Alexei Leonov, the First Man to Walk in Space, Dead at 85

Alexei Leonov, a Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first-ever human to walk in space, died Friday in Moscow, his assistant said. He was 85. "He died today in Moscow at the Burdenko hospital after a long illness," Natalia Filimonova told AFP. The Russian space agency Roscosmos said it was saddened to announce the death of "cosmonaut No 11," who was twice decorated with the country's top honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union. The space agency did not list a cause of death.

Leonov was a close friend of Yury Gagarin, who became the first human to go into outer space in 1961, four years before Leonov conducted the first spacewalk in 1965, venturing outside his Voskhod 2 spacecraft via an 18-foot-long tether.

Leonov spent 12 minutes floating outside before struggling to get back inside the aircraft; in the vacuum of space, his suit had ballooned to the point that it would not fit through the hatch. After opening a valve to bleed off pressure, he finally managed to squeeze back in.

alexei-leonov_getty-Central Press : Stringer
(Photo: Central Press / Stringer, Getty)

Three months later, NASA astronaut Ed White became the first American spacewalker.

Ten years after his historic walk, Leonov made history again when he commanded the Soviet half of the Soyuz-Apollo 19 spaceflight, putting an end to the "space race" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The mission is credited with kickstarting eventual international cooperation aboard the International Space Station.

On Friday, NASA broke into live televised coverage of a spacewalk by two Americans outside the International Space Station to report Leonov's death. "A tribute to Leonov as today is a spacewalk," Mission Control in Houston said.

Leonov was also a celebrated artist who brought colored pencils to space to sketch the view of Earth. His drawing of the sunrise is considered the first piece of art created in space. He was also well known for his humor; once the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules docked in orbit around Earth in July 1975, Leonov and his Russian cremate, Valeri Kubasov, welcomed the three U.S. astronauts — their Cold War rivals — with canned borscht (a beetroot-based sour soup) disguised as Stolichnaya vodka.

"When we sat at the table, they said, 'Why, that's not possible,'" Leonov recalled in 2005, according to Newsmax. "We insisted, saying that according to our tradition we must drink before work. That worked, they opened it and drank (the borscht) and were caught by surprise."

alexei-leonov_getty-William Lovelace : Stringer
(Photo: William Lovelace / Stringer, Getty)

Earlier this year, two Russian cosmonauts honored Leonov, who had reportedly been chronically ill before his death, on his 85th birthday. They wore placards on their spacesuit backpacks, one saying "Leonov No. 1" and the other "Happy Birthday, Alexey Arkhipovich."

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Born in 1934 to a large peasant family in western Siberia, Leonov's father was arrested and shipped off to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but he managed to survive and reunite with his family. Leonov considered going to art school before he enrolled in a pilot training course and later in aviation college.

A funeral for Leonov will be held Tuesday, Oct. 15 at Mytishchi Military Memorial cemetery outside Moscow.