Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
For more than 45 years, the death of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to cross the Earth´s threshold and venture into space, has been shrouded in secrecy. But now, details of his 1968 death have been released by none other than the first man to walk in space, Aleksey Leonov.
Gagarin, who became the first man to travel into space on April 12, 1961, was killed when his MiG-15 aircraft crashed on March 27, 1968. Gagarin was just 34 years old. The details of that crash and his death have long been a confusing and controversial subject, with many theories coming forward on the actual cause of his death.
Now, Leonov, who conducted the first ever extra-vehicular spacewalk in 1965, has delved deeper into the touchy subject of the Gagarin death mystery. Leonov has been fighting for 20 years or more to gain permission to disclose the details of what happened that tragic day in 1968.
Leonov was part of a State Commission established shortly after Gagarin´s death to investigate the matter further. The official cause of the crash of the MiG-15UTI, according to Leonov, was the crew, consisting of Gagarin and experienced instructor Vladimir Seryogin, trying to avoid a foreign object by carrying out a maneuver that led to a tailspin and, ultimately, collision with the ground, killing both pilots.
“That conclusion is believable to a civilian — not to a professional,” Leonov told Russia Today (RT), adding that he has always wanted the truth to be told, at least to the families involved.
A declassified report states human error played a part in the tragic incident that day. According to the report, an unauthorized SU-15 fighter jet was flying dangerously close to Gagarin´s aircraft.
Leonov said he was in charge of parachute jump training that day. He remembered the weather had been snowy, rainy and windy and was waiting for an official confirmation that the exercises would be canceled. However, it was only moments later that he heard a supersonic noise followed by an explosion. It was then he knew something was amiss, according to his testimony to RT.
“We knew that a Su-15 was scheduled to be tested that day, but it was supposed to be flying at the altitude of 10,000 meters or higher, not 450-500 meters. It was a violation of the flight procedure,” said Leonov.
Leonov noted witnesses pointed out that the SU-15 appeared out of the clouds with its tail smoking and burning. Leonov explained that during the afterburning, the SU-15 came dangerously close to Gagarin´s plane, forcing it to turn sharply at speeds in excess of 450 mph, sending it into a deep spiral.
After a transmission from Gagarin noting the crew was descending and returning to the airbase, no other transmissions came through; the plane crashed 55 seconds later.
Leonov´s worst fears were confirmed when someone had called Chlkalovsky airfield and reported a crash near the village of Novoselovo.
During an investigation of the crash site, the remains of Seryogin´s body were found but not Gagarin. Investigators believed Gagarin safely ejected from the plane and landed elsewhere. It was a full day later when investigators found the body of Gagarin.
Leonov, however, said when he was given clearance to view the actual incident report he found many inconsistencies. The greatest inconsistency was that the report had Leonov´s name on it, although it was written in a different hand, with the facts jumbled.
He noted the report said the noise intervals reported were 15 to 20 seconds apart, when he only reported hearing them seconds apart. The former suggests the two jets were no less than 30 miles apart. But using new computer models, investigators were now able to piece together what exactly caused Gagarin to go into that fatal spiral at breakneck speed.
The computer model placed a solid trajectory relating to the 55-second interval between when the sonic boom was heard and the crash occurred. Experts know that a deep spiral can occur if a larger, heavier aircraft passes by too closely, causing backwash to flip the smaller plane. Leonov said this is exactly what happened to Gagarin. The trajectory based on the computer model was the only one that makes sense and corresponds to all input parameters used by the investigators, he said.
Leonov, upon taking the new information to the public, said the reasoning behind the coverup was that officials were perhaps looking to “hide the fact that there was such a lapse so close to Moscow.” He said he allowed test pilots and other experts a chance to scrutinize and challenge his testimony.
While there is solid evidence that leaves no doubt that the pilot of an SU-15 was at fault for the crash of Gagarin´s plane, his name is not being released. Leonov said the pilot´s anonymity was a condition under which he was allowed to publicize the story. It is only known that the pilot is now 80 years old and is in failing health.
Leonov said he was told that bringing this pilot into the spotlight will “fix nothing.”
Nikolay Stroev, Deputy Head of the Military-Industrial Commission of the USSR, said the incident occurred with no intention on the part of the test pilot. The pilot did not see Gagarin´s aircraft in the clouds as he passed within dozens of feet at supersonic speed.
Several theorists have come forward with their take on what really happened that day, with reports of a collision with a UFO among the most popular incidences.
But for all intents and purposes, the case is now considered closed, according to Leonov.
As the truth has finally been revealed, it should bring closure to others in the field who found discomfort with the long held controversial subject.
Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, was grounded after news of Gagarin´s death broke in 1968. She said the state would not let her fly anymore, as the possibility of losing a second cosmonaut of such stature would have been catastrophic.
During a conference of the Committee for the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS), held at the UN, Tereshkova said the “only regret here is that it took so long for the truth to be revealed. But we can finally rest easy.
“They forbade me from flying ever again, even piloting planes. The repercussions of the death of one cosmonaut were so great that they wanted to keep me safe,” she explained.
But her deepest sadness still lies with the passing of Gagarin. “I still miss him. It is a loss not only for us cosmonaut colleagues, but for the entire community,” she spoke, trying to hold back tears.
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online