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R.I.P. Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, passed away today at the age of 85.
Leonov also participated in the Apollo-Soyuz mission, the first joint mission between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
The obituary notes Leonov’s sense of humor. I met Leonov in 2003 when I was in Moscow interviewing cosmonauts for my book Leaving Earth and found him to be a jovial, friendly, and open person.
He told me one story that I thought was significant. He noted the American practice in the 1960s to openly discuss everything that happened in its space effort worked to enhance our achievements, while the secrecy of the Russians only devalued anything they did. As he said,
The honesty of the American press made [those space achievements] more persuasive, more influential. Every little problem was written about in great detail, so that the image of the American astronauts grew, making them heroes. It was a much more clever approach. [Leaving Earth, p. 172]
Leonov for years would accompany astronauts on the bus on their way to the launchpad, providing encouragement. When Helen Sharman flew in space as a tourist in 1991 he gave her
…a ridiculous-looking, pink, frilly jumpsuit. “I got one of the ladies at the hotel to make it up for you,” Leonov said, his sweet round face lighting up in an infectious grin. “Just for fun.” [Leaving Earth, p. 301]
She wore it the first day in space, to the silly delight of everyone.
In the long endless future of humanity in space, only beginning now, Leonov will always hold an honored place.