Anton Petrov’s Tribute to Veteran Cosmonaut and Space Artist, Alexei Leonov

Last Friday, 11th October 2019, Alexei Leonov passed away, aged 85. Born on 30th May 1934, Leonov was one of the first Russian cosmonauts and the first man to walk in space. His obituary in yesterday’s I, written by Nataliya Vasilyeva, ran

Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago – and who nearly did not make it back into his space capsule – has died in Moscow aged 85.

Leonov, described by the Russian Space Agency as Cosmonaut No 11, was an icon both in his country as well as in the US. He was such a legend that the late science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke named a Soviet spaceship after him in his sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two.

Leonov staked his place in space history on 18 March 1965, when he became the first person to walk in space. Secured by a tether, he exited his Voskhod 2 space capsule. “I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in,” he recalled later. “I was mesmerised by the stars. They were everywhere – up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”

Spacewalking always carries a high risk but Leonov’s pioneering venture was particularly nerve-racking, according to details that only became public decades later. His spacesuit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he could not get back into the spacecraft. He had to open a valve to release oxygen from his suit to be able to fit through the hatch. Leonov’s 12-minute spacewalk preceded the first American spacewalk, by Ed White, by less than three months.

Leonov was born in 1934 into a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like countless Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and shipped off to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, but he managed to survive and reunite with his family. 

The future cosmonaut had a strong artistic bent and even thought about going to art school before he enrolled in a pilot training course and, later, an aviation college. Leonov did not give up sketching even in space, and took coloured pencils with him on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975.

That mission was the first between the Soviet Union and the US, carried out at the height of the Cold War. Apollo-Soyuz 19 was a prelude to the international co-operation aboard the current international Space Station.

Nasa offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death. “His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extra-vehicular activity that makes today’s Space Station maintenance possible”, it said in a statement.

“One of the finest people I have ever known,” the Canadian retired astronaut Chris Hadfield wrote. “Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, artist, leader, spacewalker and friend, I salute you.”

Russian space fans have been laying flowers at his monument on the memorial alley in Moscow that honours Russia’s cosmonauts. Leonov, who will be buried today at a military memorial cemetery outside the Russian capital, is survived by his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren. 

Anton Petrov put up his own personal tribute to the great cosmonaut on YouTube yesterday, 15th October 2019, at his vlog, What Da Math. Petrov posts about astronomy and space, and his video yesterday placed Leonov in his context as one of a series of great Soviet science popularisers before Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene or Carl Sagan. Petrov shows the stunning paintings done by Leonov with his friend, the science artist Andrei Sokolov. He describes how Leonov’s spacesuit expanded so that he couldn’t enter the capsule, and was forced to let some of the oxygen out. As a result, he nearly lost consciousness. This showed both the Russians and Americans that spacesuits had to be built differently. He also describes how Leonov, during his 12 minutes in space, was profoundly struck by the profound silence. It was so deep he could hear his heart pumping, the blood coursing through his veins, even the sound of his muscles moving over each other.

Petrov states that the Russian cosmonauts did not enjoy the same celebrity status as their American counterparts, who could live off book signings. Many had to support their families with other work. In Leonov’s case, it was painting. He illustrated a number of books, some with his friend Sokolov. These are paintings Petrov uses for the visuals in his video. He considers these books the equivalent to works by modern science educators like Carl Sagan. They were meant to encourage, inspire and educate. Sokolov’s and Leonov’s art was not just beautiful, but very accurate scientifically and included some SF elements. Some of these elements were borrowed by other science fiction writers. the opening shot of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is somewhat similar to one of Sokolov’s and Leonov’s paintings. This became a joke between the two, with Leonov creating a miniature version for the great American director to keep. Kubrick also borrowed many of the ideas for the movie from the Russian film director, Pavel Kushentsev. An extremely talented cameraman, Kushentsev made films about the first Moon landing, the first space station and the first man in space decades and years before they became reality. And all of his movies were scientifically accurate. Some of his movies are on YouTube, and Petrov gives the links at his site there for this video.

