The First Spacewalk
At last humans could travel to space – now it was time to take a few steps
THE Mercury and Vostok missions proved humans could go to space. But scientists still had a lot to learn before they could confidently send anyone to the moon. There were so many questions still be answered. What would happen when astronauts spent a few days in space? How could they safely exit the spacecraft while up there? How could two spacecraft dock (connect)?
Both the Soviet Union and America developed programmes to refine these techniques. The Soviets used the Voskhod spacecraft which had space for two to three people, while the Americans launched Project Gemini, where two astronauts could travel at a time.
Project Gemini achieved much more than the Voskhod programme and put the Americans ahead in the Space Race.
But first they had to suffer the humiliation of missing the opportunity to do the first spacewalk in history. The Soviets had heard the Americans were planning a spacewalk and decided to beat them to it. So when Voskhod 2 reached orbit on 18 March 1965, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov opened the hatch of the tiny capsule and floated into emptiness, with only an 1,8 m cable connecting him to the craft.
“It was so quiet I could hear my heart beat,” he told the UK’s Guardian newspaper last year during the 50th anniversary of his walk. “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 . . .”
‘I’m coming back in, and it’s the saddest moment of my life’ – Astronaut Ed White as he ended his spacewalk
While he was completing his 20minute EVA (extra-vehicular activity, as spacewalks are called in astronautic terms) his spacesuit had expanded because of the pressure of the air inside it, and he could not fit back through the capsule hatch! He eventually managed to release air from inside his suit and could get back into the Voskhod.
On 3 June of the same year, it was America’s turn – Gemini 4 astronaut Ed White walked in space for 21 minutes. He enjoyed it so much he had to be ordered back into the spacecraft!
Sadly White died 18 months later in the Apollo 1 disaster (see page 56).
The Gemini project also accomplished other important firsts: spending 14 days in space, two spacecraft flying past each other in space and practising docking techniques in orbit – Gemini 8 linked up with the unmanned Agena vehicle.
The homework was done. Next stop – the moon! (Turn over)
Alexei Leonov photographed while performing the first spacewalk in history