Alexei Leonov was the first human being to walk in space on March 18, 1965. He was outside for just over 12 minutes before reentering to the Soviet Voskhod 2 capsule.
Leonov also came very close to achieving the distinction of being the first human being to die in space. While he was outside the Voskhod, his suit inflated so much that he could not get back inside his spacecraft. He released enough oxygen from his suit to barely make it back inside alive.
Long after cheating death and making space history, Leonov passed on Oct. 11, 2019 of an undisclosed illness at the age of 85.
Leonov’s achievement overshadowed American astronaut Ed White’s second-place spacewalk during the Gemini 4 mission in June 1965. He was one of the last of the Soviet cosmonauts of his era, a time when America and the Soviet Union battled for dominance in the heavens. He was a worthy adversary and then, as the Cold War drew to a close, a great friend.
NASA tweeted in remembrance of Leonov:
We’re saddened by the loss of legendary @roscosmos cosmonaut Alexei Leonov who became the first human to walk in space on March 18, 1965. His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extravehicular activity that makes today’s @Space_Station maintenance possible. pic.twitter.com/8EavxJd5R1— NASA (@NASA) October 11, 2019
Leonov’s other space mission was in command of the Soyuz portion of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission, which occurred in July 1975. An American Apollo spacecraft and a Soviet Soyuz launched separately, then rendezvoused and docked in Earth orbit. Besides the testing of a common docking system, the mission served a primarily public relations purpose with a famous handshake in space when the hatches between the two vehicles were opened.
The ASTP was the last gasp of the Nixon-era attempt to establish détente between the West and the Soviet Union before the Cold War became chilly again. However, the mission did lead to later cooperative space flights, which included American astronauts guesting on the Mir space station, Russian cosmonauts flying on the space shuttle, and finally Russia being included as a partner on the International Space Station.
Leonov was also famous for canceled spaceflights he was assigned to. He was supposed to fly around the moon, but that flight was scrubbed because of delays and the fact that Apollo 8 had already checked that box in the space race. He was also chosen to be the first Soviet to walk on the moon, which would have involved a spacewalk between the Russian version of the command module and the lunar lander, but that was canceled, too.
Leonov had a second career as an artist and writer. He attended the Academy of Arts in Riga before enlisting in the Soviet Air Force. His sketches and paintings, mostly on space exploration themes, have been widely exhibited.
Leonov was a cofounder of the Association of Space Explorers, the membership in which is open to everyone who has flown in space. The idea behind that organization is that space travelers make up a community that transcends borders. Even though Leonov flew for a country that was an enemy of the West, he is universally honored as a space pioneer, a man with as much of the “right stuff” as any who flew for NASA.
He made a lasting mark on space and world history. General Leonov, may your last mission into the unknown be happy and glorious.