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Alexei Leonov

Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, The Scotsman – The Russian may have spent little over ten minutes in space, looking down on earth, but he has spent the rest of his life contemplating that precious slither of time. He proved an eloquent cheerleader for science, mindful of the vast investment required to further mankind, yet so too, a sweet romantic.

HE WAS the first man to step out from a craft into the dark of space, where, backed by technology beyond the comprehension of previous generations, Alexei Leonov viewed Earth from the vantage point of the gods. Yet today, one of the most down-to-earth scientific advancements is beyond the grasp of the first man to walk in space.

Twice yesterday in Edinburgh, the Russian’s pioneering reminiscences were interrupted by the ringing of his mobile phone. To warm laughter from the audience, he hurriedly handed the vibrating device to an aide. “I don’t know how to switch my phone off,” he confessed, before adding with apposite, droll humour. “It doesn’t matter. They don’t work in space.”

For all the beauty he witnessed on that historic day 42 years ago, it is little surprise that Leonov is masterfully articulate, evident despite even the most basic translation into English. His time in space was brief – lasting only a dozen minutes – but the intervening four decades have given the former cosmonaut ample time to refine his vision of planet Earth. “Our planet looked beautiful. So fragile, and delicate, but beautiful,” he told The Scotsman, before pausing and allowing himself a grin. “But the first thing I thought was, ‘Yes, the Earth is round after all’.”

At the time of his trip on 18 March, 1965, it was feared Leonov would lose his mind altogether. Such was the concern that a mere mortal would be incapable of withstanding the shock of open space, sensors were attached to his skull to chart any decline into dementia. But, as he recalled, “cosmonauts and astronauts only get cleverer and cleverer after being in space”.

There were fraught moments, for example when, with his spacesuit too rigid to re-enter the airlock, Leonov was forced to bleed air so he could fit through. The landing of his Voskhod 2 craft was even more dramatic – a rocket malfunction forced him and his crewmate to land in the deep snow of the Ural mountains, their welcome party a pack of wolves, growling and scratching at the craft’s partly open hatch.

But the cosmonaut had trained for danger, death even. “I dreamed of being in the skies as a young boy, so I would do anything, take any risk,” he said. “There were times I thought we would die, yes, but what a way it would have been to die.”

ONE of nine surviving children of a Siberian coal miner imprisoned under Stalin, Leonov was the star attraction of the 20th Planetary Congress, which began yesterday at the capital’s Sheraton Grand Hotel – and offered a rare insight into the company he keeps. Side by side with Leonov and his Russian compatriots were their fellow astronauts, cosmonauts and experts from Europe and the United States, listening to a lone piper play the theme tune from Star Wars. In all, there were 73 “fliers” from 15 nations. An elite global band, united, as one astronaut put it, by the fact that all present “have sat on a rocket and reentered our atmosphere as a fireball”.

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Marking the first time the congress has come to Britain, Leonov laid out an ambitious programme of debates, panels, and lectures, all designed to further mankind’s knowledge. No-one better exemplifies today’s international spirit of co-operation in space than Leonov. Now 73, he is co-president of the association’s executive, along with the US astronaut John Fabian, a lofty position from his beginnings as an ordinary pilot who in 1959, aged just 25, was picked as one of the first 20 cosmonauts. It is a partnership unthinkable just four decades ago, when the space race between the two countries was waged at a furious pace.

Leonov – who was to be the commander of the Soviet Union’s first Moon mission, which was cancelled after Apollo 11’s historic trip in 1969 – remains a much-loved figure in Russia. When his chauffeur-driven Mercedes travels through Moscow, he is saluted by the rank and file of the Russian police service. The car bears the registration ‘0011’ – Leonov was the 11th Soviet sent into orbit.

Yet with hindsight, he dismisses any notion of a lingering space-race hostility. “It was not about countries. It was humanity that became the winner,” he explained. “Space exploration was the beginning of the warming up of international relations, not just between the US and Russia, but of all countries. “We will remember the last century not as a sequence of revolutions and bloody wars, but as a time when we all conquered the unknown.”

LEONOV remains a supporter of space exploration, 50 years after Sputnik became the first artificial satellite. After he chose to embrace gravity again, he became the commander of the Soviet cosmonaut team in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and director of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre. As the Soviet Union crumbled, he entered the private sector. His goal nowadays is to curb global warming. “We have seen photographs from space of the deserts of the world growing larger all the time, and the forests getting smaller,” he said.

“The Earth is warming up and the seas are rising. It’s a dangerous phenomenon, but it could still be rectified. Thirty years ago, the governments did not consider the issue dangerous. But now, even in normal [life], sitting in our luxurious cars, we are heading towards a catastrophe. We need to think about new methods of transportation and new fuels, so we can leave a planet for our grandchildren. We teach children about these things, and we will teach pupils in Scotland while we are here. If you show a child the pictures from space of the fires in Greece this summer, they understand the terrible things people are capable of.”

Leonov also believes more must be done to curb the threat of a meteorite striking the Earth. “It’s impossible to change the trajectory,” he added, “but we can destroy it so it hits in smaller fragments.”

And he suggests one possibility of particular interest. “There maybe should be a headquarters for the Association of Space Explorers in Scotland,” he said. “The people are so wonderful and location is ideal, in between the US and Russia.”

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