On the morning of April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin lifted off aboard Vostok 1 to become the first human in space, becoming an instant hero to many and an historic figure. Tragically, his life was cut short when just seven years later (on March 27th, 1968) the MiG-15 UTI he was piloting crashed. Ever since, his death has been shrouded in confusion and controversy, with many theories being posited as to what actually cause.
And now, some 45 years after the fact, the details about what really happened to cause the death of the first man in space have come out — from the first man to go out on a spacewalk, no less. In an article published online on Russia Today, former cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov — who performed the first EVA on March 18, 1965 — has revealed details about the accident that killed both Yuri Gagarin and his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin in March 1968.
A soft-spoken and well-mannered man, Gagarin began his journey into space in 1960 when he and 19 other pilots were selected to take part in the Soviet space program. Just three years after making history with the launch of the first artificial satellite into space (Sputnik-1), the Russians were eager to follow this up with a mission that would put a man into low-Earth orbit.
After a grueling selection process involving physical and psychological tests, Gagarin was selected to take the pioneering flight inside the Vostok-1 space capsule. The launch, which was eagerly monitored by people all over Russia and around the world, took place at exactly 9:07 am local time (06:07 UT) on 12 April 1961. After spending just under two hours in orbit, the capsule made reentry, Gagarin exited it and parachuted to the ground, landing at around 11:05 am (08:05 UT) in a farmer’s field outside of Engels.
Observing the landing of Vostok-1 were two school girls, who recalled the site of the capsule hitting the ground with a combination of fascination and fear:
It was a huge ball, about two or three metres high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.
Elsewhere, a farmer and her daughter observed the strange scene of a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them by parachute. Gagarin later recalled:
When they saw me in my spacesuit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, ‘Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!’
After the flight, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity, touring widely abroad to promote the Soviet’s accomplishment in putting a man into space. Upon returning home, he found himself relegated to training and other tasks, due in part to the death of his friend, Vladimir Komarov in the first flight involving a Soyuz spacecraft. Shortly thereafter, he began to re-qualify to become a fighter pilot, and died during one of his training flights.
Officially, reports about Gagarin and Seryogin’s death claim that the plane crashed when Gagarin manuevered the two-seated training version of the MiG-15 fighter craft to avoid a “foreign object”. The report does not specify what this object was, but the term refers to anything from balloons and flocks of birds to airborne debris or another airborne craft. And as you can imagine, people have made some very interesting suggestions as to what this object could have been.
Now, a declassified report, which Leonov has been permitted to share, shows what actually happened during the training flight. Apparently, an “unauthorized Su-15 fighter” flew too close to Gagarin’s MiG, disrupting its flight and sending it into a spin. In his article, Leonov went on to explain in further detail:
In this case, the pilot didn’t follow the book, descending to an altitude of 450 meters. While afterburning the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin — a deep spiral, to be precise — at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour.
The pilot of the SU-15 survived the incident, is apparently still alive, and was not named – a condition of Leonov’s permission to share the information.
Afterwards, the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova (also a Soviet cosmonaut) was officially grounded by the government after Gagarin’s death to avoid a loss of another prominent cosmonaut. After the revelation was made about the true cause of Gagarin’s death, she responded by saying that the details come as a bittersweet relief. “The only regret here is that it took so long for the truth to be revealed,” Tereshkova said. “But we can finally rest easy.
Indeed. Rest in peace, Yuri. Like many who have since come and gone, you’re a part of an extremely select few who went into space at a time when doing so was still considered by many to be an impossible dream. And regardless of the Cold War atmosphere in which this accomplishment occurred, it remains an historic first and one of the greatest accomplishments ever made by a human being.