Fifty-Five Years since Voskhod 2
Updated: Mar 24
Fifty-five years ago today, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the world's first extravehicular activity (EVA), more commonly referred to as "spacewalk". Voskhod 2 was the eighth manned Soviet spaceflight and the fourteenth crewed spaceflight overall. It also marked what some consider the last Soviet triumph before the US landed on the moon in 1969.
The mission was commanded by Pavel Belyayev and piloted by Alexei Leonov, who would go on to command the Soviet portion of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project that brought the end of the Space Race in 1975. Dmitri Zaikin served as backup commander with Yevgeni Khrunov as backup pilot. Belyayev and Leonov were announced to the public as the mission's crew only a month before launch.
Leonov (left) and Belyayev (right) - the crew of Voskhod 2
(image source: spacesafetymagazine.com)
Voskhod 2's original mission name was Vykhod, which means "exit", but it was felt that "Vykhod" was too revealing of the flight's purpose, which were always kept under wraps until the mission was successful. The spacecraft's callsign was Almaz, or "diamond". It included an inflatable airlock that was extended once in orbit called Volga. After use, it was jettisoned. The Voskhod spacecraft itself was actually a Vostok spacecraft with a backup solid fuel retrorocket attached atop the descent module. The ejection seat of the Vostok was removed (cosmonauts ejected out of the capsule after reentry) and two other seats were added. Now that the crew would be landing inside the spacecraft, a solid fuel braking rocket was added to the parachute lines to provide some softening to the landing at touchdown, which unlike the American space program, was on solid ground instead of water.
Voskhod 2 launched from Baikonur Site 1, also known as Site 1/5 and Gagarin's Start, on March 18, 1965 at 0700 GMT. Within the first few orbits of the mission, Leonov performed his 12-minute EVA in a unique suit known as the Berkut, which translates to "Golden Eagle". The EVA began over north-central Africa and ended over eastern Siberia. Being the very first attempt at a spacewalk in all of history, Leonov's only tasks were to attach a camera to the end of the airlock to record his activity and to photograph the spacecraft. However, the spacesuit inflated and he was unable to reach the shutter switch on his leg for the camera on his chest. Even worse, the ballooned suit had stiffened and he was having difficulty reentering the airlock, which he entered head-first. This was a problem because he then had to turn around in the airlock to close the outer hatch, an impossible task with a ballooned suit. Therefore, Leonov bled off some of his suit's pressure and went below safety limits by the time he had released enough for his joints to bend again. He did not report this to mission control but live broadcasts of the EVA had been cancelled when the difficulties began to arise. To make matters worse, the primary hatch would not seal completely once Leonov was back inside. To compensate, the environmental control system had to flood the cabin with oxygen, an activity that would prove to be deadly in a few short years with the Apollo 1 disaster. In fact, Leonov has said he had a suicide pill to swallow if he had been unable to re-enter Voskhod 2. Additionally, later medical reports indicated that he had nearly suffered a heat stroke and the cosmonaut said he was quite literally up to his knees in sweat. Astronaut Gene Cernan would experience similar anomalies during his Gemini-9 EVA in 1966.
Leonov during his spacewalk (image source: space.com)
The primary retrorockets failed on re-entry and a manually controlled retrofire was accomplished after another orbit. The service module failed to separate completely, which led to gyrations (rapid movements in circles) of the joined spacecraft. Connecting wires eventually burned through. Voskhod 2 landed near Perm in the Ural mountains in heavy forest the next day. This was about 240 miles away from the intended landing zone because after the cosmonauts oriented the craft for reentry, they could not return to their seats and restore the capsule's center of mass for 46 seconds due to the cramped cabin, therefore delaying reentry for 46 seconds. Despite flight controllers having no idea on the crew's whereabouts, they told their families they were recovered and resting. It just so happened to be mating seasons for the bears and wolves that lived in the taiga, so, having planned for the worst, a pistol and ammunition was stowed away in the spacecraft. This incident actually resulted in the development of the TP-28 cosmonaut survival pistol that was carried on all Soyuz missions from 1986 to 2007. Once aircraft found the crew, supplies were dropped and the pair had to spend the freezing cold night in the capsule without a heater since the electrical system malfunctioned. Recovery forces cut down trees to create a landing zone for the rescue helicopter as well as to build a small log cabin to spend a second night in. Since the helicopter was quite a ways away from the spacecraft, the cosmonauts had to ski through the forest. The capsule itself was removed a few days later and is now on display at the museum of RKK Energia in Korolev, Russia.
Leonov being greeted in the forest during recovery (Roskosmos)
Despite Voskhod 2's apparent triumph, it was the swan song of the Soviet space program. Future Voskhod missions, one of which was scheduled to be a two-woman EVA flight, were cancelled as too dangerous. The next Soviet mission, Soyuz 1, ended in disaster and the space program was halted for eighteen months. On the other side of the world, NASA was preparing to launch Gemini 4 as a Voskhod 2's counter. A few months later, the US would accomplish the first long-duration spaceflight as well as the first rendezvous, taking the lead in the Space Race.
Commander: Pavel Belyayev
Pilot: Alexei Leonov
Backup Commander: Dmitri Zaikin
Backup Pilot: Yevgeni Khrunov
Launch Vehicle: Voskhod
Launch Date: 18 March 1965
Launch Site: Site 1/5
Landing Date: 19 March 1965
Voskhod 2 was depicted in the 2017 Russian film The Age of the Pioneers, also known as Spacewalk.
This link is for Alexei Leonov's account of the mission and its aftermath. It is a really fascinating read and quite entertaining. He passed away not too long ago on October 11, 2019. Thanks for reading and please like and share this post!
Venugopal, Ramasamy. “Lost in Space: the First Space Walk.” Space Safety Magazine, 13 May 2015, www.spacesafetymagazine.com/space-disasters/close-calls/lost-in-space-the-first-space-walk/.
Zak, Anatoly. Voskhod-2 Achieves the World's First Spacewalk, www.russianspaceweb.com/voskhod2.html.
graphic of Voskhod 2: wikipedia
image of Voskhod 2 patch: spacefacts.de