Quirks & Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

The other 'first man' who was supposed to go to the moon

Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was supposed to beat the Americans to the moon

Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was supposed to beat the Americans to the moon

Alexei Leonov displays one of his drawings of Apollo commander Tom Stafford during the ASTP flight. (NASA)

On July 20th we'll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But little will likely be said of another man who was meant to walk on the moon, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Leonov was part of a secret Soviet program designed to beat the Americans to the moon. He and another crew member were meant to ride atop a gigantic new booster called the N-1, which was as large as the American Saturn 5. Once at the moon, Leonov would make a solo descent to the surface in an LK lander, while his comrade remained in orbit.          

It was an ambitious project that began in the mid-60s, but was doomed to failure due in part to the premature death of Sergei Korolov. Korolov was the Soviet chief rocket designer, and had been responsible for all of the USSR's earlier successes in space, such as the first satellite, first animals in orbit, first man in orbit, and first robotic probes to the moon, Venus and Mars.

The loss of this brilliant engineer, along with funding issues and rushed development due to political pressure, resulted in design flaws that mean the rocket never flew successfully.

All four test flights, including one just four days before the launch of Apollo 11, ended in catastrophic and explosive failure. Fortunately, no one was on board any of those flights. The program was eventually cancelled in 1974, and information about it was not made public until the end of the 1980s.

Leonov's illustrious career

Despite the failure of the Soviet N-1 program, and the loss of his opportunity to walk on the moon, Leonov had an illustrious career. In 1965, he had become the first human to walk in space, a feat that lasted just over 12 minutes and almost cost him his life.

 

After squeezing through an airlock hatch, he floated freely outside his Voskhod capsule on the end of a tether. At first, he reported that he felt great and was amazed at the panoramic view of the Earth that spread below him.

Soon, however he felt his feet slipping out of his boots and his hands sliding out of the gloves of his spacesuit. In the vacuum of space, the suit had inflated like an overfilled balloon. Leonov found it hard to work against the stiff suit and pull on the tether to get himself back to the capsule.

When he did manage to reach the opening of his spacecraft, he found that the bulky suit was too big to fit through the hatch. He struggled to get in, and his body temperature and pulse rate climbed to dangerously high levels, alarming doctors on the ground.

The only option he had was to let air out of his suit to soften it. Risking hypoxia, or lack of oxygen to the brain, and the bends that divers experience when pressure is lowered, he released some of his life giving air into space and managed to squeeze back inside. It would be years before the Russians would perform another spacewalk.

Leonov's adventure on that spacewalking mission was not over, as the Voskhod capsule overshot the landing zone and brought him and his fellow cosmonaut down in a forest during a snowstorm, where they had to survive for two days with wolves in sight before recovery crews could get to them.

Astronaut Donald K. "Deke" Slayton (left) embraces cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov (right) in the Soyuz spacecraft (NASA )

The first joint American-Russian mission

In 1975, Leonov flew again on the first joint American-Russian mission called Apollo Soyuz where he made the first international handshake in space with American astronaut Thomas Stafford. This inaugurated the type of cooperative work in space that ultimately lead to the construction of the International Space Station.

Alexei Leonov continued to support the space program by becoming director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre from 1976-82 and retired in 1992. He's still alive today, and is an accomplished artist and author, publishing several books.

This July 20th, it would be interesting to know what is going through his mind as he watches the world celebrate the first step on the moon by Neil Armstrong. Perhaps he will be thinking about how close he came to making that step his own.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.