Yuri Gagarin: The man who fell to Earth

Fifty years ago, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It was a wondrous achievement - so why did the Russians try to mount a major cover-up on the cosmonaut's return?

Anna Takhtarova and her granddaughter, Rita, were weeding potatoes near the village of Smelovka on 12 April 1961 when a man in a strange orange suit and a bulging white helmet approached across the field. The forest warden's wife crossed herself but the girl was intrigued. "I'm a friend, comrades. A friend," shouted the young man, removing his headgear. Takhtarova looked at him curiously. "Can it be that you have come from outer space," she asked. "As a matter of fact, I have," replied Yuri Gagarin.

This story of Gagarin's return to Earth after orbiting the planet, the most important flight since the Wright brothers' at Kitty Hawk, was widely disseminated, not least because of its symbolism – a Soviet hero being welcomed home by his fellow peasants, a wise mother and a child of the future. It is probably true in essence, though the details changed with each retelling. But some facts were hidden. One was kept secret for more than a decade, except for an extraordinary occasion when Gagarin risked everything to tell the truth to a man he held in the highest regard – a man who was a Cold War enemy: the Royal Navy's top test pilot.

The first cosmonaut's remarkable accomplishment, 50 years ago this month, still reverberates around the world. Without his spur, Nasa might never have reached for the Moon, the space shuttle might fly only between the pages of sci-fi novels and the International Space Station might be just an idea among disappointed space enthusiasts.

John Zarnecki is typical of a generation inspired by Gagarin. An 11-year-old pupil at London's Highgate School in 1961, Zarnecki got a day off when the spaceman visited the nearby grave of Karl Marx. "I stood 12 feet away as he came up to the bust in his military uniform and saluted," Zarnecki recalls. "It was my eureka moment, the realisation that this bloke had been in space for 108 minutes. I had to do that."

No one could accuse him of not trying. "I'm a three-times-failed astronaut," he admits. The first time, in 1978, he was in the final 30 British candidates, but was dropped for having poor eyesight. "So I did the next best thing – better in some ways," says the Open University professor of space science. "I designed instruments to be sent to Mars, Halley's comet and Saturn. I'm a space traveller by proxy."

Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin was the perfect poster boy for the Soviet space programme. The son of a carpenter, he was born in Klushino, Smolensk, 160km west of Moscow, in 1934. His parents worked on a collective farm and he grew up with an older brother and sister, Valentin and Zoya, and a younger brother, Boris. Deprivation under Nazi occupation, on top of Joseph Stalin's disastrous agricultural policies, might have had something to do with the fact he grew to a mere 5ft 2in – but he had a charming smile and an open, friendly demeanour.

The war years were hard for the Gagarins. The Germans shipped his teenage siblings to slave labour camps and they did not return until 1945. Yuri and Boris sabotaged the German garrison in Klushino, scattering broken glass on roads, mixing chemicals in recharging tank batteries and pushing potatoes up exhaust pipes. One occupier tried to hang Boris from an apple tree with a woollen scarf, but his parents were able to rescue him.

Amid the horrors, one event stood out for Yuri: a dogfight between two Soviet Yaks and a pair of Messerschmitts, ending in a one-all draw. The Soviet pilot landed near Klushino and the villagers rushed to help. Later, a rescue plane arrived to pick up the downed man and Gagarin scavenged fuel for it. The next morning, the airmen awoke to find him staring at them, entranced. He was still watching as they set fire to the wreck and took off in the rescue plane.

At 16, Gagarin left for Moscow to apprentice as a foundryman. He was transferred a year later to study tractors at a technical school in Saratov, where he joined an AeroClub and flew, for the first time, in a canvas-clad Yak-18. "That flight filled me with pride and gave meaning to my whole life," Gagarin said later. At 21, he signed up at the Pilots School in Orenberg, where he learnt to sit on a cushion to get a better view for landings. In 1957, he took his first solo flight in a MiG-15 jet, a version of the plane in which he would die in mysterious circumstances 11 years later.

