On March 18, 1965, Alexey Leonov stepped outside the thin metal shell of Voskhod-2 to float in the harsh void of space. For 12 minutes and 9 seconds, Leonov opened the doors on an entire new branch of exploration as the first spacewalker. It was nearly a disaster.

Earlier on March 18, the Voshkhod-2 spacecraft had launched out of Baikonur, a spaceport in Kazakhstan still used by Roscosmos for launches today. The craft carried cosmonauts Alexey Leonov (Алексей Архипович Леонов) and Pavel Belyayev (Павел Иванович Беляев) into orbit for a deceptively simple mission: to make the planet’s first spacewalk.

At 11:32:54 on March 18th, Belyayev opened the outer airlock, exposing Leonov to space. Just under two minutes later, Leonov floated free of the Voskhod-2 spacecraft on a 5.35-meter tether. Between the hatches opening and closing again, Leonov spent just over 12 minutes in space.

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Leonov during training. Image credit: Ria Novosti/Science Photo Library

Outside, Leonov’s mission was simple: attach a camera to the airlock, document his spacewalk with a still camera on his chest, and survive. The first and last task he managed, but the middle one proved impossible. His spacesuit inflated too much to use the chest-mounted camera: he couldn’t reach the camera’s shutter-switch on his thigh.

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The first spacewalk was a frightening affair. No one knew what to expect. Medical reports recorded that Leonov’s core body temperature jumped 1.8°C in just 20 minutes, pushing him dangerously close to heatstroke. He floated within his spacesuit, or as he’s more recently described it during interviews, sloshed in sweat within his spacesuit. Despite the restricted communication during the Cold War, even American publications acknowledged both the risk and the impressiveness of the feat. For its March 26, 1965 cover story, TIME described it thusly:

“As air escaped from the [spacecraft’s air lock], the vacuum of space reached into it like a monster’s claw. Though it must have been rehearsed on earth over and over again, this was surely a moment of hideous crisis.”

before getting far more grouchy about acknowledging the accomplishment between whining about fuzzy photographs.

TIME had no way of knowing that their description of his actions, “Then, as easily and efficiently as he had emerged from his ship, Leonov climbed back inside,” would have been laughably inaccurate if the situation had been less dire. In fact, this was far from a graceful and easy reentry: Leonov’s spacesuit had bloated and stiffened in the vacuum, and was too large and inflexible to reenter the inflatable 1.2-meter-wide airlock. Knowing that other nations were eavesdropping on their transmissions, Leonov broke protocol and didn’t report the situation to ground control.

Voskhod 2 launched out of Baikonur on March 18, 1965, returning to Russia the next day. Image credit: Ria Novosti/Science Photo Library

The BBC reports Leonov’s recollections of the critical moment:

“My suit was becoming deformed. My hands had slipped out of the gloves [and] my feet came out of the boots. The suit felt loose around my body. I had to do something. I couldn’t pull myself back using the cord. And what’s more, with this misshapen suit, it would be impossible to fit through the airlock.”

He opened a valve to slowly release oxygen, depressurizing his suit until it was small enough to squeeze within the relative safety of the spacecraft. Despite breathing pure oxygen before exiting to reduce nitrogen in his bloodstream, this unplanned depressurization brought him to the edge with pins and needles. Like a diver rising too quickly to the surface, he almost got the bends, a problem modern spacewalkers still anticipate by breathing oxygen before venturing outside the International Space Station.

Alexei Leonov outside the Voskhod-2 spacecraft during the first spacewalk. Image credit: Central Press / Stringer

The problems didn’t end when he was safely inside with Belyayev.

Ejecting the inflatable airlock sent the spacecraft into a spin. Worse, a malfunction sent oxygen levels climbing. They knew how risky this was: cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko died in a training accident in a low-pressure high-oxygen environment, after dropping a cloth on a hotplate. A single spark could cause an explosion and vaporize the craft.

The Voskhod-2 proved to be less than ideally reliable. Image credit: Roscosmos

Belyayev and Leonov tried every trick they could to drop temperature and bumped up the humidity to reduce the risk, but they were lucky that no later malfunctions caused any sparks within the craft. In an interview with RT, now-retired cosmonaut Leonov reflects on how dangerous that first spacewalk was, still amazed they succeeded:

“I keep going over the mission and I keep finding mistakes that could have been avoided. They could have led to tragedy, everything was on the edge. We were thrown to an altitude of 495 kilometers by an error, it [was]...200 kilometers higher than planned. And it so happened that we were flying some 5 kilometers below the radiation layer.”

The USSR created a “Triumph of the Soviet Union” stamp to honour the two cosmonauts and their spacecraft.

