Cosmonauts honor spacewalk pioneer on eve of 85th birthday

By William Harwood

/ CBS News

Two Russian cosmonauts stepped outside the International Space Station Wednesday, sent birthday greetings to former cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, the first man to walk in space, and then pressed ahead with a full slate of maintenance work.

Expedition 59 commander Oleg Kononenko, making his fifth spacewalk, and crewmate Alexey Ovchinin, making his first, opened the hatch of the Pirs airlock compartment at 11:42 a.m. EDT to officially kick off a planned six-and-a-half-hour excursion, the year's fourth spacewalk and the first by the Russians.

Kononenko, call sign EV-1, wore a suit with red stripes and used helmet camera 18. Ovchinin, EV-2, used helmet camera 11 and a suit with blue stripes.

Cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Alexey Ovchinin floated outside the International Space Station May 29, 2019, and took a moment to call down birthday greetings to retired cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, the first man to walk in space in 1965. Carrying a portrait of Leonov outside with them, the cosmonauts both radioed best wishes to the iconic spacewalker. NASA

A few minutes after floating outside, the cosmonauts paused to send down birthday greetings to Leonov, who turns 85 on Thursday. The Russian space agency Roscosmos said on its website the spacewalk was dedicated to Leonov, "the man who first took a step into the unknown and found himself one-on-one with unlimited outer space."

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Kononenko and Ovchinin wore placards on their spacesuit backpacks, one saying "Leonov No. 1" and the other "Happy Birthday, Alexey Arkhipovich."

Leonov chalked up one of Russia's major space triumphs on March 18, 1965, when he ventured outside his Voskhod 2 spacecraft to carry out history's first spacewalk.

Connected to the Voskhod by an 18-foot-long tether, Leonov spent 12 minutes floating outside before struggling to get back inside his spacecraft. 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, Leonov finally managed to squeeze back inside.

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

Now an iconic figure in the international space community, Leonov flew in space a second time in 1975 as Russian spacecraft commander of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the historic orbital linkup of a NASA Apollo capsule and a Russian Soyuz in a mission that symbolized the era of detente.

Cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Alexey Ovchinin sported orange placards on their spacesuit backpacks that wished a happy 85th birthday to retired cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, the first man to walk in space in 1965, outside the International Space Station on May 29, 2019.
Cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Alexey Ovchinin sported orange placards on their spacesuit backpacks that wished a happy 85th birthday to retired cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, the first man to walk in space in 1965, outside the International Space Station on May 29, 2019. NASA

"It just so happens we are performing a spacewalk the day before the birthday of Alexey Leonov, the first man to ever don a spacesuit and venture out of his spacecraft's airlock, taking a step into the starlit abyss, into the vastness of space," Kononenko said, floating just outside the Pirs module.

Showing off a tethered portrait of Leonov they had carried outside, the cosmonauts took turns sending down birthday greetings.

"Mr. Leonov, please accept our heartfelt birthday wishes," one said in translated remarks. "You're with us here and now in outer space and for the entire duration of this spacewalk. Stay in great cosmonaut-worthy health. We hope you continue to be happy, inspired and truly capable of many great new accomplishments. Happy birthday."

Kononenko and Ovchinin then began working through a checklist of maintenance work that included installing a handrail, window cleaning and work to jettison no-longer-needed experiment hardware.

It was the 217th spacewalk devoted to station assembly and maintenance since construction began in 1998 and the 53rd carried out by Russian cosmonauts.

First published on May 29, 2019 / 3:09 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

William Harwood

Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."

Cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Alexey Ovchinin floated outside the International Space Station May 29, 2019, and took a moment to call down birthday greetings to retired cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, the first man to walk in space in 1965. Carrying a portrait of Leonov outside with them, the cosmonauts both radioed best wishes to the iconic spacewalker. Cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Alexey Ovchinin sported orange placards on their spacesuit backpacks that wished a happy 85th birthday to retired cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, the first man to walk in space in 1965, outside the International Space Station on May 29, 2019.

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