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The First Spacewalker Cheated Death And Crash-Landed In a Forest Full of Wolves

Humanity’s first spacewalk seems even crazier 52 years later.

March 18, 1965 was an ordinary Thursday for the majority of people located on planet Earth. But for 30-year-old cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, one of two people who happened to be off-world at the time, it was all about making history and cheating death.

Exactly 52 years ago this Saturday, Leonov and mission commander Pavel Belyayev blasted into space aboard the Soviet spacecraft Voskhod ("Sunrise") 2. Several crews, both Russian and American, had already orbited Earth, so Voskhod 2 had been tasked with pushing the boundaries of human spaceflight to the next level—a spacewalk, or EVA (extravehicular activity). His audacious mission has since been commemorated with books, stamps, pop culture homages, and an upcoming feature-length film.

Schematic of Voskhod 2. Image: Reubenbarton

About ninety minutes after lift-off, Leonov made his way into the ship's Volga inflatable airlock, secured a 5.35-meter (17.6 foot) tether around his torso, opened the hatch, and ventured out into the unknown with only a spacesuit to protect him. It was the first time any human had left the safety of a spacecraft and free-floated in orbit. A Volga-mounted camera that Leonov had set up on his way out captured the extraordinary moment.

Footage of Leonov's 1965 spacewalk. Video: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum/YouTube

A second camera attached to Leonov's chest did not fare so well, because Leonov's spacesuit unexpectedly puffed up in response to the atmospheric pressure shift. As a result, he was unable to reach the shutter switch on his thigh (though this didn't prevent later artistic renditions of the event from depicting him in an idealized cameraman pose).

Voskhod 2 commemorative stamp. Image: Russian Federation

Leonov apparently didn't worry much about his inflating spacesuit, becoming enraptured instead with his unobstructed view of Earth. He described the feeling as "like a seagull with its wings outstretched, soaring high above the Earth," in the book Two Sides of the Moon, co-written with American astronaut David Scott, the seventh man to walk on the lunar surface.    

"I heard Pasha talking to me: 'It's time to come back in,'" Leonov recalled. "I realized I had been floating free in space for over ten minutes. In that moment my mind flickered back for a second to my childhood, to my mother opening the window at home and calling to me as I played outside with my friends, 'Lyosha, it's time to come inside now.' With some reluctance I acknowledged that it was time to re-enter the spacecraft."

But returning to Voskhod 2 would not be so easy. Leonov's inflated suit had become stiff over the 12-minute space walk, and it was too large and rigid to fit back in the airlock.

Realizing their star cosmonaut was stuck in space, Soviet mission control cut the live-feed, and ominously replaced it with a rendition of Mozart's Requiem. Meanwhile, Leonov decided to deflate the suit by releasing the oxygen valve. Fortunately, he was able to squeeze back into the Volga module before his breathable air ran out, and before heatstroke and decompression sickness overtook him.

That's when things got really interesting for the crew of Voskhod 2.

After jettisoning the Volga airlock and preparing for reentry, Leonov noticed that the automatic guidance system was malfunctioning. With mere minutes to go until they hit the atmosphere, Leonov and Belyayev had to scramble to manually orient themselves and calculate a retrorocket firing sequence that would land them safely within Soviet borders.  

Read More: The Scariest Spacewalks in History

It worked...kind of. After an extremely rough descent at high pressures of 10 gs, Voskhod 2 touched down in the Soviet Union. But they ended up way off course in a remote wolf-infested Siberian forest near the town of Solikamsk, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the planned landing site.

Leonov recalls Belyayev asking how soon he thought rescuers would come for them. "In three months, maybe, they'll find us with dog sleighs," Leonov joked (one of many instances of astronaut/cosmonaut gallows humor).

But as luck would have it, the pair did not have to brave the freezing temperatures for long. Though they spent one perilous night without heat hiding in the capsule, they were found by a well-stocked rescue team the following day. The crew spent a second night in a fire-warmed makeshift shelter before finally skiing to safety, and from there, world renown. Sadly, Belyayev only got to enjoy his fame for five years; he passed away in January 1970, from peritonitis.

Leonov, at 82, is still an active spaceflight advocate and science fiction artist. He was initially celebrated for securing an important spaceflight milestone, but once the full story was declassified and he could share his experiences, his narrow survival added a new layer of interest in the event.

As Leonov put in 2015: "I keep going over the mission and I keep finding mistakes that could have been avoided. They could have led to tragedy. Everything was on the edge."

If all this action has you itching for a movie about this roller-coaster of a mission, you might want to check out the newest trailer for Время первых (First Time). It's a feature film, directed by Yuri Bykov, about Voskhod 2 set to premiere in Russia in April 2017.

First Time trailer. Video: iVideos/YouTube

Of course, if you'd prefer a dumbed-down, inebriated version of the story, there's always this Drunk History segment on the mission narrated by Kyle Kinane.

Either way, it's worth remembering and celebrating the quick wits and badassery of Leonov and Belyayev on the 52nd anniversary of their historic achievement. Today, over 200 spacewalkers have followed Leonov's lead into outer space by performing their own EVAs. But as per Bykov's film title, only one can be first.

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