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Details of Yuri Gagarin’s Tragic Death Revealed

Yuri Gagarin on the way to his historic Vostok launch on April 12, 1961. (NASA Images)

Yuri Gagarin on the way to his historic Vostok launch on April 12, 1961. (NASA Images)

On the morning of April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin lifted off aboard Vostok 1 to become the first human in space, spending 108 minutes in orbit before landing via parachute in the Saratov region of the USSR. The soft-spoken and well-mannered Gagarin, just 27 years old at the time, became an instant hero, representing the success of the Soviet space program (Alan Shepard’s shorter, suborbital flight happened less than a month later) to the entire world. Gagarin later went on to become a director for the Cosmonaut Training Center and was preparing for a second space flight. Tragically, he was killed when a MiG-15 aircraft he was piloting crashed on March 27, 1968.

Gagarin’s death has long been shrouded by confusion and controversy, with many theories proposed as to the actual cause. Now, 45 years later, 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.

Televised image of Aleksey Leonov during his spacewalk outside Vokshod 2

Televised image of Aleksey Leonov during his spacewalk outside Vokshod 2

According to an article published online today on Russia Today (RT.com) 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.

Officially the cause of the crash was said to be the ill-fated result of an attempt to avoid a foreign object during flight training in their MiG-15UTI, a two-seated, dual-controlled training version of the widely-produced Soviet aircraft. “Foreign objects” could be anything, from balloons to flocks of birds to airborne debris to… well, you see where one could go with that. (And over the years many have.)

The maneuver led to the aircraft going into a tailspin and crashing, killing both men. But experienced pilots like Gagarin and Seryogin shouldn’t have lost control of their plane like that — not according to Leonov, who has been trying to release details of the event for the past 20 years… if only that the pilots’ families might know the truth.

A Sukhoi Su-15 fighter jet (Wikipedia Commons)

A Sukhoi Su-15 fighter jet (Wikipedia Commons)

Now, a declassified report, which Leonov has been permitted to share, shows what actually happened during the training flight: an “unauthorized Su-15 fighter” flew too close to Gagarin’s MiG, disrupting its flight and sending it into a spin.

“In this case, the pilot didn’t follow the book, descending to an altitude of 450 meters,” Leonov says in the RT.com article. “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 — who is still alive — was was not named, a condition of Leonov’s permission to share the information.

According to first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova, who was officially grounded by the government after Gagarin’s death to avoid a loss of another prominent cosmonaut, 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.”

Read the full story here on RT.com.

Tereshkova and Leonov at the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow during a ceremony in 2011 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Yuri Gagarin. (NASA photo.)

Tereshkova and Leonov at the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow during a ceremony in 2011 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Yuri Gagarin. (NASA photo.)

About 

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Planemo June 15, 2013, 2:28 AM

    I actually remember this. I was 14. They had it on the evenings news in North America a few weeks after it happened. The Soviet Union didn’t share their news right away like we do. Chuck Yager was heard saying a few kind words too. The Cold-War was raging then, and the Space Race was in full bloom too.

  • GregtheThird June 15, 2013, 4:55 AM

    An unfortunate accident makes sense. Gagarin was an exceptional pilot, it would have surprised me if there was anything he could have done to prevent the crash.

    • Douglas Orr June 16, 2013, 8:25 PM

      I don’t think Gagarin would be regarded as an exceptional pilot. There is a large gap in the level of pilot experience between the Soviet Vostok program and the American Mercury program. Gagarin was typical of the 20 cosmonauts selected, age 25, only 3 years flight experience, none in combat and none as a test pilot. The 7 Mercury astronauts by contrast averaged 35 years of age, 12 years of flight experience, 5 years as a test pilot, and 5 of the 7 flew in combat in World War II and/or Korea.

      • Planemo June 17, 2013, 9:03 PM

        Exactly. Most Soviet things were 2nd rate to the USA. Even schooling etc.. . Although the USA was and is tops. The USSR was not too shabby. The Soviet Union were 1st to do many things, but were always 2nd-fiddle to our USA. ;-)

        • Jason Major June 18, 2013, 1:17 AM

          Even if that were true, they’re playing first chair now. The Soyuz are still flying.