Orenberg was also where he met Valentina, a medical technician a year younger than him. At first she couldn't figure out why she kept going out with him, though his self-confidence must have helped. "I'll see you next Friday," he would tell her at the end of each date. They married in October 1957, three weeks after the launch of Sputnik, and went on to have two daughters. On graduation, he was posted to Murmansk, close to the Norwegian border and north of the Arctic Circle. It must have come as a relief when a team of recruiters chose Lieutenant Gagarin for the new cosmonaut training programme, comfortably close to Moscow.

Long before Gagarin was born, Sergei Korolev, the aircraft engineer who would send him into space, had become interested in using liquid-fuel rockets to power planes.

Korolev would become so important to the Soviets by the 1950s that even his name was a state secret; he was referred to only by his initials or as the Chief Designer, and missed out on a Nobel prize because his superiors wouldn't reveal his identity. But in 1938 he faced a much worse fate – being caught up in Stalin's Great Purge.

Shortly after an accidental explosion in his laboratory, Korolev was denounced to the secret police by a colleague, Valentin Glushko, for counter-revolutionary political k activities and harming the work of the institute. He was arrested, tortured (they broke his jaw) and sentenced to 10 years' hard labour. Dispatched to a Siberian gold mine, he came close to death from beatings and scurvy.

His frequent letters of appeal led to his recall to Moscow for a retrial. The court found him guilty again, but sent him to a jail for intellectuals, beside his fellow prisoner Glushko. It was not until 1957 that his name was cleared.

With few teeth left after a year in a gulag, Korolev had a pessimistic outlook: he would often talk about "going bang without an obituary", but got a state funeral. Yet he, more than anyone, was to lift mankind's eyes above the horizon. He designed a string of rockets, most powered by Glushko's engines. The most notable was the R-7 "Semyorka", a two-stage rocket and the first true inter-continental ballistic missile. This rocket, recognisable by the four boosters flaring from its midsection, lifted almost all Soviet space missions. In 1961, it would lift Vostok, Gagarin's spaceship.

The Soviet union in the 1950s was surrounded by America's allies, from West Germany to Japan, Canada to Iran, where nuclear-armed bombers could be based. But it had little chance of delivering a retaliatory blow. Only missiles could ensure the survival of the Motherland.

But rockets had peaceful uses, too. The idea of launching an artificial satellite gained credence among scientists during the 1957 International Geophysical Year, an early attempt at global scientific co-operation. Washington was unenthusiastic. The Russians, however, saw a chance to score a propaganda coup and rushed Sputnik 1 to the launch pad. Less than a month later, Sputnik 2 carried Laika the dog into orbit. The starting gun had been fired in the space race.

Gagarin was one of 20 cosmonauts sent to train in the new Star City (later renamed in his honour) outside Moscow. They were subjected to batteries of medical and psychological tests and rigorous physical training, including sessions in centrifuges to prepare them for the G-forces of launch.

The score were winnowed down to six, with short men taking preference. Eventually, just two candidates remained: Gagarin and Gherman Titov. Both were smart enough to downplay their rivalry. The decision to give the history-making flight to Gagarin may have been made because the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted a farm boy, like himself, rather than the slightly bourgeois, poetry-quoting son of a school teacher. Or it could be that the programme's directors were saving the stronger Titov for a more arduous, one-day mission in Vostok 2.

Titov was distraught, but before his death in 2000, he told the authors of Starman, The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin, that his superiors had made the right decision: "Yuri turned out to be the man that everyone loved. Me, they couldn't love. They were right to choose Yuri."

They rose at 5.30am on 12 April, though neither Gagarin nor Titov had slept. Both dressed in spacesuits, Titov just in case. They rode to the launch pad together on a bus and said goodbye beside the gantry, banging their helmets together in parody of the traditional Russian triple-cheek air kiss. The Vostok spaceship comprised a spherical descent module and a conical equipment module atop the third stage of an R-7. The ship, call sign Kedr (Cedar), was fully automatic, since the scientists were concerned the crew might lose consciousness, or even their sanity.

There was no countdown, which was a purely dramatic invention of the Americans. Korolev checked with Gagarin three times in the hour leading up to the launch and, at 9.06am, the final commands were given.

"Launch key to 'go' position."

"Air purging."

"Idle run."

"Ignition."

As the G-load climbed, Gagarin shouted "Poyekhali!" – Russian for "Let's go!"

