DeFlip Side #99: Floating into Infamy

DeFlip Side #99: Floating into Infamy.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Tranquility Docking: “I do see it, it looks really good, nice and smooth coming in there…”

That’s the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour working with the crew of the International Space Station during a spacewalk last month to attach the new Tranquility Module, making the ISS 90 percent complete, and laying the final groundwork for a new era of space research, made possible through international cooperation.

It’s a remarkable shift from the days when space advancement was spurred not by cooperation but competition, with achievements in space exploration flaunted like badges of honor, marks of superiority in the growing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. This month marks the 45th anniversary of one of those flaunted achievements: On March 18, 1965, Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov pushed free of the Voskhod 2 spacecraft and took history’s first spacewalk. It was a major Soviet coup–one that almost didn’t happen and nearly ended in tragedy.

The run-up to Leonov’s stellar accomplishment was marked by frenzied competition between the U.S. and Russia, egged on by President John F. Kennedy’s vow to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. But despite America’s vaunted determination, the Russians had been outpacing us from day one, bolting out of the gate with Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite; Sputnik 2 carried the first living passenger—a dog named Laika, who died in orbit. And they soon followed that up by safely returning two more dogs from orbit—all of it culminating with the development of the Vostok 1 and the ascent of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space; a feat soon surpassed by Cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who orbited the Earth 16 times in Vostok 2.

There seemed no end to the relentless march of the Russian space program—a feat rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that there really was no Russian space program in any practical sense. It was all a series of grand stunts, engineered by Russian space agency chief Sergei Korolyov, who managed to use his meager resources time and again to pull off ever-escalating missions at the behest of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev was obsessed with international oneupsmanship and his directives were both a blessing and a curse, spurring grand-seeming advances that enabled the USSR to successfully posture to the world, but which kept the Russian space program in complete disarray.

This stood in stark contrast to the focus and methodical progress of the American space program, which, despite its lagging and setbacks, was headed inexorably to the moon. By mid-decade, the Gemini missions were imminent, designed to carry two astronauts into orbit, and hammer out the technical details necessary for making the lunar trip. When Khrushchev got wind of this, he ordered Korolyov to halt work on the successful Vostok program, and come up with something that could carry three cosmonauts into orbit.

Faced with yet another stunt mission and almost no resources, Korolyov had no choice but to work with materials at hand. He reengineered the existing one-man Vostok capsules into the three-man Voskhod spacecraft, which required a number of risky innovations. Since cabin space was so tight, the first things to go were the bulky spacesuits, followed by the ejection systems. That meant that the capsule had to be airtight and contain a breathable atmosphere. And since they couldn’t eject, the cosmonauts would have to remain in the capsule through reentry all the way to landing, no matter what. But, despite the risks, the first Voskhod flight was a resounding success, sending three cosmonauts around the Earth 16 times. No one was more amazed than Korolyov, but even so, he knew the Gemini missions would inevitably lead to the first spacewalk. So he had to up his game yet again.

His team slapped another Voskhod together, modified with an inflatable rubber airlock that would theoretically allow a cosmonaut to exit the capsule while in orbit. But the initial unmanned test fight was a disaster. The capsule exploded and took all the flight data with it. They couldn’t figure out what went wrong, or even if the airlock had functioned properly. And there were only parts enough left for one more capsule.

So the morning of March 18, 1965, found Cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev rocketing skyward in an unproven ship to make history, one way or another. Much to everyone’s relief, the launch went off without a hitch, and the Voskhod 2 achieved a stable orbit. Once there, Leonov donned his spacesuit, wormed his way into a successfully pressurized airlock and floated out into infamy. This is actual sound from that historic excursion, broadcast live to millions of Russians watching on TV.

“I feel perfect,” Leonov said at one point, as he played himself out on an 18-foot tether, soaring above the Earth at more than 17,000 mph. He stayed out for about 12 minutes before Belyayev recalled him back to the ship. That’s when things started to go wrong.

When he got back to the airlock, Leonov discovered that his suit had inflated while in vacuum, internal pressure stretching it to the point where his hands and feet had slipped out of the attached gloves and boots. Essentially trapped in a big, stiff balloon, he had to abandon plans to reenter the capsule feet first, forced instead to bull his way back into the airlock head first. But his ever-expanding suit soon had him stuck in the shaft like a cork. He was no longer feeling so perfect.

Doctors monitoring Leonov’s quickening heartbeat grew concerned, but he was eventually able to bleed enough pressure from his suit to move again. Then came the difficult maneuver of turning around in the tiny airlock, fighting against the slack fabric of his deflated spacesuit so he could reseal the hatch. By the time he finished and regained his seat he was exhausted. He later learned that he had lost 12 pounds in the course of the emergency maneuvers.

But the ordeal wasn’t over yet. The exit hatch was no longer airtight, and the capsule was losing pressure. Ship systems pumped in pure oxygen to compensate, and a stray spark could cause the ship to explode. And if this wasn’t bad enough, the guidance system had gone down, meaning that the cosmonauts had to manually pilot their way back to Earth.

The cramped quarters made it almost impossible for Belyayev to get himself into position to orient the ship properly for reentry, and by the time the cosmonauts had gotten resituated and strapped in, they missed their firing mark by 46 seconds. To compound matters, the landing capsule had failed to cleanly separate from the instrument module, causing wild gyrations that were throwing them further off course. They were soon plummeting Earthward at pressures upwards of 10 g’s. That’s when mission control lost contact.

Korolyov and his team spent a frantic four hours before reestablishing communications. The firing delay and reentry complications had caused the Voskhod 2 to overshoot its landing site by 1,200 miles. But the landing equipment worked fine and Leonov and Belyayev alit on a snow bank deep in the frozen Siberian forests, their capsule hatch jammed up against a birch tree. They forced their way free, sending out distress signals in Morse code. But when help failed to arrive, they retreated back to the safety of the ship as nightfall bought with it a pack of wolves literally howling at their door. It was two days before recovery crews could get to them. But despite all the setbacks, the cosmonauts had made it home—and into the history books—further cementing Russia’s seeming space superiority.

It wouldn’t last. Soviet political upheaval, along with Korolyov’s death in 1966 gave the U.S. space program the breathing room it needed, and NASA’s accomplishments in manned space flight eclipsed all Soviet efforts from that point on—and also robbed Leonov of another Russian first. He was supposed to be the first Soviet to set foot on the moon. But Armstrong beat him to it, and his mission was scrapped. He remained active in the Soviet space program until 1991, and now at age 75, Leonov is still a fixture in the international space community.

He has since called the Cold War an era of insane mistrust, but not without benefit:

“It showed that our country was capable of making a scientific discovery of global importance,” he said.

And there’s no better testament to that lesson in global discovery than the nearly completed International Space Station soaring overhead, and the astronauts who routinely glide around its exterior, following in Leonov’s pioneering footsteps.