Alexei Leonov during the first spacewalk by a human on March 18, 1965. Photo: Twitter

In this month of October, two of history’s pioneering voyagers have gained our attention. And in the last couple of days, two more have joined this courageous pair. The first, of course, is the ever-controversial Christopher Columbus, who was the subject of a column here last year. It makes a documented and compelling argument, if this writer may say so, that Columbus deserves far more respect than now is accorded him.

Another less known, history-making voyager crossed our radar during NASA’s live, televised coverage of two Americans’ spacewalk outside of the International Space Station. NASA interrupted this live broadcast to report the death in Moscow, at age 85, of Alexei Leonov, the first human to walk in space. So let’s reflect on his remarkable, if not incredible adventure.

When Leonov became a cosmonaut in the Soviet Union’s space program, he didn’t exactly fit the profile of a mysterious group who were described as the steely-eyed missile men of the cosmonaut corps.

During Leonov’s childhood, the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, in a nationwide “purge” of his enemies, real and imagined, had banished Alexei’s father into exile, leaving his large peasant family in spiraling poverty. Undaunted, young Alexei used the gift of his artistic skills to paint pictures, selling them to help feed his impoverished mother and nine siblings.

As a teenager, he wanted to go to art school, but instead took lessons to be a pilot, and then enrolled in aviation college. This put him on track to be the first man to walk in space. Until recently, little was actually known of the harrowing journey that would etch his name in history, immortalizing him, at 30 years of age, as an icon in the US as well as in his country.

When selected to be a cosmonaut, he furtively brought colored pencils into space to draw. His cranky superiors regarded this an oddity, going so far as falsely to blame a malfunction in a space capsule on one of his weightless art pencil’s jamming a vent. Through this petty taunting, however, he came to be regarded as a compassionate mentor, and was openly saddened by any loss of life among his fellow space travelers, as well as those from the US.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov with his drawing of Apollo commander Tom Stafford during the Apollo-Soyuz 19 joint flight in 1975. Photo: NASA he made in space in 1975.

On March 18, 1965, orbiting the earth at rapid speed in their Voskhod 2 space capsule, Leonov summoned the courage to leave the company of his copilot, and as planned, climbed out the hatch. Secured by a 16-foot tether, he set out to do what no human had done before, and take a floating walk in space. Up till this time, it was only a matter of theory that the tether would secure him adequately. But years of training, including 18 months of how to cope with weightlessness, could not prepare him for the next 12 minutes and 9 seconds.

First, he described the overwhelming void all about him, and his amazement that he did not fall into it. He had years of intensive training and study about space, yet, the vast, “inky black cosmos,” as he described it, still deeply astonished him. Leonov tried to come to grips first-hand with what Albert Einstein had much earlier observed from the confines of his own earthly library: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its incomprehensibility.”

But there was more.

“I was mesmerized by the stars,” he recalled. “They were everywhere – up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”

Then for Leonov, an unexpected challenge turned the world’s first spacewalk into a jolting test of his mettle, the first of many in this epic journey. His body temperature took an alarming jump, and worse, his spacesuit began quickly to inflate. Presently, he pulled his way back to the capsule, but owing to his now bloated spacesuit, he couldn’t fit through the hatch. He never shared how he and his co-pilot then struggled with this nerve-wracking setback.

Eventually, opening a valve in his spacesuit, so as to vent oxygen, solved the crisis. But as he did that, he noticed the telltale signs of the “bends,” a life-threatening, physical reaction from too rapid a change in pressure. Thus began a grim race to depressurize without losing consciousness, and it went on for a seeming eternity. At long last, he made his way back inside. We don’t know what physical or emotional effects lingered when he finally settled inside the relative “comfort” of Voskhod 2, but it must have been with a real sigh of relief.

With this brush with disaster behind them, they headed their small space capsule back to earth, for a whirlwind of further adventure. For reasons Leonov never explained, however, they had to control their craft manually on re-entry, turning the last leg of their travel into an ordeal in itself.

Their prolonged roller-coaster ride to terra firma landed them far off course, in a remote, snow-covered forest, to be welcomed by a pack of aggressive wolves. Even a growling bear, ironically a symbol of Mother Russia herself, prowled about while the cosmonauts earnestly waited for help, for how long Leonov did not say.

Within their grounded, cramped capsule, amidst this eerie wilderness, at long last their tense wait ended with the arrival of the Soviet space agency’s first responders. But there was no rest for the weary, as Leonov and his co-pilot had to ski to safety with their rescuers.

Thus ended the true saga of the first spacewalk. For America’s part, astronaut Ed White walked in space three months later. And as the Cold War between the two superpowers dragged on, the U.S. won the spectacular race in 1969 to land on the moon.

Leonov’s career brought him into the celestial frontier again in 1975 for the first joint U.S.-Soviet effort, the Apollo-Soyouz 19 mission. Still the artist at heart, Leonov brought his pencils with him, and sketched all he could as he guided the pioneering mission of international cooperation in space.

Leonov’s adventures were not only the stuff of legend, but also had the drama of a movie script. Appropriately, the late, renowned author of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, who penned “2001: A Space Odyssey,” recognized Leonov by naming a spaceship after him in Clarke’s “2010” sequel.

Upon Leonov’s passing on Oct. 11, NASA paid tribute to him on Twitter in this way: “His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extra-vehicular activity that makes today’s space station maintenance possible.” He was described by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “true pioneer, a strong and heroic person.” Most space travel experts identify Leonov as the cosmonaut the Soviets would certainly have sent to the moon had they attempted it.

And so, as this October month of pioneers comes to a close, NASA announced the first joint spacewalk by two women on their own, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. As they took their turn to venture out into the “inky black cosmos,” and into history in their own right, to be “mesmerized by the stars,” there would have been good reason for Alexei Leonov to be in their thoughts. And possibly, given the big-hearted and mentoring spirit all knew him to be, the space legend was out there with them.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg