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Fifty years ago Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space and the first to orbit the Earth, died in a plane crash. Hu’s (His) body wouldn’t be found until the next day. The crash was a mystery. How did a seasoned pilot, a test pilot, and a cosmonaut crash a plane on a routine flight? Was it murder? One person had the motive and the means to kill the Soviet space hero, but was it just a strange coincidence?

Yuri Gagarin portrait

Yuri Gagarin: Soviet Hero. Brezhnev enemy?

Yuri Gagarin:  Hero of the USSR

Yuri Gagarin was a Russian hero by any standard. Hu’s parents worked on a collective farm. During World War II, Gagarin’s family was driven out of their house by German soldiers and had to live in a small mud hut for over a year. After the war, hu (he) trained at a vocational school and attended evening classes. According to the Soviet narrative, hu took every advantage to improve himself, including volunteering on weekends to learn to fly with the Soviet Air Cadets.

Gagarin was drafted and sent to Soviet flight school to learn how to fly the MiG-15 jet. In 1960, hu was one of twenty men selected to become the first Soviet cosmonauts. When it came to selecting the first person to go into space, Gagarin stood out among his peers. One evaluator wrote this about Gagarin:

Soviet Doctor’s Evaluation

Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuriy; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.

From Wikipedia on Yuri Gagarin

Gagarin stubbornness to defend hu’s point of view may have led to hu’s death.

High-Risk Gamble

The mission to be the first human in space was inherently dangerous. From the launch, a controlled, directed explosion, to entering into the unknown environment of space, to reentering the atmosphere, the journey was filled with first-time events.

In addition, the Soviets didn’t know how to land a human back on Earth. The USSR’s plan was to touchdown on land rather than water. The problem was that parachutes can’t slow a spacecraft to a speed that won’t injure or kill the crew.

The solution was to allow the capsule to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, slow it down with parachutes, then have the cosmonaut jump out with his own personal parachute. It was risky, but it was a simple solution that allowed the Soviets to put a human in space before the United States. On 12 April 1961 Gagarin overcame the odds and made history.

Unacceptable Risk

Six years later the Soviets were still ahead in the space race. Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev wanted to keep it that way. For the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Brezhnev wanted to introduce the world to the new Soyuz capsule. He pushed to have two Soviet launches, one day apart, followed by a space rendezvous of the two spacecraft with an exchange of cosmonauts.

Soyuz 1 was to be piloted by Vladimir Komarov with Yuri Gagarin as a backup pilot. The two cosmonauts were close friends.

Months before the launch of the two rockets, the Gagarin and others inspected the Soyuz craft and found 203 structural problems. Gagarin wrote up a ten-page memo detailing the problems and demanding a delay in the program. He gave it to a friend who was a KGB agent to pass up the chain-of-command.

Allegedly, those that read memo were demoted or removed from the space program. It is unclear if Brezhnev actually saw the memo, but it was clear that no one wanted to challenge Brezhnev’s orders.

Death of a Friend

On the day of the launch, Gagarin demanded to be suited up, apparently to replace his friend, Komarov on the mission. Komarov did not want to go, but he also wasn’t willing to sacrifice Gagarin’s life. Komarov declined his friend’s offer and flew the mission.

As predicted, the spacecraft had major issues from the moment it reached orbit. After the Soyuz 2 launch was scrubbed, allegedly because of thunderstorms, Soyuz 1 was given the okay to return to Earth. Everyone knew that the capsule was unlikely to land safely. Komorov cursed his fate as his spacecraft plunged to Earth after the parachutes failed. It was a needless loss of life to satisfy the arrogance of Brezhnev.

Yuri Gagarin Poking the Bear With a Stick

Three weeks after hu’s friend’s death, Gagarin gave an interview that was published in Pravda. Hu blamed the people who allowed the launch of an unsafe capsule and indicated their complicity in Komarov’s death. Gagarin wanted to meet with Brezhnev and confront the man that everyone feared. It is unclear if this happened, but there was a rumor that Gagarin did have an encounter with the General Secretary and threw a drink in hu’s face.

It is clear that Gagarin was angry with Brezhnev, and it is also likely that Brezhnev was made aware of the situation. For Brezhnev, this had to be a potential political embarrassment and potentially dangerous to have a Russian hero question hu’s decisions.

Gagarin’s Mysterious Plane Crash

Gagarin’s anger at Brezhnev would be shortlived. About a year after Komarov’s death, Gagarin died in a mysterious plane crash. Among the odd aspects are:

  • Gagarin was a highly qualified pilot.
  • The crash was during Gagarin ‘recertification’ as a fighter pilot, deemed a formality.
  • The investigations found no exact cause for the crash.
  • Gagarin had completed the training maneuvers of the flight and had radioed that they were returning to base.
  • The plane disappeared without further contact.
  • Gagarin reported no issues of problems or crisis.
  • Searchers found the crash site later that day, but they didn’t find Gagarin’s body until the next day a short distance from the crash.
  • Another plane reportedly passed close to Gagarin’s plane before the crash.

If Brezhnev ordered Gagarin’s death it would have to look like a plausible accident. The most likely ‘accident’ for a pilot would be a plane crash. If not a deliberate act, Gagarin’s ‘accident’ benefited Brezhnev significantly by silencing a high-profile critic.

Another Coincidence

The circumstances of Yuri Gagarin’s death are strange enough, but there is one more coincidence. Gagarin’s death occurred just under two years from the release of the British movie, The Blue Max. A story about a German flying ace that had fallen out of the grace with hu’s superiors and died when flying a plane that was known to be unstable.