Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Suck It, Gravity!" Part 1 - Alexey Leonov, Decompression Sickness, and the Siberian Wilderness

(Will's notes: A few months ago I co-wrote an article for entitled 6 People Who Defied Gravity and then Kicked It in the Nuts . Our willingness, as a species, to risk turning our fragile corporeal forms into a flyblown grease stain just to overcome our flightless nature is something that fascinates me to no end.

When I wrote my half of the article, I had come up with several other entries that were turned down for one reason or another, one of them being a guy who, at the time, had recently managed to tear some shit up (scientifically speaking) while piloting a jet-propelled wingsuit over the English Channel. His name was Felix Baumgartner. If thst name sounds familiar, it's because last week Baumgartner broke all kinds of records when he skydived from the edge of space, at a height of 39 kilometers, or roughly 27 miles.

So, in honor of his jump I'd like to spend the next few weeks revisiting a couple of like-minded folks whose massive brass balls did not hinder them in any way from doing some pretty amazing things without so much as a grain of terra firma under their shoes.)

Alexey Leonov

While 4 year-old Vika is crying and hiding her face in her hands in sheer terror, her grandfather is storming about their neat, modest living room like a surly bull. He stops and wheels towards the flickering black and white images emanating from the bulky cathode ray television set that's perched precariously on a rickety stand.

"What is he doing?" The big Russian roars."Everyone else can complete their mission properly, inside the spacecraft! What is he doing clambering about outside? Somebody tell him to get back inside immediately! He must be punished for this!"

Vika's head bobs in agreement, and the tears streaking her chubby little-girl cheeks shine bright bluish-white from the grainy images on the TV screen. "What is he doing," she says, mimicking her grandfather. "Please, tell daddy to get back inside."

Alexey Leonov hears none of this. Nor does he hear the message from President Brezhnev, congratulating his crew on their successful mission. It's March 18th, 1965, and Alexei Leonov is floating a couple of hundred miles above sea level, and watching his boots touch down on nothing at all. He scissors his legs, in a waddling, walking motion, and in doing so, he manages to perambulate from the coast of Northern Africa, up through Asia, and into Eastern Siberia. He travels this distance - approximately 1200 miles or so, as the crow flies - in about 12 minutes. It's the first time in the history of the human race that a man is "walking across space." There's a lump wedged into a compartment of Leonov's spacesuit that he's careful not to nudge or dislodge in any way. It's a suicide pill, just in case he finds himself unable to get back inside the spacecraft.

A voice crackles inside of the large, dome-shaped helmet; part of an egg-shell-thin network of plastic and polymer and fabric that is - for the moment - the only thing keeping Leonov alive.

"It's time to come back inside," says the voice.

Leonov is distracted momentarily, thinking of his childhood in Listvyanka, and the way his mother used to holler "Lyosha," her pet name for him, when it was time for him to come inside. Wait, why's he thinking about that right now? He shakes his head, as if to ward off a buzzing fly.

Pasha, the pilot of the Vokshod 2, is talking to him. He sounds, well - not nervous exactly, but concerned. Leonov was supposed to come back inside after 10 minutes. That was 2 minutes ago. He's late. Pretty soon, the orbit of the Vokshod 2 is going to plummet away from the sun, plunging the tiny spacecraft and its crew into total darkness. It is absolutely imperative that Leonov is inside before that happens.

Leonov snaps back to the present. By gently, gently kicking his legs and "swimming" through the great black void, he manages to propel himself towards the small hatch. As he reaches for the entryway however, he realizes that due to the utter lack of atmosperic pressure that his suit has grown stiff, swollen, and deformed. He cannot make a fist, and his feet are no longer encased in their boots. The original plan was for him to climb into the reentry chamber feet-first, so he could close the hatch behind him and re-pressurize safely. As this option is no longer feasible, Alexey Leonov considers his other choices for a moment or two as he clings to the side of the Vokshod 2.

The average speed for a geosynchronous satellite orbiting the earth is roughly 17,000 miles per hour.

Leonov decides that his best chance for survival is to attempt to manually bleed the pressure from his spacesuit a little bit at a time as he inches himself head first into the reentry chamber. He tells nobody of his plan. It's pointless - there's nobody who can talk him through any of this, no expert he can appeal to. Nobody has ever done what Alexey Leonov is doing right now, at this moment. If he fails, the oxygen starvation will kill him before he ever has a chance to reach his suicide pill.

But it's working, for the moment. Leonov is somehow able to close his thumb and forefinger over the air valve enough to create a slow, stable oxygen leak. The suit deflates, and Leonov is able to inch his way across the threshold.

