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The first drawing made in space (and the odyssey to go there, do it and survive again)

The image that accompanies this article is a drawing of a sunrise. It is not particularly detailed and the truth is that one can replicate it without great difficulty in a matter of minutes. But this particular drawing is special. Special and spatial. Drawn by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the accompanying story is even more special.

When we think of a sunrise, the Sun appears on the horizon and little by little rises above sea level, comes out from between the mountains or simply from afar. With orange colors and rays not yet powerful enough, it is an event that we are more or less used to after having the opportunity to see a new one every day. However, there is another type of sunrise that is even more spectacular than practically almost no one has the opportunity to see live: the orbital sunrise.

In space one has the peculiarity of seeing many sunrises, one every 90 minutes in fact. Given the speed at which satellites and ships orbit the Earth, they are capable of going around the planet in an hour and a half. They are therefore capable of seeing a new orbital sunrise every hour and a half. A privilege for only a few, those who have traveled into space.

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An orbital sunrise captured by NASA.

Orbital sunrises are not spectacular only because they occur in space, which is already a lot, but also because of the shape and colors they have. In the first place and depending on where the viewer is, it is not a straight line on the horizon but the convex shape of the Earth. On the other hand, astronauts can enjoy a number of different colors apart from the reddish orange of the Sun. For example, the blue that appears between the Earth and the Sun, which is essentially the bluish atmosphere, stands out.

Orbital Sunrises and Alexei Leonov

The spectacle of watching a suborbital sunrise can have a huge impact on the viewer. Astronauts returning from space often explain that after such an experience they completely change the way they perceive the world and humanity. Seeing the Earth in small and from outside it, in the vast Universe, makes one think better of “we are nobody.”

Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov He had such an experience after his first trip to space. As he explained, “looking in perspective at our blue globe from such a distance, it profoundly changed my view of space and time.” Leonov is known primarily for being the first human to perform a spacewalk, but he was also the first artist in space.

March 18, 1965 Alexei Leonov together with Pavel Belyayev they traveled to Earth orbit in the spherical capsule and barely two meters Voskhod 2. At some point during the mission, Alexei Leonov proceeded to make history in the space race by performing the first spacewalk. For 12 minutes it orbited and floated free in space, only tied by a cable to the capsule.

When it came to going back to the capsule, Leonov had a problem: Due to the vacuum outside, his special oxygen suit had inflated dramatically from the pressure. Leonov suddenly realized that he had no way of getting back into the capsule, he essentially couldn’t fit through the door. The only viable solution was to open the recluse of the special suit and let some of the oxygen escape, little by little. He later described the situation as “an almost impossible maneuver.”

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Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev in Soviet capsule.

The danger was evident, so much so that the Soviet Union stopped the live broadcast that had previously started with the spacewalk. When the mission began to give problems, the broadcast was replaced by a work of Mozart in the state radio. Eventually Leonov managed to get back into the capsule. Once inside and after making sure that everything was in order, the two cosmonauts had 90 minutes before returning to Earth.

What could Leonov do during those 90 minutes? In a space of barely two meters in diameter with another person and in spacesuits not much. I could rest or I could write a report of the walk, but no, andinstead he decided to draw.

For the mission, Leonov took with him a very particular personal item: a notebook with colored pencils. As a child Alexei Leonov wanted to be an artist, he tried to enroll in art school but it was too expensive, so in the end he ended up being a pilot. Pilot and later one of the most important cosmonauts in the history of the Soviet Union.


Alexei Leonov’s notebook and colored pencils.

The cosmonaut later described that he took the notebook and the colored pencils and “I sat calmly drawing my first impressions of the panorama that I saw, floating free in space. I tried to capture the different shades of the rings that make up the Earth’s atmosphere, the sunrise glow over the Earth’s horizon, the blue belt covering the Earth’s crust, and the spectrum of colors that I observed looking down at the globe. “


Alexie Leonov, drawing.

The odyssey did not end there for the two cosmonauts. When it comes to going back to Earth, automatic capsule navigation failed, so they had to figure out how to enter the atmosphere manually. The two cosmonauts calculated by themselves when to turn on the capsule’s engines to fall somewhere in the Soviet Union as close to the planned area and, above all, without dying in the attempt.

The "Herrera diving suit": the rubber, wool and steel spacesuit from Spain in the 1930s that paved the way for NASA

The capsule luckily landed in the Siberian forest, on two meters of snow. A tree fell on the capsule due to the impact making it impossible for them to open the recluse and get out of there. After hours of futile attempts to get out, they spent a cold, dark night inside the capsule until rescue officers arrived to save them the next day. They survived, and with them also the first drawing made in space.

More information | The Guardian, Google Arts & Culture, Hyperallergic and ESA