Later, in his autobiography, The Road to the Stars, he wrote: "I heard a whistle and an ever-growing din, and felt how the gigantic rocket trembled all over, and very slowly began to tear itself off the launching pad. The noise was no louder than you'd get in a jet plane, but it had a greater range of musical tones and timbres no composer could hope to score."

Much of Gagarin's flight was uneventful as he became the first human to see the Earth as a blue pearl set against the black expanse of space. His return was a different matter: the cables linking the descent and equipment modules did not separate properly and they entered the atmosphere like a pair of tethered conkers, banging against each other until the cable finally burned through.

Another event was equally secret, but planned. When Vostok reached an altitude of 7km, Gagarin ejected and parachuted to the ground. This neatly solved the problem of how to touch down safely. But it created a new problem: the Soviets wanted to claim the altitude record, but the rules said the pilot had to land inside his craft. The truth of how Gagarin met Anna Takhtarova 2km from Vostok's crater would have been a propaganda disaster. They had to lie.

Reginald Turnill, the BBC's aerospace correspondent, was interviewing Lord Brabazon, holder of Britain's first pilot's licence, when he heard about Gagarin. He left immediately for Moscow. "It went unpleasantly," he says half a century later. "They were determined to humiliate the press." The hall at the Russian Academy of Sciences was packed with officials and workers' representatives, he recalls. "We all wanted to know whether he'd come down inside the ball or ejected." The official answer? "The pilot was in his cabin, the landing proceeded successfully and demonstrated the success of the systems."

As Gagarin was prepared for an international victory tour, his early experience as a steelworker re-emerged. "He received an invitation from the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers in Manchester," says Gurbir Singh, an astronomy blogger who is writing a book on the spaceman's visit, Yuri Gagarin in Britain. The trip included the union hall, Marx's Highgate grave and an audience with the Queen. But a highlight for Gagarin would surely have been the 20 minutes he spent with Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown.

If Britain has anyone to match Gagarin, it's Brown. At 92, he is four inches taller than the Russian and every bit as charming. He holds the world records for the most kinds of aircraft flown, and the most carrier landings – records unlikely ever to be broken. He served on an exchange programme with John Glenn and Alan Shepard before they became astronauts, and counts Neil Armstrong as a friend.

A propeller blade inherited from his father, a First World War flier, stands by the door of Brown's chalet bungalow near Gatwick. His study is packed with models of aircraft he's flown and his shelves with aviation books, more than 20 written by him. One, Wings of the Luftwaffe, tells of his post-war report on the German air force. Although the Luftwaffe destroyed their piston-driven aircraft so the Allies couldn't use them, they left their jet and rocket planes intact. "They were showing off," says Brown.

The Russians had bought a bulk lot of Wings of the Luftwaffe, distributing them to technical colleges. It's not hard to imagine a young Gagarin coming across a copy, realising its importance, and later asking to meet its author; it would certainly explain the trust he put in his fellow pilot.

"He wouldn't sit down but kept wandering around," says Brown. "I asked him about the landing and he hesitated for a long time. Then he said he'd bailed out. The Admiralty was a bit suspicious: it didn't match the official version." The truth was a state secret, and revealing it could have resulted in Gagarin being shot – but there is perhaps a code of honour between fliers that transcends political boundaries.

Over night Gagarin went from being a pilot and cosmonaut, the jobs he loved, to being at best a diplomat, at worst a propaganda tool. Everyone wanted to join his celebration; life became one long party. The mood reached a head at the Kissely dacha, a sanitarium in Foros, Crimea, where the cosmonauts and their families went for a rowdy holiday in September 1961. Gagarin recklessly took some friends out in a motorboat on the Black Sea. As the weather worsened, his hands on the wheel became blistered and grazed from fighting to control the boat. After they were rescued by a bigger craft, he was sent to the medical centre to be patched up by one of the nurses, Anna, a pretty blonde.

That evening, while his wife played cards, the intoxicated Hero of the Soviet Union slipped away to Anna's room, where Valentina found him a few minutes later. He tried to escape by jumping from the nurse's balcony, on the second floor, but his foot became tangled in vines growing up the wall and he landed face first, permanently disfiguring his left eyebrow. Gagarin's first question when he regained consciousness was: "Will I fly again?"

