Why The Soviet Union Lied About Yuri Gagarin's Historic Space Flight

Apr 12, 2021 3 comments

Exactly sixty years ago, on April 12, 1961, Vostok 1 took off from Baikonur Cosmodrome taking along cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on the first ever human spaceflight. The flight’s mission was to reach the upper atmosphere, make one orbit around the earth, then come back to earth for a safe landing.

Despite an initial delay due to the hatch not closing properly, the launch countdown proceeded as planned and Gagarin was able to take off on a craft that few trusted. Half of all Soviet launches till date had been failures, but Gagarin was upbeat. He asked to listen to some music while he waited for technicians to repair the faulty hatch. While Gagarin’s backup Gherman Titov complained of chest pains, Gagarin was relaxed with a pulse of 64 beats per minute.

 Yuri Gagarin

“Let’s roll!”, Gagarin spoke into the microphone as the rocket lifted off the launch pad. The four strap-on boosters peeled off at the precise moment, and a minute later the payload shroud covering the spacecraft was released, revealing a small window near Gagarin’s foot for him to look out. “The visibility is good ... I almost see everything,” Gagarin radioed back. “I feel fine. I'm in good spirits,” he added.

The flight continued without any hurdles. As the Vostok passed over Siberia, Gagarin reported: “The craft is operating normally. I can see Earth in the view port of the Vzor. Everything is proceeding as planned.”

Gagarin flew over the North Pacific and crossed into night, northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Twenty three minutes later, as Gagarin crossed the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America, the sun was up again. Another twenty five minutes later, just as Gagarin crossed into Africa, the spacecraft's automatic systems brought the vehicle into the required attitude and orientation for the retrorocket firing. It was time to go home.

Gagarin’s flightpath.

Gagarin’s flightpath. Photo: BBC

The liquid-fueled engine fired for 40 seconds over the west coast of Africa to slow down the craft and prepare it for reentry. That was when the first troubles broke out. A valve within the braking engine failed to shut completely at the beginning of the burn, and leaked some of the fuel out. As a result, the engine ran out of gas and shut down earlier than schedule. The craft was programmed to shut the engine down once it had slowed down by 136 meters per second, but because the engine shut down earlier, the craft had slowed down only by 132 meters per second. While this was enough to push the craft towards re-entry, because it failed to reach the pre-programmed speed, the command to shut down the engine was never issued. As a result, the propellant lines of the engine remained open, after it ran out of fuel and stalled. These pressurized gas and oxidizer continued to escape the main nozzle and steering thrusters, causing the spacecraft to spin wildly.

After the flight, Gagarin wrote:

One moment I see Africa, another the horizon, another the sky. I had barely enough time to cover myself to protect my eyes from the Sun's rays. I put my legs to the porthole, but didn't close the blinds.

While still gyrating uncontrollably, Gagarin was faced with another problem. The reentry module had not yet separated from the service module. The two parts of the rocket was supposed to separate ten seconds after the burn ended. The reentry module carrying the cosmonaut was designed to fall back to earth while the service module would burn up in the atmosphere. But the service module unexpectedly remained attached to the reentry module by a bundle of wires, and both were tumbling towards earth. Finally, at an altitude of about 150 km, the modules did detach and the descent module settled into the proper reentry trajectory.

vostok 1

Photo: Dan Beaumont Space Musuem/Flickr

As Gagarin continued his descent, extreme g-forces tore through his muscles. Gagarin fought to remain conscious:

There was a moment, about 2-3 seconds, when data on the control gauges started looking blurry. It was starting turning gray in my eyes. I braced and composed myself. It helped, everything kind of returned to its place.

Gagarin is believed to have experienced about 8g during reentry.

At an altitude of 7 km, the hatch of the spacecraft was jettisoned and seconds later, Gagarin was ejected from the spherical module. Gagarin's ejection seat then came loose and moments later his parachute was deployed. The reentry module fell freely until its own parachute was deployed at 2.5 km. Ten minutes after ejecting, Gagarin landed gently in an open field. The freshly plowed soil cushioned his fall. Both he and the spacecraft landed 26 km south west of the town of Engels, in the Ternovsky District near Saratov. He fell more than 300 km away from his designated landing site.

Vostok 1's reentry capsule after landing

Vostok 1's reentry capsule after landing. Photo: ESA

A local woman and her five-year-old grand daughter watched in bewilderment as Gagarin walked towards them in his bright orange suit and helmet, dragging the parachute behind. They shrunk back in fear, but Gagarin addressed them: “Don't be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!

A commander of an anti-aircraft division in the area Major Akhmed Gasiev, who had seen Gagarin descending, arrived at the site minutes later. He drove Gagarin to his unit so that could make the call. All personnel of the unit, as well as their relatives, flocked to the site to see the man who “descended from space”.

Lies and secrets

The Vostok mission was undertaken under great secrecy. Officials were forbidden to reveal many details about the mission, including the location of the spaceport from where the spacecraft was launched. Days following the flight, when officials of the Soviet space program filed a report on the mission to the International Astronautical Federation (FAI), they invented a new spaceport—a small mining town called Baikonur, located 320 kilometers northeast of Leninsk, near Tyuratam, the real launch site. Suddenly thrown into the limelight, the bemused natives of Baikonur took advantage of their newly found fame by putting in orders for scarce raw materials, such as cement and wood, to officials in Moscow, all of which were delivered in vast quantities. It took sometime for Moscow to realize they were victims of a shrewd scam. Three decades later, the lie became true when in 1995 Leninsk was officially renamed Baikonur.

Baikonur Cosmodrome. Photo: Klimov Vladimir/Dreamstime 

The International Astronautical Federation (FAI) was established in 1905 as a non-governmental and non-profit making organization to further aeronautical and astronautical activities worldwide. Among its duties is the verification of record-breaking flights and arbitration of disputes over records. If nationals from two different countries claim a spaceflight record, it is the FAI’s job to examine the submitted documentation and make a ruling as to who has accomplished the feat first.

The FAI specifies certain guidelines for spaceflight. It is not necessary that a space agency follow these guidelines, but if that space agency wants to file a claim for a record, or if dispute arises, then the FAI will make sure that the guidelines were followed. One of the stipulations for spaceflight requires that the pilot should land inside their craft in order for the record to be valid. This requirement was created to prevent pilots from flying crafts that could not be safely land. The FAI did not wanted to encourage pilots to risk their lives for an aviation record. This rule became a problem for Gagarin because he did not land inside his spacecraft. Soviet engineers had not yet perfected the braking system that would slow the craft sufficiently for a human to survive the impact. Therefore, the cosmonaut was ejected from the craft. Soviet authorities went to great lengths to conceal this fact, and many times Gagarin had to lie during press conferences.

Gherman Titov, Nikita Khrushchev and Yuri Gagarin

Gherman Titov, Nikita Khrushchev and Yuri Gagarin on the Red Square in Moscow on 20 November 1961. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Four months later, Gherman Titov, Gagarin’s backup for the Vostok 1 mission, got his own spaceflight, becoming the second human to orbit the Earth and the first person to spend a full day in space. But unlike Gagarin, Titov spoke the truth. He owned up to ejecting himself. Titov’s testimony forced the FAI to reconsider their definition of human spaceflight, acknowledging that the launch, orbiting and the safe return of the human in itself is a great technological accomplishment, and the manner in which the pilot lands doesn’t matter.

The first official admission of the true nature of Yuri Gagarin’s landing came a full ten years after the event, by which time Gagarin's flight was widely accepted as an international record.

Yuri Gagarin died in 1968 in a tragic accident when the MiG-15 training jet he was piloting crashed near the town of Kirzhach. In his memory, the FAI established the Yuri Gagarin Gold Medal, which is the second highest award for spaceflight offered by the FAI.

The site where Gagarin landed is now a monument park featuring a 25 meter tall monument that consists of a silver metallic rocketship rising on a curved metallic column of flame, from a wedge shaped, white stone base. In front of this is a 3 meter tall white stone statue of Yuri Gagarin.

The monument to Yuri Gagarin at the landing site, near Engels

The monument to Yuri Gagarin at the landing site, near Engels, Photo: Alexander Ivanov/Flickr

# Vostok lands successfully, Russian Space Web
# Cathleen Lewis, Why Yuri Gagarin Remains the First Man in Space, Even Though He Did Not Land Inside His Spacecraft, Smithsonian Institution
# Siddiqi, Asif A., Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974. NASA


  1. The first photo is of Valentina Tereshkova, not Yuri Gagarin

    1. If that was Valentina Tereshkova*, she had a very impressive moustache!

      *It is, without doubt, Yuri Gagarin, NOT Valentina Tereshkova.

    2. The original photo was indeed of Valentina Tereshkova. With her helmet it was difficult to tell whether it was Yuri or someone else. That photo has been removed.


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