the entire outing, he managed to lose 12 pounds.

There were more problems awaiting Leonov and his team back in the cabin. The ship’s automatic guidance system for re-entry ceased to work properly, forcing the crew to guide Voskhod 2 on its journey back to Earth.

Leonov described the complications in great detail in his book on the space race. First, their landing module failed to break off from the orbital module, releasing massive G-forces that made them spin wildly along the cable, as they hurtled towards the Earth.

They managed a successful landing in which no one was injured, but over 1,200 miles from their intended destination in Kazakhstan. This may sound like something of a happy ending, but when they emerged from the spacecraft, they found themselves in deep snow, in the wilderness of the Ural Mountains, the home to many wolves and bears.

“We waited three days in the forest to be rescued, and Soviet radio reported we were on holiday after the flight,” Leonov recalled, laughing.

When the rescuers finally did come, they brought out a large cauldron by helicopter that was then filled with snow from the taiga forest and heated, providing the cosmonauts with a hot bath.

Leonov and Belyayev soon returned home, where they were hailed as heroes, having completed the first successful spacewalk in history, 10 weeks ahead of the United States.

A decade after his adventure, Leonov went on to command the Soyuz 19 in what was the first joint space mission between both the Soviet Union and the United States. The rivalry between their programs largely ended after Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev canceled funding on the Soviet lunar landing, as the U.S. had by that time already completed a successful mission to the moon.

As the political climate between Moscow and Washington has grown somewhat hostile during the Ukraine conflict and there is some doubt as to the future of NASA’s space program, Leonov offered up some pretty wise words:

“There have never been frontiers between astronauts. The day that this notion sinks into the minds of politicians, our planet will be different.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

How Astronauts Deal with the Mess Hall in Space

Freeze-dried probably doesn’t sound appetizing, neither does Tang, no matter how hard they try to market it as the Space Age drink. For all you might dream about traveling in space, food is probably one of the few things on your mind. Yet, for so many astronauts and cosmonauts, it seems inevitable that they would miss their favorite food while in orbit. So how do they cope with it? ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from Italy brought an espresso with her aboard the International Space Station (ISS) when she began her mission in November of 2014. She was hardly setting any new records. John Young, an American astronaut, missed corned beef sandwiches so much that he stashed one along on a mission back in 1965, something that was problematic for NASA’s safety protocol.

In addition to the occupational hazards, cosmonauts and astronauts often spend their time in space restricted only to several foods. Earlier this week, Russian cosmonauts requested 15 packages of mayonnaise aboard the ISS for their next shipment of food, rather than lemons or tomatoes, much to the surprise of mission control. The Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield surprised us all with videos showing a space kitchen he runs aboard the ISS without benefit of running water, in which he not only makes a peanut butter sandwich with honey, a tortilla and peanut butter from the tube, but also a bean and steak burrito – where in space, the ingredients can’t fall out but just float around next to you, a feature that may make dining in space sound a bit more attractive. Astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson also had the pleasure of sampling a freeze-dry pizza with irradiated pepperoni, newly developed by the U.S. military and capable of lasting for up to two years.

So while the food in space may be improving, hopefully in time before the planned NASA mission to Mars and the permanent manned mission planned by the Netherlands based group Mars One, another important question is whether or not alcoholic beverages should be permitted in space – something that’s already been a bit of an issue for NASA protocol. The science of whether or not it’s possible to get “hammered” in a microgravity environment is still something left to a bit of debate. According to one of the lead researchers at the Institute of Biomedical Problems, which helped prepare cosmonauts for missions aboard the Soviet Salyut-7 space station in the 1980s, an unofficial part of their training protocol meant packing what they referred to as a “special sauce” meant to fight against the “psychological pressure” building up when three people are made to spend months living together within a confined environment, the Rossiskaya Gazeta reports. Yes, the special sauce was cognac, and the legitimacy of it in space was brought to the Ministry of Health at the time.

Cosmonaut Georgy Grechko elaborated a bit further:

“In orbit, people have a very difficult emotional state. If before sleep, the guys drink 5-7 grams of cognac, I support it.”… On board we had a tube with 125 grams of cognac which said “coffee.”

Cosmonaut Aleksandr Serebrov, a veteran who spent over 113 days in orbit aboard the Salyut-7 back in 1982, and retired with a total of over 373 days in orbit, and currently the holder of the world record for time spent conducting spacewalks, revealed to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta back in 2000, that the impact of alcohol was significant in not just helping to release any personal tensions held by crew members, it also protects nucleotides, the ingredients of DNA, from exposure to harmful space radiation. However, the impact drinking has on the brain is a bit different than having a nightcap back home. For one thing, your college drinking records may not hold up in a microgravity environment. 30 grams of alcohol is reasonably enough dosage, because the low gravity increases the rate of blood flow to your brain, the result of your blood vessels expanding in zero gravity. Consuming 40 grams in orbit is roughly the same as consuming 100 grams back home.

When it comes to alcohol, their American counterparts have been a bit more reserved, even though they were the first to introduce hard beverages to the cosmos – bringing sherry along on the 1971 Skylab mission. French astronaut Patrick Baudry, smuggled a bottle of wine on his trip aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery back in 1985, and was allegedly forbidden from popping open the bottle by Commander Daniel Brandenstein. Are all astronauts willing to comply? The statistics are a bit less clear. Back in 2007, NASA conducted a comprehensive review of their pre-flight protocols, and learned that their astronauts drank before takeoff at least twice before missions.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.