Alexei Leonov was the first human being to walk in space, and the man who would have been first on the moon had the Soviets beaten the Americans. Decades after his legendary spacewalk and years after his demise, Leonov’s achievements, his courage continues to bear a special place in history.
Leonov started training for his spacewalk in 1963. In 1965, the spacecraft took off. He was subjected to long periods of weightlessness and underwent a rigorous programme of swimming and running. A special suit and helmet were crafted to withstand extreme conditions in space.
However, not all was well as just eight minutes after making history, his spacewalk took a life-threatening turn. His space suit inflated to a point where he could not move or return into the spacecraft. As a result, his body temperature took a flight, thrusting him close to heatstroke.
A skilled amateur painter, Leonov after he opened the outer hatch and entered space, over 161km above the Earth’s surface, found the vista “indescribably beautiful.” He along with Belyayev returned to Earth the next day.
In his autobiography Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race, co-authored with an American astronaut named David Scott, Leonov wrote,“For the first eighteen seconds after lift-off, if anything had gone wrong with the rocket we would not have survived.” Leonov had told the London Observer the same year, “I 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,”
In 2015, TIME photographer Marco Grob visited Leonov for a portrait session. “I don’t remember anything as well as I remember the sound—this remarkable silence. You can hear your heartbeat and you can hear yourself breathe. Nothing else can accurately represent what it sounds like when a human being is in the middle of this abyss,” he told Grob.
Also, the commander of the Russian portion of the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, Leonov died on October 11, at age 85, after a long illness.