Cosmonauts Faced Cold, Snow After Dicey Landing

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For the Soviet crew of Voshod 2, their landing back on Earth in an isolated, very snowy forest marked a harrowing start to a new mission: survival. Getting through the ordeal would end up requiring a gun to ward off wild bears, some tricks to staying warm in below zero temperatures and cross country skiing.

Long before they had returned Earth, Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev had secured spots for themselves in history. While in orbit in their Voskhod 2 spacecraft on March 18,  1965, Leonov became the first man to perform an Extravehicular Activity or EVA.

It hadn’t been easy. In a vacuum his suit had become rigid and unwieldy, making his reentry into the spacecraft a slightly harrowing experience. But the drama of the mission was only just beginning.

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The crew was coming up on the end of their 26-hour mission when things started going wrong. Just five minutes before their scheduled reentry, the cosmonauts noticed a problem with their automatic guidance system. It wasn’t working. The computer couldn’t orient the spacecraft.

They hastily shut off the Vostok’s landing program and began an additional orbit when they should have been reentering the atmosphere. They needed the extra time to deal with the emergency.

As the mission’s navigator, it fell to Leonov to pick a landing spot; he chose a sparsely populated area near to the city of Perm just west of the Ural Mountains where they were certain to land on Soviet soil. As the pilot, Belyayev had to stretch across both seats to look through the spacecraft’s porthole to visually orient the spacecraft before the retrofire burn then scramble back into his seat for reentry.

The timing was tight but everything worked. The crew felt the engine behind them roar to life and felt the beginnings of gravity pulling them down as they started falling to Earth. But something was wrong. The cosmonauts felt conflicting gravitational forces, first pulling them one way then the other. Hard. Their instruments told them they were pulling up 10gs in alternating directions, enough force to burst blood vessels in their eyes.

It was a familiar problem, one that had affected a number of Vostok missions. The spacecraft’s landing module was designed to separate from their orbital module 10 seconds after retro-fire, but it hadn’t. A single communication cable connected the two, and they started spinning.

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Not until the landing module was 62 miles from the Earth surface did the cord finally give, burned away by the heat of reentry. The spinning stopped abruptly and the cosmonauts felt a sharp jolt. The small stabilizing drogue chute deployed. The capsule started swaying gently underneath the parachute.

The calm inside the cabin was at odds with the ominous darkness outside. The cosmonauts were falling through heavy cloud cover. The landing rockets fired and they hit the ground with a jolt.

According to the spacecraft’s orientation system they landed deep in the Siberian forest almost 1,250 miles from their target. The crew needed to assess their situation to figure out how long it might take recovery crews to find them. The full seriousness of the situation hit them when they wrestled the hatch opened to find themselves nearly chin deep in snow.

Snowbanks six and a half feet tall surrounded them as did thick birch trees. The sun was hidden behind the clouds. It started to snow, forcing the men back into their spacecraft.

Neither man was too concerned. Belyayev’s childhood dream had been to become a hunter while Leonov had sought the beautiful isolation of the forest as an artistic outlet. It was the wildlife that worried them. The forest, they knew, was home to bears and wolves, unusually aggressive in the spring mating season. Between themselves the cosmonauts had one pistol but ample ammunition.

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It was lucky they had the gun. Around the time they returned to the safety of their capsule Moscow had no idea that they had even landed. Only men working at a listening post near Bonn, Germany and a nearby cargo plane did; by chance they’d both picked up a transmission from the crew and called for a search party.

Recovery crews did arrive in late afternoon, signaled by the unmistakable sound of helicopter. Leonov and Belyayev plowed through chest-deep snow into a clearing where they waved their arms frantically. Luckily the pilot spotted them, but unfortunately it was a civilian helicopter whose crew lacked the knowledge and equipment to effect a rescue. A rope ladder appeared in the clearing, but the cosmonauts had no hope of climbing it in their bulky pressure suits and boots.

Other aircraft arrived and dropped what they hoped would be helpful items: a bottle of cognac that broke when it hit the ground, a blunt axe, and wolfskin boots and warm winter clothes that snagged on branches as they fell.

Civilian rescue efforts continued in vain as daylight faded. By then the cosmonauts were facing a different threat. They’d sweat so much climbing around in the snow that now, soaked, they were at risk of frost bite. Leonov and Belyayev clambered back into the capsule, stripped naked, and wrung as much moisture out of their underwear as possible.

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They poured the liquid out of their rigid spacesuits and put the softer, less rigid lining back on for warmth. With their boots and gloves back on they were relatively comfortable and mobile. As the night cooled to 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit they tried to stay warm in their capsule in spite of the gaping hole where the hatch had been.

They woke the next morning to the sound of an airplane circling overhead and voices just barely audible above the engines’ roar. Leonov fired a flare gun to guide the small rescue team — a group of men on skis followed by a fellow cosmonaut and an eager videographer — to their landing site.

With supplies on site the second night in the forest was much more pleasant. The men chopped trees to build a fire and make a makeshift log cabin, clearing a spot for a helicopter at the same time. They also brought a generous supper of cheese, sausage and bread.

The crew and their rescue team skied five and a half miles to the helicopter landing site the next morning. The crew was moved to Perm then flown back to their launch site at Baikonur where they were greeted by a smiling Yuri Gagarin and Sergei Korolev.

The next day Leonov and Belyayev stood before a government committee in Leninsk to answer questions about their flight. Leonov’s only comment on the flight was about his historic space walk: “Provided with a special suit, man can survive and work in open space.”

After their harrowing night in the forest, it was back to business for the cosmonauts.

Photo: Alexei Leonov in 1965. Voskhod 2 was Leonov’s first spaceflight. Credit: NASA