          • Planemo June 18, 2013, 1:42 AM

            lol…even if it were true? I know you know it is. And YES, Soyuz is still flying. Good for them ;-)

  • Dampe June 15, 2013, 6:42 AM

    Don’t understand the reason for the secrecy. I’m assuming similar things still happen.

    • AA amt 1987 June 15, 2013, 2:52 PM

      Are you a troll or just really ignorant? If you are truly ignorant, Google Cold War or Communist thinking and educate yourself. IF you are a troll, quit trying to muddy the discussion here with your bs.

      • stephen ramsden June 15, 2013, 4:15 PM

        wow…that was uncalled for and rude

        • Planemo June 15, 2013, 6:41 PM

          There are so many of these ‘know-it-all” stuck up people in here. I just fire back! Speak onto others what they are speaking onto you. Yes, it can be childish.To me and others, it so necessary to spank those child like adults, ..period.

    • Planemo June 15, 2013, 7:21 PM

      Your young age looks like the culprit. It is not your fault. Today the Russian gov is still very immature. They are better than they ever were in their past. The USA is not guilt free by no means. The USA gov have their dumb moments too. The USA on the whole is leaps and bounds better than the Russia gov. Even Russian society today is being mislead big time. Today the Russian gov is helping out Al-Assad the Syrian dictator who is bombing his own people. Russia is aiding the murdering fool Al-Assad. Such a pathetic sick action to do.

      It all stems from the distrust even before WWll. The “Cold War” between USA and Russia-Soviet Union/USSR was after WWll(1946 or so) to about 1990. The Berlin Wall was the shinning moment for the USA. I didn’t know the dangers then like I do now some 45+ years later. In November 1963 the Soviet Union-USSR-Russia had many missiles in Cuba. It was the closest the two countries came to an actual all out real Nuclear War. I mean they and we had fingers to turn the keys and push those buttons! It was “THAT” close! We had the CD(Civil Defense)canisters with rations in them. We had drills in school in case of an attack. If you see a bright flash, you duck under your school desk with your knees and head on the floor in a fetal position. There was actually a lil’jingle to it too.

      There is more history to it, You now have a better idea what the Soviet Union-USSR-Russia was and still is to sum-some degree.on the whole. ;-)

      • Dampe June 17, 2013, 11:57 AM

        I’m not sure how it’s taught in the USA, but In my country, the history regarding the conflict between the USA & Soviet Union isn’t part of the school curriculum.
        I never actually had an interest in space and astronomy until i turned 21 and started listening to astronomy cast and bought a 12″ telescope!
        I appreciate the time you took for that detailed post. Thank you

        • Planemo June 17, 2013, 3:40 PM

          Read AA amt 1987. Other than troll he is sort of correct in his post. USA is the best, but like all Super-Powers we have our dumbass moments. I am not too sure if your being sarcastic our just clueless. But it was for a person who is clueless about the Soviet Union. Stay in your country Dampe sounds French. I am a mutt. I have 3 blood lines. Portuguese, English/Canadian-French. A little of this and a lil’of the that. It equals to 110% All American Man!
          As for my rather detailed post? He needed a lil;help in American Cold War history to get a clue ;-)

  • R. E. Hunter June 15, 2013, 2:58 PM

    A jealous competitor in the space program, maybe?

  • ITSRUF June 15, 2013, 5:41 PM

    I was surprised to hear that Gagarin was going to fly again. I thought he was grounded to keep something tragic from happening to him in space.

    His early death is a shame. Imagine the stories he could tell now that the Cold War is over!

  • Przemyslaw Mironiuk June 16, 2013, 1:31 PM

    Now, was it _really_ incidental or rather a planned event …

    Gagarin knew all too well that he was not first Soviet in space, he was the first to come back safely…

  • rdbrewer June 17, 2013, 5:03 AM

    Tereshkova was grounded shortly after? So she was the other pilot?

  • Douglass Sloan June 19, 2013, 11:29 PM

    Speaking of Soviet Space mysteries does anyone remembering hearing of a cosmonaut heading towards the moon, miscalculating the trajectory & rocketing past it, never to be heard from again? I remember reading about it somewhere, but havent been able to trace or verify.

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