The discipline of the cosmonaut corps was slipping, and it worried his superiors. General Nikolai Kamanin, the head of cosmonaut training, wrote in his diary: "It seems to me he's drinking a good deal. He's at the top of his glory, carrying a great moral burden, knowing that his every step is being watched. One or two years will pass, the situation will change drastically, and he will become dissatisfied."

Alcohol and women could indeed have been Gagarin's downfall. But he was determined to rise again. In 1963 he was appointed deputy head of cosmonaut training and used his position to get back on the spaceflight roster as back-up on the ill-fated Soyuz 1 mission. Politics was driving the mission to mark the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. An attempt to warn Leonid Brezhnev that the craft had 203 technical problems was quashed by an ambitious KGB apparatchik. The scheduled pilot, Vladimir Komarov, went up knowing he would likely die. Sure enough, the parachute failed. Some reports claim Gagarin later threw a drink at the Soviet leader over his friend's unnecessary death.

Gagarin also insisted on getting more flying time; how else could he command respect from the cosmonauts he was training, some of whom were far more experienced than he? And so, on 27 March 1968, he and his instructor, Vladimir Serugin, climbed into a MiG-15 at Star City for a routine exercise. What happened next is the subject of conflicting theories. What is known is that the plane was level but descending when it hit the ground, 96km north-east of Moscow, as if it was pulling out of a dive. There was no alcohol in the pilot's blood and lactose levels indicate that he was alert. The only evidence of unusual circumstances in the plane is that the altimeter was not functioning properly and the canopy was shattered. The plane had been fitted with external fuel tanks, which reduced its manoeuvrability. Radar operators had detected two other planes in the vicinity, one of which has never been traced.

The official report says Gagarin hit a weather balloon and crashed. A more recent hypothesis suggests an air vent was left open, causing the cabin to depressurise. Gagarin would have dived had he realised this, but because of the altimeter and poor visibility, he might not have known how close he was to the ground. Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov, who was nearby and heard two bangs, a supersonic boom followed by an explosion, thinks the mystery plane was an advanced SU-11 which broke the sound barrier just as it passed Gagarin's MiG, shattering the canopy and causing him to lose control.

No one knows what Gagarin might have accomplished had he lived. Perhaps he deserved a comfortable retirement. Maybe his death saved his image from tarnish. What is undeniable is that his name will be remembered for all time. 1

The anniversary of Gagarin's flight is being marked around the world. In London, the RSC is premiering 'Little Eagles' at the Hampstead Theatre (hampstead theatre.com), while the Science Museum (sciencemuseum.org.uk), is holding a series of activities. For other events, see yurigagarin50.org

Space: pushing the final frontier

Sputnik 1

Earth's first artificial satellite was launched on 4 October 1957. The Soviet space probe's beeping was picked up by amateur radio operators around the world. Because of the time difference, Premier Nikita Khrushchev was able to boast that "America sleeps under a Soviet moon"

Luna 3

Launched on 4 October 1959, the USSR's Luna 3 revealed the far side of the Moon, showing it to be far more mountainous than the side facing the Earth

Vostok 1

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth on 12 April 1961.

Soyuz 1

The first flight of the most successful series of spacecraft – 67 manned launches – ended in tragedy when cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov's parachutes failed to open on 24 April 1968

Apollo 11

The first of six manned missions to successfully land on the Moon touched down on 20 July 1969 under the command of US astronaut Neil Armstrong. Buzz Aldrin described the moonscape as "magnificent desolation"

Mariner 9

Launched on 30 May 1971, America's spacecraft was the first to orbit another planet, returning detailed information and images of Mars

Salyut 1

The Earth's first space station, launched by the Soviets on 19 April 1971

Pioneer 10

The primary mission of this US probe was to cross the asteroid belt and investigate Jupiter. It was last heard from in 2003

Voyager 1

The first craft designed to travel through interstellar space has flown more than 21bn km since 1977

Cassini

A joint mission of Nasa and the European Space Agency, Cassini has been studying Saturn since 30 June 2004, discovering three new moons

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