Petrov explains that he is talking about these men because their era has ended with Leonov’s death. Leonov was the last of the five astronauts on the Voskhod programme, and so all the men who inspired youngsters with amazing paintings and film are now gone. He considers it unfortunate that some of their experiences in the last days of their lives were not very happy. They did not live to see the future they depicted, and their paintings were not appreciated by the modern generation. Kushentsev said before his death,

Popular science is dying, because there is no money. No demand. Nobody wants to educate. Everyone just wants to make money everywhere possible. But one mustn’t live like this. This is how animals live. Men have reached the level of animals – all they want to do is eat and sleep. There is no understand that this humanity has passed a certain phase of evolution. We must understand the direction of this evolution. For this, we need culture, we need knowledge. 

Petrov believes Kushentsev’s criticism of modern Russian society also applies more broadly to the modern generation in the West, to all of us as well. We are all doing what he said we shouldn’t – just living for the money, to eat and sleep. Unfortunately, according to Petrov, nothing has changed in the 20 years since his death. But there are people out there in the world working to change this, to produce culture, to inspire and share knowledge. But sometimes the world crushes them, simply because it can. But Petrov says that, like those Soviet men before him, despite not being a famous astronaut or talented artist, or even someone who has very good diction, he will continue doing his part of sealing the hope for humanity, continue the work of these great men and inspire new generations to do things, believe in science and create a better world. Because as Leonov once said,

the Earth was small, light blue and so touchingly alone. Our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word ’round’ meant until I saw the Earth from space. 

Petrov concludes ‘Goodbye, comrade, and thank you for all the paintings.

This is the first of two videos about Russian art from that era of space exploration. I’ll post the other up shortly.

I don’t feel quite as pessimistic as Kushentsev. Brian Cox, who’s now taken Sagan’s place as the chief space broadcaster on British television, has attracted record audiences for his stage presentation about science and the universe. There is a massive interest among the public in space and space exploration. At the same time, there are a number of really great science vlogs and channels on YouTube. Petrov’s is one, but I also recommend John Michael Godier and the Science and Futurism channel, presented by Isaac Arthur.

Sokolov’s and Leonov’s paintings, they are of a universe of rich, vibrant colour. Spacesuited figures explores strange, new worlds, tending vast machines. They stand in front of planetary landers somewhat resembling the American lunar module. Or crawl across the landscape in rovers, gazing at horizons above which hang alien, often multiple, suns. The best space art shows worlds you’d like to visit, to see realised. These paintings have this effect. It’s a pity that on the blurb for this video over at YouTube, Petrov says that these paintings come from old postcards, which are difficult to come by. It’s a pity, as they still have the power to provoke wonder and inspire.

I’m not sure Leonov himself was quite so pessimistic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the main space museum was closed, and many of its exhibits sold off. Before it finally closed its doors to the public, they held a rave in it. I think Leonov was in attendance, sitting at the back with his wife. Someone asked him what he thought of it all. The old space traveler replied that they had found graffiti on the walls on Babylon complaining about the behaviour of the younger generation. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘the young man’s world’. It is indeed, and may cosmonauts, space pioneers, scientists and artists like Leonov, Sokolov, Kushentsev and Kubrick continue to inspire the young men and women of the future to take their strides in the High Frontier.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Anton Petrov’s Tribute to Veteran Cosmonaut and Space Artist, Alexei Leonov”

  1. trev Says:

    Wow, wonderful artwork, it is truly fantastic. It reminds me of some of the posters for 50s sci-fi movies, but also the extraterrestrial landscapes are oddly reminiscent of Nicholas Roerich’s representations of very terrestrial landscapes – rocky mountains and outcrops in lurid colours. As for “living just to eat and sleep”, that sounds much like my poverty-stunted existence on JSA.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: