May 30, 2019

Happy 85th to Alexei Leonov

Happy 85th to Alexei Leonov
Alexei Leonov in his cosmonaut days. Roscosmos

Alexei Leonov, a living legend of space exploration, as the first man to walk in outer space (March 18, 1965), turned 85 today, so the two Russians currently in space decided to take him on another spacewalk.

Alexei Ovchinin and Oleg Kononenko, who on Wednesday worked in their space suits for six hours, took a portrait of Leonov with them for a touching tribute. 

Watch Alexei Ovchinin and Oleg Kononenko wish Happy 85th Birthday to Alexei Leonov from space.


The cosmonauts even wore special signs on the back of their space suits:

The cosmonauts  taped signs to the back of their suits before floating out into outer space: "Leonov is #1" and "Happy Birthday Alexei Arkhipovich"

Leonov was born in a large family which lost their home and had to relocate after his father was arrested in 1937. He was released two years later, and the family (with ten children) lived in extreme poverty in two rooms of a communal flat, in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. Leonov did not start school until he was 9 years old.

Young Alexei wanted to study art, but didn't have money to pay for housing in Riga, where an art academy had accepted him, so instead he finished flight school in Kremenchug, Eastern Ukraine. He was picked to be on the first Soviet cosmonaut team, along with Yury Gagarin, but continued to put his art skills to good use, painting large, space-themed canvases or making sketches of fellow Soviets or Americans in orbit.

Alexei Leonov's humorous take on the Soyuz-Appollo project, when a US spacecraft docked to a Soviet one

"I stepped into the abyss, and felt something in my chest. Stars were on the left and right, above and below. I was among the stars, and I understood that I was a small part of this giant world, where the human was just a grain of sand," Leonov recalled his first space walk years later.

The rocket that day actually overshot its planned orbit of 300 kilometers above Earth, and so Leonov had to do his spacewalk at 500 kilometers. By the time the space walk was finished, 12 minutes later, his spacesuit inflated due to pressure, and he could not get back through the hatch.

Leonov's space suit was called Berkut. Modeled here by a testing engineer of Zvezda, its developer.

Leonov said he understood what was going on when he could not bend any part of his suit, preventing him to even grip the railing with his glove. With time running out on his oxygen supply, he didn't report his problems back to ground control, but simply decided to halve the pressure inside his suit, which could well have made his blood boil. 

"I imagined, what would happen if I told them 'I cannot enter the spacecraft.' What would happen then? It would be chaos on the ground," he said.

Footage made during the testing flight of Leonov and his flight partner Pavel Belyaev was later made into a movie Above Earth in a Space Suit. Leonov was also supposed to take photos on the spacewalk, but could not reach the camera, due to the space suit's deformation.

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