Yet, as with every spacewalker since, what impressed Leonov the most was how small and fragile our planet is in the huge emptiness of space. His interview with RT continues:

“The sheer size of the Earth, space. We don’t understand it on the ground. Only there you can comprehend space. While from inside the spacecraft cosmonauts could see only a small fraction of the scenery, outside “the stars and the sun are everywhere… I did not expect all this.

The silence struck me. I could hear my heart beating so clearly. I could hear my breath – it even hurt to think. The heavy breaths were looped via microphones and broadcast to Earth.”

The sound of his breathing was recorded, and later looped into the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Leonov’s homecoming was less than glamorous when spacecraft malfunctions dropped them in thick forest. Image credit: Ria Novosti/Science Photo Library

Despite returning to Earth just 1 day, 2 hours and 2 minutes after launch, the bad luck continued with a harrowing end to the Voskhod-2 mission. The craft bearing the world’s first spacewalker back to Earth suffered a major malfunction during reentry. The automatic re-entry system failed to fire retro-rockets, forcing the crew to switch to a manual landing procedure. Their bulky spacesuits in the cramped spacecraft meant they couldn’t move to rebalance and restore their center of mass for nearly a minute, sending them wildly off-course. Worse still, the orbital module failed to separate from the landing module, sending them tumbling. When they finally reached solid ground, instead of being greeted by jubilant officials and scientists, Leonov and Belyayev were greeted by wolves and bears when the spacecraft dropped them in the middle of a thick forest during a snowstorm.

Like American astronauts, the cosmonauts had extensive survival training. They needed it. It was mating season, so the wolves and bears were even more aggressive than usual. The forest was too thick for a rescue helicopter to land. They’d opened the hatch with explosive bolts on landing, leaving the cosmonauts exposed to the storm and subzero temperatures. The electrical system malfunctioned, knocking out the heater while the fans ran at full blast. Sweat in their spacesuits threatened to freeze, forcing them to wring the suits out to prevent frostbite. A rescue party on skis finally reached them the second day, chopping wood for a small log cabin and an enormous bonfire. Most importantly, the rescuers brought brandy to celebrate the triumphant mission. The next morning, the cosmonauts skied several kilometres to a pickup location.

After landing, Leonov probably wished he was back in the flowering field he rested in while a test pilot. Image credit: Roscosmos

On June 3, 1965, two months after Leonov’s spacewalk, astronaut Edward White stepped outside of Gemini 4 as the first American spacewalker.

NASA Public Affairs Officer Rob Navias caught up with the now 80-year-old former cosmonaut in Moscow in May 2014 for an interview reviewing the highlights of his historic spacewalk.

Leonov has a fairly standard personal background for the first generation of cosmonauts.

Leonov admiring the sheep given to him for his birthday by friend and the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin. Image credit: Roscosmos

He had eight siblings, a feat of fertility which earned his mother the Order of Maternal Glory, and grew up in the coal-mining region of Siberia. As a youth, he was an active pilot and parachuter, making 115 jumps before being accepted into the first class of cosmonauts. When not on missions, he worked for the Russian space agency, overseeing crew training. Along with countless honours, a crater on the far side of the Moon is named for him. Unlike most of his historic peers in the American and Russian space programs, he is still alive today.

Leonov and crew mate Valery Kubasov boarding Soyuz 19 before the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Image credit: USSR Academy of Sciences

This wasn’t Leonov’s only groundbreaking mission. In July of 1975, on his second journey into space, he commanded Soyuz 19, which docked with the Apollo spacecraft for the first Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Leonov and Thomas Stafford, commander of the Apollo spacecraft, shaking hands through the hatches of the docked Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

Leonov was also tapped for two Soviet space missions that were almost historic.

He was on the schedule for Soyuz 11, the first mission to send humans to a space station in 1971, when his crew-mate Valery Kubasov was diagnosed with suspected tuberculosis. They were bumped from the flight and the backup crew went to Salyut 1 instead. He was scheduled for the second mission to the station, but the mission was cancelled after the Soyuz 11 opened prematurely during reentry and suffocated the crew. Among the dead was cosmonaut Vladislav Volkov, one of the rescue skiers who had picked him up in the snowy woods. When the space program was planning lunar missions, he was scheduled for a circumlunar orbital flight that was cancelled after a string of failures of the preliminary robotic missions.

Leonov posing for a formal cosmonaut portrait. Image credit: Roscosmos

Between getting trapped in space, explosively high oxygen levels, a malfunctioning spacecraft, an off-course landing in a thick forest, a snowstorm, and angry, frisky wolves, I’m shocked that the first spacewalker not only survived that day fifty years ago, but is alive today. Congratulations Alexey Leonov, and thank you for being the first.