Voskhod 2 was a deadly mission. It was the final space race victory for Soviet Russia before NASA finally claimed its lead and ultimately won with the lunar endgame of 1969. This peak of the Soviet Federal Space Program nearly killed its two cosmonauts but was ultimately successful – it began on the 18th March 1965 when Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev were launched.
The setting was the gulf of space, the event was a secret. Soviet policy was that no-one outside of the space program and government knew the flight was taking place, so as to spare any shame and guilt after any mistakes. Even the families of those involved didn’t know the mission existed; at least until it was broadcast nationwide on television and radio. Fortunately the mission began well, and so ends the good news.
Voskhod 2 was ambitious, it was the first mission to attempt EVA (Extravehicular activity) in recorded history. EVA means a space walk. 30-year-old first-time cosmonaut Alexei twisted and turned in his stiff, customised space-suit before climbing into the ships first-of-a-kind inflatable airlock. Pavel lowered the airlock pressure and Alexei met the vacuum of space – it was not a pleasant meeting. Back at ground control they judged the mission was going well, so the camera feeds were sent out across Soviet Russia, and Alexei’s family found out that he was floating around outside of his spaceship. His young daughter reacted immediately:
“What is he doing? What is he doing? Please tell Daddy to get back inside.”
The purpose of the mission, other than annoying Americans, was to show that humans could survive independently in space, outside of a craft, given an appropriate suit. This escaped the notice of his father who was far more concerned with Alexei’s safety than scientific progress:
“Why is he acting like a juvenile delinquent?” he shouted in frustration. “Everyone else can complete their mission properly, inside the spacecraft. What is he doing clambering about outside? Somebody must tell him to get back inside immediately. He must be punished for this.”
Suddenly a new voice was heard through the televisions and radios of Russia. A message of congratulations from President Leonid Brezhnev: “We members of the Politburo are here sitting and watching what you are doing. We are proud of you,” Brezhnev said. “We wish you success. Take care. We await your safe arrival on Earth.” Both cosmonauts, and Alexei Leonov’s father, were cheered by the message. It was the last piece of good news for the entire mission.
10 minutes had passed, 10 minutes of entirely unknown experience; it was time to return. The Earth span beneath them, filling the void between themselves and the sun. Time was of the essence, they needed to flee humanity’s shadow.
Alexei reluctantly retreated from space and wandered to the airlock which was filled with trouble. The emptiness of space means there are few particles to hit surfaces and exert pressure upon them. Alexei’s spacesuit was filled with air, and so the internal pressure had caused the whole thing to expand and become near immovable at the joints. He had 40 minutes of oxygen left and he couldn’t fit into the airlock. The radio and television transmissions were cut by mission control and replaced with Mozart’s Requiem playing on loop. Nobody knew anything.
Deciding it was better not to worry anyone he refused to radio mission control, after all he was the only one who could deal with it. Alexei released the oxygen from his suit, venting precious minutes of life into the cosmos. It partially worked, the drop I pressure made his elbow and shoulder joints more mobile. So, he moved.
As his legs weren’t mobile enough he had to enter the airlock head first. He crept along, releasing small amounts of oxygen until he was entirely inside the airlock, marinating in his own sweat.
The immense effort of pulling himself down the airlock had caused Alexei to get dangerously hot in his space suit, the whole process was taking too long and he teetered on the precipice of heatstroke. Now in the airlock he had to twist and contort himself so that he could reach out and close the airlock. His heated body poured out sweat at an alarming rate but through the near-immobility, dangerous lack of oxygen and excessive body heat he managed it. After 2 minutes and 9 seconds he was let in from the cramped airlock to the cramped Voskhod cabin.
The previous Voskhod craft, Voskhod 1, held 3 cosmonauts and set two firsts. It was both the first craft to hold multiple people in space and the first craft to contain cosmonauts in shirt-sleeves, not space suits. The shirt sleeve uniform was not due to any explicit design though. It was due to the fact that the cabin was too small for all 3 to wear spacesuits – they simply wouldn’t have all fitted inside.
Alexei clambered in from the airlock and closed the hatch behind him before the airlock was detached from the spacecraft and left to float in space. Alexei forced himself over to his seat, glad to be free of danger. He was wrong to think danger was done, there was still plenty of space for mistakes. First of all, the airlock hatch wasn’t secure.
The seal was not complete, leaking oxygen into space, so the cabin reacted by flooding the cabin with oxygen. There was more than enough oxygen to survive back to earth, but the oxygen had could kill them. The cabin air was 45% Oxygen, more than twice the concentration of Earth’s atmosphere – a serious fire hazard that Voskhod 2 wasn’t designed to deal with. One Valentin Bondarenko had died of flames in a high Oxygen endurance test 4 years prior. Then to cheer themselves up they checked the instruments.
Five minutes before they were going to be pushed out of orbit by their engines it turned out that the automatic guidance system was broken. They switched it off and cursed their luck. They needed to select a new landing site and aim for it manually. A task that was impossible to perform within 5 minutes – they needed to orbit Earth once then make their selection.
