Nataliya Vasilyeva, Associated Press
Published Friday, 11 October 2019 10:30 EDT
Last updated Friday, October 11, 2019 1:07 PM EDT
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago – and barely returned to his space capsule – died in Moscow at the age of 85.
Russian space agency Roscosmos made the announcement on its website on Friday, but gave no reason for his death. Leonov had health problems for several years, according to Russian media.
Showing how Leonov was a space pioneer, NASA raided its live television coverage of a spacewalk by two Americans outside the International Space Station to report Leonov's death.
"A tribute to Leonov today is a spacewalk," said Mission Control in Houston.
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 spacecraft in his honor. in its sequel from "2010" to "2001: A Space Odyssey".
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday sent his condolences to Leonov's family, calling him "a true pioneer, a strong and heroic person."
"Endlessly committed to his calling, he has left a truly legendary mark on the history of space exploration and the history of our country," Putin said on the Kremlin website.
Leonov was born in 1934 to a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like many Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and sent to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but he 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 current International Space Station.
But Leonov took his place in space history ten years earlier, on March 18, 1965, when he emerged from the Voskhod 2 space capsule, attached by a rope.
"I entered this void and did not fall," recalled the cosmonaut years later. "I was fascinated with the stars. They were everywhere – up, down, left, right. I can still hear my breath and my heart beat in that silence."
Spacewalking always poses a high risk, but Leonov's pioneering venture was particularly stressful, according to details of the exploration that became public only 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.
Leonov could have become the first sleepwalker of the Soviet Union, in fact, if his country's lunar landing effort had not been canceled after the triumphant lunar landing of Apollo 11 by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.
On his second space trip, ten years later, Leonov commanded the Soviet half of Apollo-Soyuz 19.
The cosmonaut was known for his humor. When the US Soviet Apollo and Soyuz capsules went into orbit around Earth on July 17, 1975, Leonov and his Russian crewmate Valeri Kubasov welcomed the three American astronauts – their war rivals. Cold – with canned borsch disguised as Stolichnaya vodka and suggested a toast.
"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 drank (the borscht) and were taken by surprise. "
The cosmonaut turned 85 in May. Several days before that, two Russian crew members at the International Space Station ventured into open space on a planned spacewalk, carrying Leonov's photo with them to pay tribute to the space legend. They said "Happy Birthday!" to Leonov before opening the hatch and venturing out.
Leonov's modern successor, Oleg Kononenko, who was one of two Russians on that spacewalk, told Rossiya-24 television on Friday that Leonov had tuned in to hear his congratulations from space.
"We were going to visit Alexei Arkhipovich (Leonov) upon our return and give him our space memories, but you see it was not meant to be," Kononenko said.
When his team returned to Earth in late June, Leonov was already ill.
Kononenko spoke fondly of the Soviet space pioneer, saying he was a frequent guest at farewell ceremonies for space crews in Star City and the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
"We had this tradition that he would give animated talks to cosmonauts before boarding the spaceship," said Kononenko. "We all look forward to it, always think about it, and always want Leonov to be the one to send us into space."
Condolence messages came from all over the world.
On Friday, NASA 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 extra-vehicular activities that make it possible to maintain today's Space Station," NASA said on Twitter.
"One of the best people I've ever met," tweeted former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on Friday. "Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, artist, leader, space traveler and friend, I salute you."
Russian space fans were bringing flowers to their monument on Friday in the alley in honor of Russian cosmonauts in Moscow.
Leonov, who is to be buried Tuesday in a military memorial cemetery outside Moscow, leaves his wife, daughter and two grandchildren.
Marcia Dunn contributed to this report from Cape Canaveral, Florida