LONDON — The first human to spacewalk wanted to be an artist before he learned to fly. When cosmonaut Alexei Leonov boarded the Soviet space program’s Voskhod 2 on March 18, 1965, he brought along colored pencils altered for zero gravity, with threads tied to each pencil and a rubber band to hold the pack in place on his wrist. Wedged in the tiny space capsule with fellow crew member Pavel Belyayev, his arms confined in a bulky suit, he sketched the first piece of art created in space: an orbital sunrise.
That drawing, the pencils, and a painting he later made back on Earth are on view in the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition at the Science Museum in London. Cosmonauts is an impressive exhibition not just in evoking the scientific and cultural influence of the Soviet space program, which until the American Apollo 11 moon landing led the world in space exploration, but in revealing many objects never even exhibited in Russia. For example, the LK-3 lunar lander was declassified for the occasion, part of a secretive Soviet plan for a moon landing only disclosed in 1989. Leonov was intended to be the Soviets’ first man on the moon until the program collapsed due to organizational issues and a lack of funding. Mark Brown at the Guardian also noted that this is the first time for the drawing to leave Russia.
Among the exhibition’s powerful displays that transported some of the era’s propaganda spirit from the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, Leonov’s spacewalk painting is a peaceful self-portrait of floating above Earth, hardly suggesting the near catastrophe of his mission. Leonov had first tried to be an artist, enrolling in the Academy of Arts in Riga, Latvia, in 1953, and only dropped out and switched to the Air Force when he was not able to afford it. While he continued to take evening classes in art, he quickly shot up in the ranks with his calm and commanding flight skills, both of which saved him when he floated out 16 feet on a tether for just over 12 minutes, and his suit inflated so that he couldn’t reenter the capsule.
As he told the Guardian’s Observer on the occasion of the spacewalk’s 50th anniversary this year:
I was surrounded by stars and was floating without much control. I will never forget the moment. I also felt an incredible sense of responsibility. Of course, I did not know that I was about to experience the most difficult moments of my life — getting back into the capsule.
With no other choice, he opened a valve to deflate his suit, and decompression sickness began to set in, but he managed to squeeze through the air lock just before they orbited into the inky shadow of the Earth. Hours later when the cosmonauts got the oxygen levels steady in the capsule, the two men found their automatic entry wasn’t working and had to manually fire the rockets to blast back through the atmosphere, barely escaping a communications cable that was caught on the spacecraft.
When they finally landed in a remote corner of the Siberian wilderness, it took two days for rescue to arrive. Sometime between the spacewalk and that harrowing return to Earth, Leonov drew the orbital sunrise with a subtle variation of color not captured by the rudimentary onboard cameras.
Leonov sketched and painted numerous visions of space and its exploration, including his famous spacewalk, imagined views from the moon, and the meeting of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, for which he was the Soviet commander. He’s now the last surviving Voskhod cosmonaut, and even attended the opening of the London exhibition. Among the 150 exhibits in Cosmonauts, including showstoppers like the Vostok-6 that carried the first woman in space — Valentina Tereshkova in 1963, an ejector seat for dogs, and a shiny Sputnik model, that first drawing executed in space represents a quiet moment of visual contemplation after a human first stepped out of the airlock into the void.
Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age continues at the Science Museum (Exhibition Road
South Kensington, London) through March 13, 2016.