Once they emerged from the shadow of humanity they began to work. Alexei being the navigator selected a new site 1,500 kilometres from the first one. A site near the Ural mountains in the worlds largest biome – the taiga forest of Siberia. Crimea passed beneath them and a message was received, asking where they had landed. Pavel, as calmly as he could manage, explained the technical failures. They were still in orbit, he explained, and he asked them to go into emergency mode for the landing.
Next came aim. Aiming for the taiga meant they had a low risk of harming anyone, but a chance of quick rescue as they would land near to the city of Perm. Pavel being the pilot aimed the craft using an optical device. He had to lean horizontally over both their seats and as Alexei supported him he adjusted themselves until they faced their destination. Then they started the engines. On the morning of the 19th the began to fall, and continued to fail.
Pavel rushed back to his seat, navigating the cramped module to restore the centre of gravity to the middle of the cabin. 10 seconds after the firing of the engines the felt a jolt as the orbital module separated from their cabin, but something was wrong. They felt a tugging force pulling them back.
Alexei craned out of a window and saw the orbital module was still connected by a communications cable. The centre of gravity was at the cable, meaning both modules were spinning rapidly as they plummeted to Earth. The forces enacted on both their bodies were unprecedented. The blood vessels in their eyes burst and their vision became impaired. The force on them was 10Gs, the highest G-force ever survived by human beings. Meanwhile at the expected landing time Radio Moscow was playing cheerful music before being interrupted, as if an announcement were expected. When none came it went back to music, the music became sombre and ever sadder over the hours as bad news became ever more possible. The music was punctuated by silent interruptions for expected news that didn’t come.
100 kilometres above Earth the heat and forces in action burnt through the cable and the landing module separated, the parachutes were deployed. The ripple and jolt of the deceleration was alarming, but it soon gave way to the gentle swaying caresses of the wind which bore them gently to a place called home. The wind whistled against the outside and Oxygen levels returned to normal, ten they punctured the cloud layer and all went dark.
The landing engine flared up and their descent was slowed until the module settled on, and sank into the humongous drifts of snow. The whirling calamity had cast them 200 kilometres from Perm and into deepest Siberia. Then they tried to leave the module. They tried.
They set off the explosive bolts which rocked the cabin and filled it with acrid smoke, but little else. A large birch tree was in front of the hatch, but they continued to struggle. The two of them rocked the hatch back and forth with all of their strength until they pushed it off the charred remains of the bolts and it slid back, falling into the snow. They felt the cool air rush over their tongues and into their lungs, in joy they embraced and to each other they clung.
Still encased in their bulky space suits they squeezed out of the hatch and plummeted through the snow, sinking up to their chins in snow that went down at least 2 metres deep. Above them the numerous wooden peaks of the taiga clawed at the sky. It was spring, that meant mating season for wolves and bears – that meant two deadly animals at their most dangerous. The sky darkened and it began to snow. The temperature dropped and the tree trunks began to crack with the sheer cold.
No-one outside of a spacesuit knew where they were, but that didn’t stop the Soviet Space Agency telling their wives that they had landed safely. They were asked to write letters, and in the mean time Moscow listened for the landing module’s emergency signal. Moscow never received the signal, but others soon began to answer the call.
Listening stations as far as Germany received the signal, but the first response was from a civilian plane and its eager crew. They enthusiastically cast down a flimsy rope ladder and bade the cosmonauts to rise. Unfortunately their space suits were both too stiff and too heavy for the climb. Then as soon as they left more planes gathered in the sky, bunched dangerously close and offering dangerous help.
One person threw a bottle of cognac from their aircraft, the bottle broke; a blunt axe was tossed casually down along, two pairs of wolf-skin boots and a few jackets, all of which became entangled in the towering trees. They eventually retrieved the boots but they didn’t have the time to revel in their comfort. The temperature was still plummeting and the light was passing; there was be no rescue that night. One of the aircraft was a helicopter which reported their safety and health, 45 minutes later it was announced over Radio Moscow and the Soviet’s celebrated.
Alexei felt the sweat in his space suit sloshing up around his knees, if it got any colder the moisture would cause frostbite. They both stripped and wrung the moisture out from all of their clothes before putting on their underwear again. They then drew out the softer inner layers of the space suits and pulled them on as quickly as possible, all the while wary of wolves.
The hatch was gone and the module was as cool as the outside. They spent all of their efforts trying to pull down the vast and twisted parachute which lay draped over the forest. It was not possible and they retreated to the open module. Inside the huddled, and held the emergency pistol along with the many spare bullets.
From then it was much easier, the next day a search party of cross-country skiers found them and helped set up a fire, bringing meals and company. They even brought a special bath which they filled and heated so as Alexei and Pavel could finally bathe. The forest around was too dense and took a whole day to cut down enough trees for a helicopter to land, so they spent one more night in the taiga, a night of final celebration. The next day they were flown to meet with their government officials and make their reports. Alexei Leonov’s report was thus:
“Provided with a special suit, man can survive and work in open space. Thank you for your attention.”
All images public domain.