Moscow (AFP)

The "pedestrian of space" is no more. The first man to make a "deep black" sortie, the first commander of a US-Soviet space mission, a USSR dual hero and a friend of Gagarin: cosmonaut Alexei Leonov died Friday at the age of 85.

On April 19, 1965 Alexei Leonov, on board the Voskhod-2 spacecraft, made the first sortie of a man in the open space. He had cautiously departed two to three meters from the ship, to float in the void, finding the operation very painful.

Blinded despite his golden visor, he was held securely by a cable at the airlock of his ship. The operation lasted twenty minutes, twelve minutes entirely outside the Voskhod.

"Alexei Leonov died in Moscow at 12:40 (9:40 GMT) after a long illness," said AFP Natalia Filimonova.

The Russian space agency Roskosmos later confirmed on Twitter "with regret" the death of "cosmonaut number 11".

"This is a huge loss for us all and for humanity.Alexey was a unique man," reacted to AFP Tamara Volynova, wife of cosmonaut Boris Volynov and author of a book on the pioneers of the space.

- 'It was beautiful' -

In 2015, fifty years after his feat, Alexei Leonov remembered with AFP with the same precision of the moment he floated "in the deep black", "everywhere" stars and "blinding sun".

He recalls: "I filmed the Earth, perfectly round, the Caucasus, the Crimea, the Volga ... It was beautiful, like paintings by Rockwell Kent," the American painter known for his clean lines and soft colors.

His return to the ship was more complicated than expected: his suit expands and he can no longer handle his camera. Without waiting, he decided to reduce the pressure in his suit and managed to enter the airlock head first, contrary to what was planned. The cosmonaut is swimming, he lost 6 kg.

In the cabin, the automatic descent system does not work. With his teammate, he returns to Earth in manual mode, land in the Urals, 2,000 km from the planned site in Kazakhstan.

"We waited three days in the forest before being repatriated, and the Soviet radio ensured that we were on vacation after the flight," he recalled in 2015, laughing.

- Earth cold war, space cooperation -

Alexei Leonov was also the Soviet side commander of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, the first joint between the two rivals of the Cold War and the space race, the USSR and the United States. This mission marked the beginning of a technological cooperation that continues today.

Born in 1934 in the Kemerovo region of Siberia, the cosmonaut was also a friend of the first man in space, his compatriot Yuri Gagarin. When he died in a plane crash on 27 March 1968 near Moscow, he was one of the first on the scene.

Speaking after the fall of the USSR in 1991, he made the headlines in Russia by questioning the official version, according to which Gagarin died at the controls of a plane trying to avoid a weather balloon.

According to Leonov, a member of the commission of inquiry in 1968, a Sukhoi plane that should not have been there crossed the trajectory of Gagarin's MiG, less than 20 meters from his aircraft. By crossing the sound barrier, the pilot would have provoked the spin and crash of the legendary cosmonaut's plane.

Alexei Leonov's funeral is scheduled for Tuesday at a famous military cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow, according to the Cosmonaut Preparation Center.

© 2019 AFP