In conversation with Alexei Leonov

Alexei Leonov (on right) With Deke Slayton during the Apollo Soyuz Test Project [IMG: Wikipedia under CC license]
December 15th 2015. It’s a day that many space enthusiasts in the UK will remember for years to come. Tim Peake rode a Soyuz up to the International Space Station along with astronaut Tim Kopra and veteran Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko  and for once my country went a bit space crazy. 

In London’s South Kensington, the Science Museum pulled out all the stops to mark the event in true style with events including live broadcasts by the BBC Stargazing Live show with physicist and committed space enthusiast Professor Brian Cox accompanied by former Station Commander Chris Hadfield. But Hadfield wasn’t the only seasoned space traveller in attendance on the night…

Authors Note: This account is based on my recollections and impressions of the conversation. While I was able to take some limited notes, I wasn’t able to record the event so I apologise for any mistakes, misinterpretations or other error. Things may appear out of order, but I hope I have been able to convey at least something of this very special event.

I’d welcome the opinions or contributions of others who were present and can help me represent the conversation more accurately and correct any errors and omissions I have made here.

Tim Peake’s mission has been christened Principia to honour Sir Isaac Newton’s 1687 masterwork Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica so it seems fitting to paraphrase Newton and say that Peake and his colleagues are truly standing on the shoulders of giants and one such giant is Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

As one of the original Cosmonaut intake, the first man to walk in space and Commander of the Soyuz element of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project, Leonov has seen and done as much as any of his contemporaries. Twice a Hero of the Soviet Union he acted as Chief Cosmonaut for many years and still occupies a key role as an elder statesman of Star City, but there is far more to Leonov. An accomplished artist and advocate for human spaceflight he is also an engaging and entertaining speaker and it was this role that brought him to the Science Museum.

Leonov holds forth to a rapt audience (apologies for the poor image)

A capacity crowd filled out the museum’s IMAX cinema, contemplating a backdrop of Leonov’s own depiction of his famous spacewalk, before the sprightly looking 81 year old Leonov appeared. Introductions over, the conversation started, although Leonov is an enthusiastic talker so questions were brief and answered at length. Speaking through an interpreter he started with a glowing tribute to the Science Museum’s excellent Cosmonauts exhibition calling it the best of it’s type he had seen anywhere. Moving on to the events of the day he described Tim Peake’s suitability for his role and saluted his family and their role in his mission preparations. He then took time to remind the audience that before Peake came Helen Sharman and that she had also passed every test required with ease. Indeed she apparently became a regular visitor to the Leonov household and there was an obvious fondness shown towards the UK’s first astronaut.

The discussion then moved to Leonov’s involvement in the early days of the Russian space programme and his selection for the Voskhod 2 flight. He revealed that the cosmonaut group were all brought to Korolev’s OKB-1 bureau to be shown the spaceships under construction. At this point Korolev invited Leonov forward to inspect the Voskhod craft informing him to inspect and understand the airlock system as he’d be the man making the first spacewalk and would have to defend the programme of work to scientists.

The thought of talking to scientists seems to have worried Leonov more than the mission at hand, but clearly Korolev was a good judge of character and ability – his glowing recommendation of the Cosmonaut was only revealed to Leonov after the Chief Designer’s death. Korolev featured often in his recollections, the larger than life driving force behind the early Soviet space triumphs seems to have had a close relationship with his pilots but a special place for Leonov and Gagarin.

After describing his intense programme of physical preparation, he explained how the test flight for Voskhod 2 exploded, the crew were given the chance to wait until further tests had been carried out but refused the offer – they knew they were in good shape and had confidence in the equipment and their own abilities. The flight would go on (I imagine there would have been an awareness that the American Gemini flights would soon yield an EVA so external pressures will have played a part.)

Moving on to the flight itself, he described in hair raising detail the problems with his suit pressure and the creeping realisation that he may not be able to re-enter the ship. A radio announcement during his walk caught him by surprise – ‘attention! A Man is floating in open space for the first time!’… “Who?” thought Leonov before realising that the eyes of the Soviet Union were on him and he’d better not mess things up by not making it home! As has been well documented, his immediate solution to the ballooning suit was to lower the pressure (risking the Bends) and squeeze back into the airlock headfirst rather than feet first. This meant he needed to turn himself around within the airlock as he could only re-enter Voskhod feet first. All of this he managed and all without informing the ground, something he was later rebuked for “There just wasn’t time – what could I do?” being his defence.

Any thoughts that the worst was over for Voskhod 2 were soon dispelled as the automatic systems malfunctioned and stability control was lost. Out of range of ground communications Leonov and his crewmate Pavel Belyayev made the decision to switch to manual control, but as with most Soviet ships Voskhod wasn’t designed with manual control in mind. The re-entry was difficult to prepare for, resulting in a significant overshoot landing Leonov and Belyayev deep in the Siberian Taiga.

