The world’s first spacewalker, Alexei Leonov, dies at 85

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The global space program has lost one of its most legendary members.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who was the first human to walk in space, died on October 11, the Russian Space Agency reported. He was 85 years old.

“One of the first cosmonauts of the world space era, forever devoted to his country and his work, he inscribed himself in golden letters in the world history of space,” said Roscosmos in a statement. “With Alexei Arkhipovich, a whole era has gone. The best memory of him will be the new achievements of the Russian cosmonautics, to which he devoted his bright heroic life.”

NASA also paid tribute to Leonov in a Twitter post on Friday. The U.S. space agency noted that “His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extravehicular activity that makes today’s @Space_Station maintenance possible.”

An Enduring Space Legacy

Leonov worked in the early days of the world space era. He was reportedly among the first 20 Soviet Air Force pilots to train as a cosmonaut in 1960.

On March 18, 1965, Leonov became the first human in history to walk in space. He exited a Voskhod 2 spacecraft and did a 12-minute spacewalk to test maneuverability in his spacesuit. Alarmingly, Leonov experienced a life-threatening malfunction during the event.

According to a Space.com report, the cosmonaut’s spacesuit ballooned and stiffened after about eight minutes in space. He quickly calculated how he could make it back inside the ship with such compromised mobility.

Ultimately, Leonov decided to decrease the pressure inside his spacesuit. To avoid widespread panic, he didn’t tell ground controllers in Moscow what he was doing until after the mission was complete. Fortunately, he made it back into the spacecraft.

In 2015, NASA public affairs officer Rob Navias interviewed the space pioneer. Their talk commemorated the 50th anniversary of Leonov’s landmark extravehicular activity (EVA). He told Navias that his biggest impression from that history-making endeavor was a sense of profound silence.

He said, “The most impression had to do with the silence. I heard how my heart was pounding. I could hear myself breathe.”

He also noted that stars looked very bright and small and that they were everywhere—above and below him.

Overall, the groundbreaking achievement paved the way for scores of future spacewalkers. Two months after Leonov’s effort, American astronaut Edward White performed the first U.S. spacewalk. White’s EVA took place on June 3, 1965, as part of NASA’s Gemini 4 mission.

Leonov went on to command the Soyuz 19 spacecraft that performed a historic first docking with a U.S. Apollo capsule in 1975. The milestone interstellar event symbolized a thaw in the Cold War.

Honoring a Legendary Life

As part of his legendary career in space, Leonov was one of three cosmonauts chosen to make a trip to the moon. However, the Russian space agency canceled the mission due to rocket issues.

Leonov notably led the cosmonaut team until 1982. He eventually left that position and became the deputy director of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City. He served in that role for 10 years before leaving the space program to pursue a banking career.

As news of his passing has spread, people around the world are mourning the loss of a real space legend.

NASA astronaut Christina Koch described the ISS crew’s 220th spacewalk as “bittersweet” in the wake of Leonov’s passing. She gave a poignant verbal tribute to her fellow space traveler, calling him a “pathfinder.”

The space station shared Koch’s speech in a video clip on Twitter.

Retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly also paid tribute to Leonov. He referenced Leonov’s lifelong passion for art in his own post.

The European Space Agency (ESA) also honored Leonov’s passing.

The Canadian Space Agency posted a tribute as well.

Tributes continue to stream in across social media to honor Alexei Leonov’s memory. The fearless cosmonaut’s journey will undoubtedly serve as bold inspiration when NASA’s first all-female spacewalk takes place from the ISS later this month.