Alexei Leonov, the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first person to take a walk in space, has died today at the age of 86, Russian agency Ria Novosti reported
Leonov (Listvianka, Russia, 1934) was one of the few living members of the legendary group of first Soviet cosmonauts, whose visible head was Yuri Gagarin, the first person to travel to space, in 1961. In those years communist Russia took an advantage for the U.S. in space and Leonov was proof of it,
On March 18, 1965, this son of Siberian workers opened the hatch of his ship to enter history, something he got in part by omitting information from his superiors, as he explained in an interview in 2011. Leonov's mission was to go into space from his Vosjod spacecraft, which orbited Earth at an altitude of about 500 kilometers and about 20,000 kilometers per hour, and to perform the first spacewalk. He did it without any problems, but as he tried to return he realized that his suit had inflated like a balloon and no longer fit through the hatch. Leonov recalls that, without informing his superiors by radio, he decided to open a spigot in his suit to expel air, which could have caused him to lose consciousness, but which allowed him to return to the capsule safely,Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in a file image. Getty
Back to Earth, a new ruling forced Leonov and his companion, Pavel Belyaev, to land on the taiga covered by a metre and a half of snow, hundreds of miles from the fixed landing point. "There were 20 degrees below zero. I started sending morse signals, but there was no answer. I thought we were lost and, in fact, that day several state stations began to broadcast Mozart's Requiem. The next day, at last, we were spotted by a helicopter. We had to walk in the snow for three days until we met him," Leonov recalled,
Ten years later, in 1975, this cosmonaut was the first Soviet to shake hands with an American in space during the joint mission with us Apollo-Soyuz, an attempt to set off the drop in tension between the two superpowers. At that time Leonov again expressed his rebellious tally. On that mission, Leonov recalled in the interview, "there was much discussion about how far we could turn both ships from each other." "Until the last moment the bureaucrats at the agency told us that we could not approach more than 150 meters away. But Tom Stafford [commander of the American mission] protested, saying that there was no need to fly so far and that 45 meters was enough. He was bent on protesting. Then I grabbed Stafford, pulled him out of the room and said, 'We're going to be in space, alone, and no one's going to check how far we're flying. So let's do what we want and don't tell anyone," he explained,
By then Russia had already lost the space race, as it was its American rivals that got the hardest still by being the first to bring two astronauts to the surface of the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, in 1969, now does now half a century. Gagarin had died a year earlier in a plane crash,In the background, from left to right, Kip Thorne, Nobel prize in physics, composer Hans Zimmer, Garik Israelian, Leonov, Brian May and Richard Dawkins. In the front row, Stephen Hawking and Nobel Prize in Chemistry Harold Kroto. G.i.
Leonov, along with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel to space in June 1963, Gagarin, and 17 other AIR Force pilots of the USSR, was part of the first batch of cosmonauts of the communist country, selected in 1960. He was a privileged witness to a program wrapped in secrecy,
In 1957 Russia had surprised the world, especially the Americans, by successfully launching the Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. The mastermind behind the Soviet landmarks was Sergei Koriolov, who, like Leonov's father, a miner, had been purged by the Stalinist dictatorship. Leonov recalled the day Koriolov entered Wernher von Braun's house to search it for the last bars of World War II. "When they came in, the coffee was still hot," Leonov recalled. Von Braun, former SS officer, had invented the fearsome V2 rockets of Nazi Germany. The Americans met him first and took him to the U.S. He was the engineer who designed the Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever created, that brought the first American astronauts to the moon. "Much later I asked Von Braun what he would have done if he had fallen into the hands of the Soviets rather than the Americans. He said he had worked for the Soviets, because all he wanted was to go against Hitler," Leonov recalled,
Test pilot, air force general, engineer and amateur painter, Leonov devoted the last part of his life to scientific dissemination and to promoting peaceful and collaborative space exploration. During this period he visited Spain several times with other leading figures in science and space, such as Setphen Hawking and his colleague Neil Armstrong.
"Alexei Leonov was a very positive person, with a big, strong heart. Its name means a lot to millions of people on our planet," explains the Research Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands Garik Israelian, a friend of Leonov and director of the Starmus festival. The Russian cosmonaut was during several editions one of the most representative figures who each year gathered in the Canary Islands to celebrate a particular event that mixed science and music and attended by Nobel prizes and very prominent figures of the research and astronautics,
In the last edition of the festival held in Spain, in 2016, Leonov, surrounded by six other cosmonauts and astronauts from five different nationalities and three different generations, said: "In the last millennium there were wars and revolutions but the most important was what Neil Armstrong did.
Israelian says he spoke this morning with Leonov's daughter, who confirmed that his father died today at 12:40 Moscow time. His funeral will be held Tuesday in the Russian capital,