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Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov

Alexei Leonov
Alexei Leonovrigggel/

Alexei Leonov (1934–Present) was the first human to walk in space, on 18 March 1965. His extra-vehicular activity (EVA) was conducted from the Soviet spacecraft, Voskhod 2. A decade later Leonov was part of the first joint-nation space project, Apollo-Soyuz in July 1975. Leonov and crewmate Valeri Kubasov docked Soyuz 19 to Apollo 18, the U.S. spacecraft manned by Vance Brand, Donald Slayton, and Thomas Stafford. Leonov was named Hero of the Soviet Union upon his return. Leonov later served as commander of the cosmonaut team (1976–82) and deputy director of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.

Leonov was one of the 20 Soviet Air Force pilots selected to be part of the first cosmonaut group in 1960. Like all Soviet cosmonauts, Leonov was a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. On 17 March 1965 Leonov was appointed co-pilot on the Voskhod-2 (Sunrise-2) mission. The spacecraft, with Kubasov and Leonov on board, left for outer space and remained there for 1 day, 2 hours, 2 minutes and 17 seconds. It was an historic flight: for the first time in World History a human dared to leave a spacecraft. Leonov left the spacecraft, on a spacewalk, for 12 minutes and 9 seconds. Upon trying to re-enter the spacecraft, Leonov realized his spacesuit had become too inflated, so he couldn’t re-enter the spacecraft. But he didn’t panic. He managed to open a valve lowering the spacesuit’s pressure. Finally, Leonov found himself on board. Alas, it wasn’t the end of the mission’s troubles. Before landing, the navigation system of the spacecraft stopped working. The spacecraft landed 180 kilometers to the north of the city of Perm, in the Urals tundra. The cosmonauts spent two nights in a frosty forest. Only on the third day did a group of rescuers discover the cosmonauts. Despite all the troubles of the mission Leonov made the shortest and the most optimistic report in the history of cosmonautics: “It is possible to survive and work in outer space.” These words started a new era in human activities in the cosmos.

On 22 January 1969 Leonov almost became the victim of an assassination attempt - intended on the Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. Leonov and other cosmonauts were passengers in a motorcade that was fired upon, during a parade. The shooter/assassin (Lieutenant Viktor Ilyin) confused the two cars. Leonov's driver (Zharkov) was killed, but the cosmonauts and Brezhnev survived unscathed. Ilyin was pronounced insane and sent to Kazan Psychiatric Hospital where he was kept in solitary confinement until 1988. Ilyin was released in 1990 and moved to St. Petersburg.

Leonov's second trip into space was also significant: he commanded the Soviet half of the 1975 Apollo 18–Soyuz 19 mission: the first joint space mission between the Soviet Union and the United States. From 1976 to 1982, Leonov was the commander of the cosmonaut team and deputy director of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, where he oversaw crew training. He also edited the cosmonaut newsletter Neptune. Major-General Leonov retired in 1991.

In 2001, Leonov was a vice president of Moscow-based Alfa-Bank and an adviser to the first deputy of the Board. At present Leonov chairs an investment corporation in Moscow. He is also regarded as an accomplished artist and his work has been exhibited and published. Two Sides of the Moon by Toomey, Scott & Leonov and One Small Step? by Wisnewski are amongst the better books on the astronaut missions of the 1960s–70s.