Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago – and barely returned to the capsule – died in Moscow. He was 85 years old.
Russian space agency Roscosmos made the announcement on its website on Friday without providing a cause of death. Russian media previously reported that Leonov had health problems for several years.
NASA broke into its live television coverage of a spacewalk by two Americans outside the International Space Station to report Leonov's death.
"A tribute to Leonov, as today is a spacewalk," said Mission Control in Houston.
Alexei Leonov comes out of his spaceship to become the first person to walk in space.
(Central Press / Getty Images)
Leonov was born on May 30, 1934 and was raised in a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like many other Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and sent to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but managed to survive and reunite with his family.
The future cosmonaut had a strong artistic bent and even considered going to art school before enrolling in a pilot training course and later in an aviation college. Leonov did not give up drawing, even when he flew into space, and took with him crayons on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975 to draw.
This mission was the first between the Soviet Union and the United States and was carried out at the height of the Cold War. Apollo-Soyuz 19 was a prelude to international cooperation seen aboard the International Space Station.
But where Leonov took his place in space history was on March 18, 1965, when he came out of his Voskhod 2 capsule attached by a rope.
Spacewalking always poses a high risk, but Leonov's pioneering venture was particularly disturbing, according to details of the exploration that only became public decades later.
His spacesuit had so inflated in the vacuum of space that he could not return to the spaceship. He had to open a valve to release oxygen from the suit to get through the hatch.
Leonov's 12-minute spacewalk preceded Ed White's first US spacewalk in less than three months.
On his second space trip, ten years later, Leonov commanded the Soviet half of Apollo-Soyuz 19.
We are saddened by the loss of legendary @roscosmos cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who became the first human to walk in space on March 18, 1965. His adventure in space vacuum began the story of the extravehicular activity he does today. @Spacial station maintenance possible. pic.twitter.com/8EavxJd5R1
– NASA (@NASA) October 11, 2019
The cosmonaut was known for his humor. Once the US Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules went into orbit around Earth on July 17, 1975, Leonov and his Russian crewmate Valeri Kubasov welcomed the three US astronauts – their Cold War rivals. – with canned borsch disguised as Stolichnaya vodka.
"When we sat at the table, they said, 'Now that's not possible,' Leonov recalled in 2005." We insisted that according to our tradition we should drink before work. It worked, they opened and they drank (the borscht) and were taken by surprise. ”
Leonov – described by the Russian Space Agency as cosmonaut # 11 – was an icon in both his country and the US. He was a legend that the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke named a Soviet ship in his name "2010", a sequel to "2001: A Space Odyssey".
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday announced the Russian president's condolences to Leonov's family, saying that Vladimir Putin and the cosmonaut knew each other well.
"Putin has always admired Leonov's courage and thought he was an extraordinary man," Peskov told Russian news agencies.
Condolence messages came from all over the world.
NASA on Friday offered sympathy to Leonov's family, saying it was saddened by his death.
"Your venture in the vacuum of space has begun the story of extravehicular activity that makes it possible to maintain today's Space Station," NASA said on Twitter.
Leonov leaves his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren.
Vasilyeva writes for the Associated Press
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