The Scariest Spacewalks in History

Floating around outside a spaceship. What could go wrong?

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Feb 21 2015, 11:13pm

​Astronauts conducting an EVA. Image: Pixabay.

​Today, NASA astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Terry Virts performed the 185th spacewalk in history. Dubbed EVA-29, the mission will be followed up by two more extravehicular jaunts next week.

Over the course of these outdoor adventures, each of which lasts about six hours, Wilmore and Virts will upgrade the docking mechanisms on the International Space Station to be compatible with the next generation of American spacecraft—featuring NASA's flagship Orion capsule, Boeing's CST-100, and SpaceX's Dragon 2.

All three of these new capsules are designed to carry astronauts as well as cargo, which is a huge deal for the American space program. At this point, only the Russian space agency Roscosmos is capable of ferrying crews to and from the space station, using the trusty Soyuz spacecraft.

But if Roscosmos were to back out of the ISS at some point in the future, which it might, it would leave the US with no way to transport crews to the station. So, this trio of EVAs isn't just a chance for the astronauts to get doped up some unfiltered Overview Effect, it's also laying the groundwork for NASA's next giant leap off Earth.

Wilmore and Virts conducting today's EVA. Image: NASA.

The fact that the global spaceflight community has pulled off almost 200 spacewalks is one of those sudden reminders that we are demonstrably living in the future. Not only are human beings floating around performing maintenance on spaceships, it's not even that unusual of an activity anymore.

But though it may be getting more commonplace, spacewalks are still a very dangerous undertaking. Though no astronauts have ever been lost or killed in an EVA—the cast of Gravity excepted—there have been many close calls over the decades.

Take, for example, the very first EVA in history, which was pulled off by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov on Voskhod 2 in 1965. Incidentally, March 18 of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of Leonov's groundbreaking spacewalk, which lasted about twelve minutes, much of which was spent defusing a potentially fatal situation.

Leonov's suit had expanded due to the pressure difference outside the capsule, and he was unable to fit back into the airlock. He eventually let oxygen out of his suit manually to deflate it, which was a risky solution, but it paid off—he was finally able to re-enter the spaceship to rejoin his crewmate Pavel "Pasha" Belyayev.

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Alexei Leonov on a 1965 Soviet stamp. Image: Russian Federation.

"The serious problems I had experienced when reentering the spacecraft were, thankfully, not televised," Leonov later recalled in Air & Space magazine. "From the moment our mission looked to be in jeopardy, transmissions from our spacecraft, which had been broadcast on both radio and television, were suddenly suspended without explanation."

In an eerie twist, Soviet authorities began broadcasting Mozart's Requiem instead of updating the public on situation. "My family was therefore spared the anxiety they would have had to endure had they known how close I came to being stranded in space," Leonov said.

"They were also spared the trauma they would have suffered had they known the grave danger that Pasha and I faced in the hours that followed," he continued. "For the difficulties I experienced reentering the spacecraft were just the start of a series of dire emergencies that almost cost us our lives."

Leonov is referring to the fact that the Voskhod 2's hatch didn't close properly after the EVA, resulting in serious malfunction during re-entry. That in turn led to a wildly bumpy manual landing that turned out to be almost 400 kilometers off course, deep in the cold, remote expanse of Russia's Kama River wilderness, where aggressive bears and wolves roamed.

They couldn't be lifted out by helicopter due to the deep forest cover, and so had to endure a night of -22 degrees Fahrenheit weather before they were finally reached by ski rescue the next day. Even then, they still had to spend another night in the woods with the rescue team, though they had a fire to warm them.

Needless to say, when ranking the scariest spacewalks in history, Leonov's inaugural EVA and its accompanying misadventures clearly takes the cake. But he isn't the only astronaut who experienced trouble while tethered tenuously to a spacecraft. In 1966, Gemini 9 pilot Euene Cernan actually had more or less the exact same thing happen to him in his own "spacewalk from hell," as he dubbed it.

Even more recently, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield did a TED Talk about what it was like to be temporarily blinded during one of his spacewalks. While spacewalking on July 9, 2013, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned in his own helmet after a water leak sprung. "We just about killed him," Hadfield told the Washington Post last year.

Parmitano performing his first EVA. Image: NASA.

Fortunately, Wilmore and Virts were treated to an uneventful—but not boring—spacewalk today, and everything is on schedule for the following two as well. Spacewalk history may be riddled with close calls and tense moments, but it's also a story of cool-as-cucumber astronauts rolling with the cosmic punches.