The senses in space: Alexei Leonov and the first space walk

50 years ago today cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first human to conduct a spacewalk – or, less romantically, EVA (extra-vehicular activity) – when he left his Voshkod 2 spacecraft for an awe inspiring and stressful 12 minutes. This tremendous achievement paved the way for much of what became possible in space in subsequent years. If cosmonauts (and astronauts) couldn’t leave their spacecraft then repairs would be impossible, along with a whole host of other essential activities. For the USSR, focused more on inhabiting the first space stations than the USA’s race to the moon, testing and making possible all the activities that would make longer-term existence in space a possibility, even living and constructing new habitations there, were a top priority.

So, although Leonov’s walk-in-space might not seem to have all that much to do with my usual subject matter of food, it has everything to do with the path that made life on space stations and, perhaps, human travel to Mars, a possibility. Which, of course, has everything to do with food, the mainstay of life (and often, in space, both its greatest joy and inconvenience). As we mark a whole host of 50th anniversaries of space “firsts” in the coming months and years I’ll come back to this theme of eating in space.

TV picture of Alexei Leonov on the first ever space walk, 18th March 1965 (image courtesy of
TV picture of Alexei Leonov on the first ever space walk, 18th March 1965 (image courtesy of

Meanwhile, apart from being a pioneering space hero and scientist, Alexei Leonov is a painter and writer with an attention to the senses that has always made him one of my favourite cosmonauts. According to Helen Sharman, who visited the Mir space station in 1991 becoming the first Briton in space, it was Alexei Leonov who helped her think about some of the more human impacts being in space might have on her. Besides jovially giving her a ridiculous costume in which to ‘dress for dinner’ to entertain her space-fellows on their first evening together, he slipped a scrap of fragrant Kazakh wormwood into her pocket. Telling her to take it with her to sniff every now and again, he said “There’s nothing much to smell up there and this will remind you of home.” If I were ever to be lucky enough to have dinner with a cosmonaut, I’d definitely go for the one with a fabulous sense of smell.

[Quote from Helen Sharman’s autobiography, Seize the Moment (London: Victor Gollancz, 1993)]

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