Here Leonov delivered an account of what must have been an extremely tense wait for rescue with self deprecating humour. Belyayev left the capsule, ending up neck deep in snow. Leonov decided to follow. They made a fire, it melted the snow and sank. They tried to retrieve the parachute for extra insulation but couldn’t. They decided to remove their clothing to dry out “Two of us, naked in the taiga on a freezing night – can you imagine!”. Eventually, they were spotted, but the dense taiga prevented helicopters reaching them, so rescuers arrived some time later on skies. Helicopters lowered supplies including a large cauldron in which they heated water to wash “so again, two men naked in the taiga!”. The major low point was when a bottle of cognac was dropped, but broke on landing “I was so angry! Why! Why did you not fly lower when dropping the cognac!”. Fresh clothing was dropped, but the trousers were lost in the treetops. He neglected to say whether they skied to safety semi-naked the next day but it sounds like anything was possible.

Throughout Leonov’s recollections there was much laughter from the man himself and the appreciative audience. Occasionally details felt slightly ‘lost in translation’ but given the difficulties in real-time translation I felt the interpreter did an excellent job under the circumstances.

The LK and Cosmonaut safely on the Lunar Surface [IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
Things felt slightly more serious as the conversation turned to the Soviet lunar programme. Leonov trained for both the circumlunar (L1) and lunar landing (L3) missions and so is excellently placed to give an inside view of what happened. Had Korolev lived, he believes that a Cosmonaut could have been first around the Moon. Regarding Korolev’s successor Valeri Mishin, he was diplomatic but clear “Some people are very good at following instruction, but they are not leaders, they cannot make big decisions – this was the case with Mishin”. Together with Gagarin, Leonov appealed that following the successful flight of Zond 5, the next flight should carry a crew. The decision was made that more uncrewed tests were required, time was lost and NASA took the big decision to send Apollo 8 to the Moon. For more details on the Soviet circumlunar programme Click Here

The monumental LK-3 lunar lander (engineering model, 1969) in the Cosmonauts exhibition ©Science Museum

After this, interest in the circumlunar mission waned and thoughts turned to landing a cosmonaut on the surface. With regards to the N-1/L3 he was relatively blunt “We could not have done it. We could not have beaten the Americans”. Leonov would likely have been the commander for the first landing attempt and, given the massive risks involved in the N-1/L3 plan it’s hard not to be grateful that he never had to try. Nevertheless the sight of the LK lander, proudly dominating the museum’s COSMONAUTS exhibition clearly moved him “It’s a beautiful, beautiful craft. When I saw it I remembered my youth.” For more details on the N-1/L3 Lunar Landing plan Click Here

Things took a slightly unusual detour as Leonov talked about Apollo and his recent meeting with Buzz Aldrin. At one point it seemed he was suggesting that some of the scenes from Apollo had indeed been filmed by Stanley Kubrick in Hollywood! I have to say I’m not sure if this is actually what he was saying or he was simply mischief making and that was somewhat lost through the translation. Maybe I just missed the thrust of what he was saying (I’d be interested to hear from anyone who can clear this up!) What clearly wasn’t in doubt was his admiration for the Apollo crews who journeyed to the Moon either into orbit or down to the surface. He made particular mention of Tom Stafford Commander of Apollo 10 and Leonov’s opposite number on the American side of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project flight.

Speaking more generally on the subject of spaceflight and international co-operation he voiced the same sentiment that is so common amongst people who have seen the planet from space “Up there we work together, no problem. If we could all work together up there we wouldn’t have such problems”. He also stated his belief that no single nation can go it alone if they wish to explore the Moon or Mars. Clearly he is a big believer in collaboration. He also mentioned that currently China is the only country with a stated intention to land humans on the Moon. He made no mention of recent Russian plans showing an Angara based lunar exploration – possibly these are no more than paper studies given the funding cuts announced for Roscosmos.

In answer to a question from the audience he described the difference in feelings between weightlessness within a spacecraft and weightlessness in the void during his spacewalk “In the spacecraft you look out of the window, like in an aircraft” and one outside “I could see over the pole – half the world! The other direction, only stars…nothing between me and the Cosmos”.

Leonov and, apparently, the Crimea!

This was followed with a more humorous moment when the same questioner asked which piece of land is shown beneath him in his famous painting “It shows the Black sea, and this land…this is Crimea. People now say to me ‘Alexei, even then you had your eye on it!’”. Not to make light of international events it showed a certain self-effacing humour that the audience shared.

Returning to the subject of his Voskhod 2 flight he explained that the cosmonaut corps had been split between Vostok and Voskhod on the basis of height – the taller pilots, including himself, going to the latter programme (possibly this was due to the need for the bulky ejector seat in Vostok?). “Sometimes it is good to be higher! I got the better spacecraft, the more interesting programme of work.” He again stressed his fortune in being given the opportunity to become a Cosmonaut – to have made it through the selections and become one of the few chosen to take those pioneering flights. When asked about the fate of the Voskhod 2 capsule, he explained that it is currently on display in the private museum of RSC Energia (the descendant of Korolev’s OKB-1 bureau). He expressed sadness that so many items of huge historical significance to the Soviet and Russian programme are displayed in this way beyond the reach of the general public, but hoped that new initiatives could lead to public display in the future.

Finally, on the subject of his space experiences he mentioned the question “Which is better, being in space or on the ground?” to which the answer was “On the ground…after being in space!”. I have no idea if Chris Hadfield was in the audience – possibly so, but for the rest of us I’m sure there was a collective wish to have experienced both as Leonov had.

I’d like to thank the Science Museum, London for supplying the image of the LK lander displayed as part of their excellent Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition. The exhibition runs until 13th March 2016 and more details can be found here


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