On March 18, 1965, the Soviet cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov left the airlock of the Voskhod-2 spacecraft and became the first man to conduct an EVA (extra-vehicular activity). His “outdoor” time totalled just 12 minutes.
The slugfest that raged between the United States and the Soviet Union for dominance in space ended with a major victory for the Soviet Union. It was only two and a half months later, on June 3, 1965, that the Gemini IV spacecraft, with Edward White and James McDivitt on board, conducted the first American EVA.
The Soviet team of engineers, supervised by the founder of the Soviet space program Sergey Korolev, designed a special airlock compatible with the Voskhod spacecraft series. Additionally, the original spacesuit, used in all previous missions, was reinforced with an extra shell and basically functioned just like a thermos flask. The multimember crew spacecraft was remodelled to include a “spacesuit changing room.” The spacewalking cosmonaut was attached to the craft by a 5-metre tether, which served both for emergency oxygen supply and as a means of communication between the commander and ground controllers.
Leonov’s first spacewalk was mostly successful, but did experience a few off-normal situations, some of which were even considered deadly. A mishap caused the pressure inside Leonov’s spacesuit to surge. The suit ballooned, rendering any movement impossible. Leonov opened a valve to release the pressure at the risk of contracting a “decompression disease”, but all went well.
Next, he entered the airlock head first, which meant that turning upright was another ordeal. The strenuous physical activity in a heavy spacesuit (weighing over 220lbs) had totally worn him out: he was knee-deep in sweat and had to act quickly. His oxygen supply was also quickly running out. The spacesuit held 60 litres of air for ventilation and breathing, as opposed to modern ones which hold 360 litres. Making matters worse, a fault in the re-entry manoeuvering system had forced the cosmonauts to resort to manual mode, which resulted in the spacecraft landing in the middle of the dense Arctic woodland of the taiga, almost 200 miles away from the original landing site. Leonov and his colleague Pavel Belyayev had to spend three days in the forest, wrapped in foil from their spacesuits inside the airlock until the area was finally cleared for helicopters to land.
The American spacewalk, on the other hand, lasted over 22 minutes and the tether was 3 metres longer. The Americans also devised a hand-held manoeuvering oxygen-jet gun to push the astronaut out of the capsule. But the one major difference was that the American spacecraft did not have an airlock. The astronaut had to exit the hatch after depressurising the entire spacecraft.