Yuri Gagarin is always remembered as the first human in space, which he achieved in 1961. But in less than seven years after his historic flight, he passed away under mysterious circumstances. Recently, Alexei Leonov—who, incidentally, was the first human to walk in space—disclosed findings of what caused Gagarin’s untimely demise.
It was the 1960s, and the Cold War’s Space Race was already set in motion. Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut, made history when he launched within Vostok 1 in the first successful manned spaceflight on April 12, 1961. However, on March 27, 1968, while on a routine flying mission in his MiG-15 jet with instructor Vladimir Seryogin, the two experienced pilots passed away.
Leonov was a friend of Gagarin and a fellow cosmonaut, and he had been in the vicinity of Gagarin’s flight that fateful day. He had cited having heard two loud booms in the distance.
However, official reports documented that Gagarin and Seryogin tried to move their jet away from a bird, balloon, or other object to avoid collision, and the maneuver resulted in their jet entering a tailspin to the ground.
Leonov explained to Russia Today television network recently that the official explanation was deemed at the time to be “believable to a civilian,” but it was challenged by numerous seasoned professionals. Theories therefore began circulating—–they included claims of conspiracy and rumors of sabotage. For instance, some thought a disgruntled pilot had tampered with the cockpit air vent in such way as to cause oxygen deprivation. Another example was of UFO enthusiasts arguing that Gagarin’s jet encountered an unidentified flying object. Then, too, KGB documents show that the intelligence agency thought air traffic controllers had provided inaccurate weather data that led to the crash. And yet other dismissed stories were that of Gagarin being intoxicated, or that of Seryogin “taking potshots at wild deer from their plane, causing it to spiral out of control,” as Leonov described in a 2004 book, entitled TWO SIDES OF THE MOON, which Leonov jointly authored with US astronaut David Scott.
For decades Leonov stood by his report that he heard two loud booms on that unfortunate 1968 day, the first was that of another jet breaking the sound barrier, while the second was of Gagarin’s jet impacting the ground.
“We knew that a Su-15 [Sukhoi fighter jet] was scheduled to be tested that day, but it was supposed to be flying at the altitude of 10,000 meters [33,000 feet] or higher, not 450-500 meters [1,480-1,640 feet],” Leonov told Russia Today. “It was a violation of the flight procedure.”
Now, newly declassified documents have determined that an unauthorized Sukhoi-15 supersonic jet did indeed fly dangerously close to Gagarin’s MiG-15 on that March day in 1968.
“While afterburning, the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters [30-50 ft] 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 [470 miles per hour],” Leonov said in the television interview.
The length of time between the loud booms further suggested to Leonov: “…that the two jets must have been no less than 50 kilometers apart.”
Computer generated simulation was engineered to showcase what had happened with Gagarin’s jet, and according to Leonov, “…a jet can sink into a deep spiral if a larger, heavier aircraft passes by too close and flips [the jet] over with its backwash. And that is exactly what happened to Gagarin…”
Leonov was given permission to share the story with the public, save for one detail—he did not reveal the identity of the Su-15 pilot, who is at present an 80-year-old in poor health.
“I was asked not to disclose the pilot’s name,” Leonov explained. “He is a good test pilot… It will fix nothing.”