The legendary Soviet cosmonaut, writer, and artist became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago.
On Friday 11 October, Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, announced the news on their website. No cause of death was stated, but it is known through Russian media that Leonov had health issues for several years.
Leonov became the first human to walk in space, conducting a twelve minute and nine second spacewalk on 18 March 1965. He was joined on the mission by fellow cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev, who remained in the spacecraft for the mission’s duration.
Ninety minutes after launch, Leonov put on his space suit and left the capsule via an inflatable airlock. Having completed his only tasks of attaching a video camera to the end of the airlock to record his spacewalk and photographing the spacecraft, Leonov tried to operate the still camera on his chest. He found that his suit had ballooned and was unable to reach the shutter button on his leg.
After his twelve minutes and nine seconds outside the spacecraft, Leonov’s suit had ballooned so much that he could not fit back inside the airlock to re-enter the capsule. He was forced to bleed off some of the oxygen inside his spacesuit to below the safety level in order to get back inside.
Leonov’s second trip to space was as the commander of the Soyuz capsule in the first joint space mission between the Soviet Union and the United States. In July 1975, the Soyuz 19 capsule docked with an Apollo command and service module. This mission, named the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), marked the end of the Cold War space race which began with the USSR launching Sputnik 1 in 1957.
Following the ASTP, the US didn’t launch another crew into space until the first Space Shuttle flight in 1981.
Leonov is remembered as the first person to walk in space, but had things gone differently, he could have been the first human to walk on the Moon. While NASA was pushing towards President Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the Moon” by the end of the decade, the Soviet Union was developing its own Moon landing programme in secrecy.
Having proved he was made of the “right stuff”, Leonov was selected to command the Soviet Union’s first Moon landing attempt. However, the Soviet space programme lost momentum after its chief designer Sergei Korolev died in an accident 1966. On top of this, the Soviets couldn’t get their N-1 Moon rocket to work.
When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in July 1969, the Soviet Union cancelled its lunar programme.
As well as a pioneer in space, Leonov was an inspiration to science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, who named a Soviet spaceship after Leonov in 2010: Odyssey Two, his sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
NASA paid tribute to Leonov by pausing live coverage of a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Friday 11 October, to report on the cosmonaut’s death.
Mission Control in Houston said, “A tribute to Leonov as today is a spacewalk.”