The Russian Government is now aware that all is not indeed well aboard the Vokshod 2. They respond swiftly and decisively, pulling the live broadcast of the mission from the State Television channel and replacing it with a loop of Mozart's Requiem, which they play over and over, for hours on end. It will be days before Vika Leonov or her Grandfather or anybody else for that matter, hears anything about Alexey at all.

From Dr E.D. Thalmann, DAN Assistant Medical Director: DCI encompasses two diseases, decompression sickness (DCS) and arterial gas embolism (AGE). DCS is thought to result from bubbles growing in tissue and causing local damage, while AGE results from bubbles entering the lung circulation, traveling through the arteries and causing tissue damage at a distance by blocking blood flow at the small vessel level.

As Leonov continued to bleed the oxygen from his suit, the severe increase in air pressure creates a burning sensation in his arms and legs that is almost unbearable. His core temperature rises by approximately 9 degrees Farenheit in a matter of minutes. He's almost completely out of oxygen and yet he still cannot fit into the chamber enough to get a seal on the outer hatch.

More on DCS: Bubbles forming in or near joints are the presumed cause of the joint pain of a classical "bend." When high levels of bubbles occur, complex reactions can take place in the body, usually in the spinal cord or brain. Numbness, paralysis and disorders of higher cerebral function may result. If great amounts of decompression are missed and large numbers of bubbles enter the venous bloodstream, congestive symptoms in the lung and circulatory shock can then occur

Only by contorting himself sideways into a ball can Leonov manage to fit himself into the reentry tank. As he gets the door shut, gallons of his own sweat are sloshing around inside the spacesuit. But Pasha is now able to lock the outer hatch and equalize the cabin pressure enough so to trigger the entryway to the interior chamber. Leonov, exhausted and dehydrated, climbs out of the EVA suit and scrambles into the flight chamber.

The Cosmonauts' mission is a success, and the Vokshod 2 is ready to land. Mozart's Requiem still warbles across Russian television signals.

As the small craft cruises over the Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula, a voice chirps up over the communications system. It's Mission Control, and they're wondering where the Vokshod has landed. They ask this in spite of the fact that the craft has not landed, is in fact still hurtling towards Earth. Somewhere between the completion of Leonov's EVA and the beginning of their descent, the Vokshod 2's automatic guidance system has blown itself to pieces in a fit of hysteria. Pasha clicks on his microphone and explains to the ground crew that they are low on fuel, and that as the ship's pilot, he's going to have to manually reposition the spacecraft's trajectory.

"We are asking," Pasha says, "that you go into Emergency Mode." The tone of his voice betrays nothing. If you were to hear the transmission and didn't speak Russia, you'd think he was ordering a pizza or something.

Pasha the pilot, and Leonov as navigator, decide to steer the small craft away from Moscow and towards the Ural Mountains. They do this so as to avoid hurting anyone in the (probable) event that they are unable to slow the craft once it's hit the lower atmospheres.

The good news is that once the Vokshod 2 reaches the lower atmospheres, the landing module is able to start the retro-fire, essentially allowing the small craft to "hit the brakes". Here's the bad news: the orbital module is still attached. Which means that the center of gravity is now directly between the two bodies of mass and they are beginning to orbit each other. At about 10 Gs, both Pasha and Leonov are feeling the blood vessels in their eyeballs begin to burst.

Thankfully this only continues for a few more seconds before the cable burns away, only the force of the snap slingshots them even further off course, halfway to China. There's a great roar followed by the sensation of being hurled backwards into space and then everything is peaceful. The chutes have deployed, and the craft drifts to earth amidst a great blanket of snow. Leonov and Pasha have landed approximately 1,400 miles away from Perm, the nearest thing even resembling a city.

"How soon do you think they'll find us?" Pasha asks.

Leonov considers the question. "In 3 months," he says. "Maybe they'll come with dog sleds."

They wring the moisture out of their spacesuits and wrest the parachute from the trees for extra insulation. The landing craft sends out a beacon signal that, while failing to reach Moscow, is somehow picked up in Germany. More importantly, a cargo plane just happens to fly over the crash site within the 1st 24 hours and sees the two Cosmonauts signaling for help.

It still takes 3 days before anyone can reach the crash site. 3 days of temperatures that start out at 22 degrees below zero and get worse from there. 3 days of fending off bears and wolves with a single pistol and a couple of boxes of ammo. After 3 days, an advance party is finally able to reach the Vokshod 2. They bring food and supplies and 2 sets of skis. The nearest place a helicopter can safely land is roughly 6 miles away from the crash site.

Rested and nourished, the 2 Cosmonauts return to safety the following day. There are representatives from the State Government in Leninsk, and they want a full report, before Leonov and Pasha can return to their homes and families.

So Leonov writes them a report. This is Alexey Leonov's official statement on the events of the Vokshod 2 mission, word for word:

"Provided with a special suit, man can survive and work in open space. Thank you for your attention."

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