It is a question that has lingered for more than 40 years: How did the first man in space really die? Experts have struggled to explain how a pilot as proficient as Yuri Gagarin could have perished in an airplane crash. The official 1968 investigation was inconclusive. Over the years, theories and rumors about the crash have abounded: One is that the former cosmonaut was drunk; another, that he was sabotaged by a jealous Leonid Brezhnev, then the Soviet leader. Now a team of researchers believes it has the answer. They contend that Gagarin, having discovered that an air vent in the cockpit of his MiG-15UTI was open, descended much too quickly from an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet, lost consciousness, and crashed.
“Nobody knows what really happened except us,” retired Soviet air force Colonel Igor Kuznetsov, 70, told me not long before his death last May. Kuznetsov, who died in a car crash in Moscow, took part in the original inquest. In 2000, both out of a sense of duty to solve the mystery and personal loyalty to Gagarin (the two met in 1960), he began reviewing the case.
Kuznetsov and five aviation specialists reconstructed the MiG’s flight during the fatal March 27, 1968 training exercise, which began at a military airport about 20 miles northeast of Moscow. Gagarin, who seven years earlier made the world’s first orbit of Earth in a Vostok capsule, was retraining as a fighter pilot and was in the two-seat aircraft with his instructor, Vladimir Seryogin. When he noticed the open vent at 13,780 feet, said Kuznetsov, Gagarin followed the procedures specified in the Czech-built airplane’s operations manual, which stated that this situation called for a descent to 6,500 feet. But Gagarin dove too fast. Both pilots blacked out and the MiG crashed in a forest, killing the men. The problem, Kuznetsov explained, was that at the time, no rate-of-descent limits existed; those rules (164 feet per second) came out in 1975. “It was not their fault,” he told me. “They were following the instructions to the letter.”
Former fighter pilots reject the explanation, pointing out that when pilots lose consciousness, it’s normally from high G-forces, such as those that could occur in a break turn during a dogfight, rather than from a rapid descent. Earlier this year, Kuznetsov had pressed for a new official investigation to lay the matter to rest. Russian officials, though, have so far refused, most recently in 2007. (Only President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are authorized to order a review.) With Kuznetsov gone, his colleagues would have to press to reopen the case; several whom I met at Kuznetsov’s memorial service pledged to do just that.
Andrew Osborn is a Moscow-based reporter for Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.