MOSCOW – Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago – and who nearly didn't make it back into his space capsule – has died in Moscow at 85.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos made the announcement on its website Friday but gave no cause for his death. Leonov had health issues for several years, according to Russia media.
Leonov – described by the Russian Space Agency as Cosmonaut No. 11 – was an icon in his country as well as in the U.S. He was such a legend that the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke named a Soviet spaceship after him in his “2010” sequel 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.”
“Infinitely committed to his vocation, he left a truly legendary mark in the history of space exploration and in the history of our country,” Putin said on the Kremlin's website.
Leonov was born in 1934 into a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like countless Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and shipped 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 thought about going to art school before he enrolled in a pilot training course and, later, an aviation college. Leonov did not give up sketching even when he flew into space, and took colored pencils with him on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975 to draw.
That mission was the first one 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 the international cooperation seen aboard the current International Space Station.
But Leonov staked his place in space history 10 years earlier, on March 18, 1965, when he exited his Voskhod 2 space capsule secured by a tether.
“I stepped into that void and I didn't fall in,” the cosmonaut recalled years later. “I was mesmerized by the stars. They were everywhere – up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”
Spacewalking always carries a high risk but Leonov's pioneering venture was particularly nerve-wracking, according to details of the exploit that only became public decades later.
His spacesuit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he could not get back into the spacecraft. He had to open a valve to vent oxygen from his suit to be able to fit through the hatch.
Leonov's 12-minute spacewalk preceded the first U.S. spacewalk, by Ed White, by less than three months.
Leonov might have become the Soviet Union's first moonwalker, in fact, had his country's lunar-landing effort not been canceled in the wake of Apollo 11's triumphant moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.
On his second trip into space 10 years later, Leonov commanded the Soviet half of Apollo-Soyuz 19.
NASA on Friday offered its sympathies to Leonov's family, saying it was saddened by his death.
“His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extra-vehicular activity that makes today's Space Station maintenance possible,” NASA said on Twitter.