MOSCOW -Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago — and nearly didn’t make it back into his capsule — has died in Moscow. He was 85.

Russian space agency Roscosmos made the announcement on its website on Friday, without providing a cause for his death. Russian media earlier reported that Leonov had had health issues for several years.

NASA broke into its live televised coverage of a spacewalk by two Americans outside the International Space Station to report Leonov’s death. “A tribute to Leonov as today is a spacewalk,” Mission Control in Houston said.

Leonov was born in 1934 in 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 Josef 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 when he flew into space, and took colored pencils with him on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975 to draw.

That mission was the first one between the Soviet Union and the United States and was carried out at the height of the Cold War. Apollo-Soyuz 19 was a prelude to the international cooperation seen aboard the current space station.

But where Leonov staked his place in space history was on March 18, 1965, when he exited his Voskhod 2 capsule secured by a tether. Spacewalking always carries a high risk but Leonov’s pioneering venture was particularly nerve-wracking, according to details of the exploit 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 vent oxygen from his suit to be able to fit through the hatch.

Leonov’s 12-minute spacewalk preceded the first U.S. spacewalk, by Ed White, by less than three months. On his second trip to space ten years later, Leonov commanded the Soviet half of Apollo-Soyuz 19. The cosmonaut was well known for his humor. Once the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules docked in orbit around Earth in July, 17, 1975, Leonov and his Russian crewmate, Valeri Kubasov, welcomed the three U.S.