In 1968, the famed pilot and cosmonaut took off on a routine training flight in a MiG-15UTI. Shortly thereafter, the plane crashed near the town of Kirzhach. Both Gagarin and flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin perished. Gagarin was just 32.
Immediately, the Soviets rushed to gloss over the incident, covering up details of the incident for decades. Lacking convincing explanations, conspiracy theories abounded – but none of them stuck.
In 2013, new evidence emerged thanks to the investigative work of Alexei Leonov, a former cosmonaut who was troubled by the death of his friend and fellow space traveler.
His (unconfirmed) explanation for the crash? An error in air traffic control. During the fateful flight, a Soviet Su-15, a model much larger than the hero's MiG-15, violated Gagarin's airspace. The turbulence caused Gagarin to lose control and ultimately plunge to his death.
Perhaps the embarrassment of losing a national icon to such a simple error was too much to admit publicly. Or maybe, as Leonov speculated, the authorities didn't want to make public that there was "a lapse" so close to Moscow. We may never know for sure. What we do know is that Gagarin's first and only space mission left an indelible mark on our world.
"People had been dreaming of flying in the air for millennia before the Wright Brothers achieved that in 1903," says Amy Foster, assistant history professor at the University of Central Florida, via email.
"The idea of humans flying in space was even more lofty. While both the United States and the Soviet Union had successfully launched living creatures by the time of Gagarin's flight, there were still questions about how the mission would affect a human. So, Gagarin's flight made flying in space not only achievable, but also a realistic endeavor."
Originally Published: Nov 9, 2020