Today is the 73rd birthday of the legendary Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. Leonov is a space explorer who deserves to be better known.
He was the first man to "walk" in space, during the Voskhod 2 mission in 1965. The Voskhod capsule was equipped with a collapsible airlock to allow Leonov to leave and return without depressurizing the entire vehicle. Unfortunately, the designers of the airlock failed to take into account how much Leonov's space suit would expand in the vacuum of space. When the time came to return, he found he couldn't get back into the airlock.
So he did the only reasonable thing: he popped open his space helmet for a second to let his suit deflate, then climbed into the airlock. That's the sort of cool-headedness which Tom Wolfe was talking about when he coined the term "The Right Stuff."
That wasn't the end of Leonov's adventures on that flight. On re-entry the capsule failed to separate properly, causing uncontrolled tumbling, and the vehicle landed far from its target zone in wolf-infested woods.
Amazingly, the secretiveness of the old Soviet space program meant that the incredible courage and level-headedness of Leonov and his copilot were not revealed to the world for a quarter of a century, until the Glasnost era and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Leonov was picked to be the first Russian on the Moon, as part of their abortive lunar program. He would have ridden a modified Soyuz capsule to Lunar orbit, then spacewalked into a one-man landing vehicle for a solo visit to the surface of the Moon. The repeated failures of the giant N-1 rocket led to that program being abandoned. Again, Soviet propaganda meant that the existence of the program was denied for decades.
He did get into space again, however. Leonov was the Soviet commander of the Apollo-Soyuz joint space mission, which marked the end of the US-Soviet space race. He still remains active in training new cosmonauts, and is an accomplished space artist.
Arthur C. Clarke did give General Leonov a nice tip of the hat in his novel 2010 -- the Russian spacecraft bound for Jupiter in that book (and in the film) is named for Leonov. What's a little depressing is that 2010 is only three years away and there aren't any manned spacecraft bound for anyplace more distant than low Earth orbit.
Anyway, a big happy 73rd to Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov!