On April 12, 1961, the world met Yuri Gagarin, a former Soviet Air Force pilot who shot from obscurity to international fame after making one full orbit around the Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.
But the mission records the Soviet Union submitted to international authorities to secure Gagarin’s place as the first man in space present a very different mission. Specifically, his landing was deliberately falsified. During the year, lies about the Vostok landing system called into question whether or not Vostok 1 deserved its place as history’s first spaceflight at all.
In 1905, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI, known as the International Air Sports Federation in English) was established to manage and maintain all records of accomplishments in aviation. By the 1950s, the FAI had grown to include aeronautic and astronautic categories under its umbrella. With spaceflight on the horizon, the organization established a set of guidelines for what constitutes a spaceflight — if two nations were going to vie for the record of first in space, the FAI should have clear rules to determine a winner.
The terms of spaceflight reflected the organization’s roots in aviation. For a flight to count, the pilot-astronaut or pilot-cosmonaut would have to land with his spacecraft. After all, if a pilot fails to land with his aircraft, it’s usually because something has gone wrong and the flight has been a failure. Why should spaceflight be any different?
The Soviet Union statement presented to the FAI stated that the cosmonaut had landed inside Vostok 1 as per the organization’s guidelines on spaceflight. Signed by the sports commissar of the USSR, the document asserts that “at 10:55 a.m. Moscow time on the 12th of April 1961 … the pilot-cosmonaut Yuri Alexeyvich Gagarin landed with the ‘Vostok’ spaceship.”
He hadn’t. He couldn’t have even if he’d wanted to.
The Vostok spacecraft was basic and unsophisticated and lacked a braking system. Gagarin did as he was trained to do: He ejected during the final phase of his descent. He and Vostok 1 touched down separately by parachutes.
Gagarin’s landing was much scarier than the innocuous one described in the FAI’s formal record. Vostok 1 fired its retrorockets and began its fall through the atmosphere, but the cables connecting the crew module with the instrument unit failed to separate. The latter heavier unit fell first, exposing Vostok’s fragile hatch to the fiery phase of reentry. Only after the cables burned away did Vostok reorient itself with its heat shield down. Its parachute deployed late, and when Gagarin ejected 23,000 feet above the ground, his own ‘chute deployed late as well. He landed 10 minutes after and miles away from his spacecraft in the Saratova region near the border of Kazakhstan.
Farmers who saw the cosmonaut fall from the sky didn’t know what to make of the man in the orange suit and helmet. A woman and her daughter reportedly reached Gagarin first; when she asked if he came from space, he confidently said that he had before asking to use a phone to call the Soviet Space Agency.
But the FAI accepted the Soviet-issued statement on the flight. At least, it did until Gherman Titov followed Gagarin into orbit four months later.
Titov, who had been Gagarin’s backup for Vostok 1, spent a little over 25 hours in orbit before returning to Earth on Aug. 7, 1961. His landing was similarly veiled when the flight record was presented to the FAI, this time seeking to secure a duration record for the Soviet Union. It states that “pilot-cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich TITOV and the spaceship ‘Vostok 2 … landed in the vicinity of the village of Krasny Koot.” While the official record is ambiguous, the cosmonaut made no secret of his landing. He publicly admitted to ejecting before touching down by a personal parachute.
Titov’s admission called Gagarin’s landing, and consequently his record as the first man in space, into question. If Gagarin and Titov both ejected before landing, the Soviet Union would lose its spot in history as the first nation to launch a man into space.
Controversy began to brew and the FAI held a special meeting of delegates to reexamine Titov’s records and reconsider Gagarin’s. The result of the meeting was a change to the parameters that defined spaceflight rather than a change to the records. The parameters switched to focus on the payload launched; this technical achievement mattered more than how the astronaut or cosmonaut landed. That Gagarin had orbited the Earth was the real achievement, and both his and Titov’s records remain in the FAI’s books.
Gagarin’s true landing and the technical problems that very nearly killed him during his descent weren’t publicized until 1971, three years after he died in a plane crash in 1968. The FAI posthumously honored Gagarin that year by established the Yuri A. Gagarin Gold Medal to recognize the achievements of space pilots in man’s ongoing conquest in this new realm.
After the decision to keep Gagarin’s record intact, the early Vostok landing system went from a controversial issue to a historical oddity of the transition from flight in aircraft to spaceflight in capsules.
Photo: Yuri Gagarin in a bus on the way to the launchpad shortly before his historic mission into orbit aboard Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. Credit: Bettmann/Corbis