Harrowing Space Tales From a Legend

By the time legendary Soviet spaceman Alexei Leonov confidently shook hands with an American astronaut in orbit during the Cold War, he had narrowly escaped death five times - thanking God each time for his good luck.

These brushes with death and the faith in God's intervention remained secret during the Communist era, when Leonov was a symbol of Soviet power in its space rivalry with the United States.

Leonov was a member of the original 1960 team of cosmonauts who made the first space walk in 1965 and later led the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous in 1975.

The highlight of Leonov's career, man's first walk outside a space capsule, showed that a cosmonaut could work in the barren unknown of space. But the experience nearly cost him his life.

"There were many problems. One was impossible to test on Earth, namely, how would the space suit react in the vacuum of space?" Leonov said.

After his 12-minute space walk, he learned what engineers had not predicted: The suit had expanded so much that he could not fit back into the Voskhod 2 capsule orbiting Earth.

"I had to make a decision to lower the pressure inside the space suit, but by how much? Too much would have led to a boiling of blood in the body, which would have finished me off. But I had to do it," he said.

"I didn't report this down to Earth," said Leonov, 64, who became an investment banker and now favors collarless Nehru-style jackets to spacesuits. "I knew the situation better than anyone else."

As he worried whether his supply of oxygen would run out, Leonov gradually lowered the pressure in his suit to dangerous levels, and was able to squeeze back into the ship.

"I had to crawl in on my knees, which was very difficult physically. I expended practically my last bit of energy," said Leonov, who is 1.64 meters tall.

Yet the worst still lay ahead after his return inside.

Spinning a glass ball paperweight on his desk, Leonov explained that during his space walk the ship did not rotate normally to spread the sun's warmth across the station.

As a result, there was a major failure in the life-support systems and air started leaking from the station. To compensate for the loss, oxygen grew to critical levels.

"If there had been a small spark, the entire ship would have simply exploded like a bomb," Leonov said.

"It was catastrophically dangerous," he said. "I believe that someone above helped us, was watching out for us and decided that it was too soon for us to perish."

The two-man crew succeeded in gradually lowering pressure to acceptable levels, but the mission ended with a landing far off course and three days alone in the Ural mountains.

Leonov, who was noted for his athletic devotion and winning personality during his years as a cosmonaut, escaped death twice before even leaving Earth.

He once swam to safety after his car crashed into a frozen pond. On another occasion he had to bend parts of an airplane to escape from a failing jet when an ejector seat failed.

In 1969, pure luck saved him. While he was riding with other cosmonauts in front of a car carrying Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, a young officer started firing off two guns wildly in an assassination attempt.

"I saw how blood started coming out from the driver 50 centimeters ahead of me, and then I turned my head. The next bullet whizzed by like this, another behind my back. Had I not turned my head it would have hit me," Leonov said.

"An investigator later told me 'you're a very lucky person,'" he recalled. "'You should be dead.'

"God was probably with me. God again."

Leonov was due to fly in 1971 on Salyut 1, the first space station put into orbit, but officials changed the entire crew 11 hours before the flight because of concerns for cosmonaut Valery Kubasov's health.

The new crew set a record of 23 days in orbit, but a leak in the capsule killed the three men as they returned to Earth.

"We can say I stayed alive because of Kubasov's illness," said Leonov, who eventually held the Soviet military rank of major general. "I should say prayers to God."

For all his success in avoiding disaster, Leonov failed to fulfil his dream of becoming the first man on the moon - the honor he would have earned if the manned Soviet moon program had succeeded. "I often ponder on what we should have done. I find many mistakes in the past leadership.

"Because of bureaucratic stupidity, half the national program failed," he said, referring to the manned effort to reach the moon.

"We had everything to fly around the moon, but we needed only [space program leader Sergei] Korolyov," he continued emotionally. "But even with Korolyov we would not have beaten the Americans to be the first on the moon."

After the failure of the manned moon effort and the 1971 Salyut disaster, Leonov in 1975 helped boost Soviet pride when he shook hands as an equal with U.S. astronaut Tom Stafford when the Apollo-Soyuz docked together in orbit.

"I understood the immense responsibility," he said. "In the eyes of all of humanity we showed the best side of man.

"No crew to this day has the same rapport I have with Tom," Leonov said. "Our children are friends. Tom named his grandson Alexei. I named a grandchild Karina, the name of Tom Stafford's daughter."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Leonov, the country's most famous cosmonaut since the death of first man in space, Yury Gagarin, quickly adjusted to the new times and became the president of Alfa Kapital, an investment company.

"As experienced as a cosmonaut may be, there comes a time to leave," he said. "But I didn't want to just drink beer or play golf. I'm a different kind of person.

"Both space exploration and business are creative jobs," he said in his office decorated by tiny Soviet and U.S. flags flown to the moon. "There are no written rules on how to act. You have to think constantly on your feet and solve many problems."

Leonov rarely arrives in the office before noon - he is an avid artist in his spare time - but when it comes to meeting top officials, he rarely has trouble gaining an audience.

"When I go somewhere to visit an enterprise they do have a different relationship with me," he said. "It's because of the fame and because in my entire life I never discredited myself in anything, so it's easier when I come to do business."

Even after his embrace of capitalist business, Leonov still has his eyes on the stars.

"I dream about it a lot," he said.

He thinks he stands a chance of breaking John Glenn's record as the oldest person to go into space at age 77.

"What sense would there be in flying now? I wouldn't set any world records" Leonov said. "In 15 years, I will fly but not just for a week, I'll fly two or three weeks."