Tag Archives: Russia

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.

Why We Should Worry About Giant Siberian Craters

It seems only appropriate that Siberia, well known for being a cold and remote land, isolated from humanity, should be connected to the Yamal Peninsula, a name that literally means the ‘end of the world,’ and more lately than ever before, standing on it makes you’re on shaky ground. One of the recent mysteries of Yamal in recent years is why it has such a porous surface. According to scientists working at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), the reason is giant craters, and not directly related to the number of meteors that have stricken Russia in recent years. This summer, locals reported sighting a sinkhole 260 feet wide. A further analysis by Russian geologists now indicates that the region during the winter could suffer up to 30 more.

Already, ten craters have been sighted throughout Yamal. Another crater, known as B2 is evidently surrounded with 20 smaller “baby craters,” all of which are filled with water, according to a report by the Siberian Times.

“I would compare this with mushrooms: when you find one mushroom, be sure there are few more around,” said Dr. Vasily Bogoyavlensky in his interview with the Siberian Times, invoking a popular pastime in rural Russia. “I suppose there could be 20 to 30 craters more.”

He is the Deputy Director of the Oil and Gas Research Institute of Moscow. He suspects that the incidence of these craters coincide with the locations of Siberia’s Bovanenkovo gas field, according to The Siberian Times.

Aside from meteors which were some significant YouTube sensations over the last few years, the cause remains something of a mystery. Some residents near Antipayuta of Siberia witnessed a flash near one of the craters. Some others living in Yamal reported tremors before the first of the sinkholes were sighted. Russian scientists have proposed one likely suspect: methane. There’s plenty of support for Bogoyavlensky’s claim too, as heightened levels of methane were reported in Siberia last summer. When the craters began to appear last July, scientists suspected that it may be among the most visible evidence we might have of the disastrous effects of global warming. Studies have attributed some of the more severe winters of the northern hemisphere to an increase in the loss of Arctic ice, in regions like Siberia, which have allowed cold jetstreams to move south. As temperatures rise, the permafrost begins thawing, releasing compounds like methane that then burst violently through the earth after centuries of buildup. As the ground warms over, it begins actively releasing more methane, while allowing for other tracts of land to thaw and eventually burst.

Bogoyavlensky is of the suspicion that these gas emissions, similar to those caused by fracking, may have had a role to play in forming the craters, as could violent explosions. Warm weather that thaws the Russian tundra could cause natural gas reserves located underground to burst outward, bringing up rocks and debris with it, he said. Bogoyavlensky’s team had earlier observed some ‘degassing’ taking place in the Yamal lakes – in which natural gas rises from beneath a lake bed – evidence supporting Bogoyavlensky’s proposed theory. There’s another significant danger if methane is to blame. While levels of CO2 are the main reason for concern with man-made global warming, methane is capable of committing 20 times the amount of harm as CO2 over a 100-year span.

Tom Wagner, a scientist at NASA, suspects that the sinkholes may be the result of the permafrost thawing and causing Siberian caves and underground tunnels to atrophy. Further investigation of the disaster areas is needed before either theory can be fully confirmed. Those who have observed the craters up close are reindeer herders indigenous to the region. Scientists have only viewed the giants from helicopters, after hearing the accounts of their sudden appearances. Although they hope to sample the craters and do more in-depth observation of the region, if Bogoyavlensky is correct, this sort of investigation could be dangerous, putting many geologists and other scientists in harm’s way, due to the land’s instability.

“These objects need to be studied, but it is rather dangerous for the researchers,” Bogoyavlensky said. “We know that there can occur a series of gas emissions over an extended period of time, but we do not know exactly when they might happen.”

If these are in fact gas emissions which are going unchecked, they could propose a significant threat to both drillers in the region as well as to people living in the local communities.

“It is important not to scare people,” Bogoyavlensky said of his approach, “but to understand that it is a very serious problem and we must research this.”

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.