We are all familiar with the big space mishaps like the Challenger and Apollo 13. However, in their tragic shadows are a few accidents that are stranger and truly more horrifying. Space flight is incredibly dangerous and requires bravery that some of us may feel borders on insanity.
On March 18, 1965, Cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev sat in the Russian Voskhod 2 spacecraft as it blasted into Earth’s orbit on the historic mission. The cramped two-man vessel was rushed into production in an effort to beat the U.S. It was plagued by countless malfunctions; however, the deadliest malfunction did not come from the ship, but from the spacesuit Leonov was wearing.
After the completion of one orbit, Leonov was given the go-ahead to begin his spacewalk; he then began his crawl into the craft’s makeshift airlock. Leonov still remembers the moment he opened the hatch and slid out into space. He told The Observer in an interview about the utter silence he experienced when he emerged from his spaceship:
“It was so quiet I could even hear my heart beat.
“I was surrounded by stars and was floating without much control. I will never forget the moment. I also felt an incredible sense of responsibility.
“Of course, I did not know that I was about to experience the most difficult moments of my life – getting back into the capsule.”
Tethered to his ship by a 16-foot cable, Leonov stepped out into space embarking on his historic stroll. It wasn’t long before Leonov realized something wasn’t right. Within minutes of entering the vacuum of space, his pressurized suit began to inflate like a balloon. With his suit inflating, his feet came out of his boots, and his hands were slipping out of his gloves, making it nearly impossible to perform his work. Leonov recalls:
“My suit was becoming deformed, my hands had slipped out of the gloves, my feet came out of the boots. The suit felt loose around my body. I had to do something.”
However, the worst was yet to come. After his 12 minutes outside, Leonov’s spacesuit had inflated in the vacuum to the point he could not re-enter the airlock, trapping him outside the spacecraft.
“I couldn’t pull myself back using the cord. And what’s more, with this misshapen suit, it would be impossible to fit through the airlock.”
Even more terrifying was the fact that the craft was racing toward Earth’s shadow. The cosmonaut soon realized that in five minutes he would be in total darkness. In a desperate move, he opened a valve in the suit’s inner lining, which released his oxygen, allowing some of the suit’s pressure to bleed off.
Not only did this bring him dangerously close to suffocation, he also was barely able to get himself back inside the capsule after suffering side effects of the bends, Leonov recalls:
“I began to get pins and needles in my legs and hands. I was entering the danger zone, I knew this could be fatal.”
As Leonov squeezed himself headfirst through the airlock, he managed to close the hatch behind him. Leonov slumped back in his seat beside Belyayev, completely exhausted from the ordeal.
“It was the most difficult thing: I’m in this suit and I had to turn around in the airlock. But with the perspiration, I couldn’t see anything.”
However, this was not the end of the problems for the Cosmonauts. Because the airlock was no longer needed for re-entry, a charge was set off, blasting it into space. The explosion caused the Voskhod 2 spacecraft to rotate, which disoriented the two Cosmonauts. Not only did the capsule rotate, their instrument panel indicated that oxygen levels were now climbing at an alarming rate.
Watch Voskhod 2 and the first EVA (extravehicular activity) — 1965:
Several hours passed before Leonov and Belyayev were able to get the craft’s oxygen levels back to normal, preventing a blaze that would have burned both men alive. By the time everything was back to normal, Voskhod 2 was due to return to Earth.
“Fortunately, the engines produced no sparks. A spark would have caused an explosion, and we would have been vaporized.”
During their pre re-entry checks, the two soon discovered that the automatic re-entry system was no longer working. This meant the Cosmonauts had to fire the craft’s re-entry rockets manually. The manoeuvre should have separated the landing capsule, which contained Leonov and Belyayev, from the orbital module. Leonov recalls:
“A few seconds after the firing of the engine, we felt a jolt as the orbital module separated from our cabin – but something went wrong.
“We felt a tugging force pulling us back! I looked out of a window and saw the orbital module was still connected to us by a communications cable. As a result, both modules were spinning rapidly as we fell steeply to Earth!”
Voskhod 2 was falling to destruction with the Cosmonauts in it. However, the heat of re-entry burnt through the communications cable, which led to the landing module separating, and shortly after, its parachutes were deployed. Even after all of these events, their ordeal was still not over.
Watch “Humanity’s First Spacewalk”:
As a result of the spinning, the landing module landed 1,242 miles (2,000 kilometers) from its intended target, plunging into a dense Siberian forest. The pair spent two days huddled inside the tiny capsule with temperatures well below zero before the rescue mission reached them. Leonov said:
“We spent two cold nights in the forest.
“We did not meet wolves or bears, but we knew that there were many of them around. It was spring time and the animals were very aggressive. Once again, we were lucky!”
Five years after the mission, Belyayev died from peritonitis and Leonov went on to become a distinguished cosmonaut. At the time, the mission was hailed as a complete success. The news of how close it came to ending in disaster was not revealed until many years after the return of Voskhod 2.
Watch “The First Spacewalk”: