ALMOST 40 years after a mysterious death that has spawned conspiracy theories to rival those on John F Kennedy’s assassination, the question of what killed the first man in space, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, could soon be answered.
The Soviet icon and his pilot Vladimir Seryogin died when their Mig-15 airplane crashed on a routine training flight in 1968.
Now the senior airman who headed the investigation into the crash has demanded it is reopened after new evidence came to light.
Igor Kuznetsov, a former member of the State Institute of Exploitation and Repairs of Air Force Aviation Equipment,
said: "At the time we faced a wall of secrecy designed to stop us finding anything that might damage the Soviet reputation.
"But now so many files have been de-restricted that I believe it would be possible once and for all to find the real reason for the death of the first man in space."
The secrecy that surrounded his death and attempts to deflect any blame from Soviet officials has given rise to a string of theories about the crash, including claims that Gagarin, 34 when he died, was killed on the orders of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
It has also been claimed that he was an alcoholic who caused the crash after downing a bottle of vodka before taking off, and, most bizarrely, that he was trying to shoot a moose from his open cockpit after spotting it from the air.
But Kuznetsov claims Gagarin and Seryogin fell unconscious because a cockpit vent was left open, meaning the plane’s cabin would not have been pressurised from take-off. The pilots would only have realised this as they flew to high altitudes and by the time they had climbed to 4,200 metres they were already suffering from oxygen deprivation.
Kuznetsov said they tried to abort the training flight and following regulations would have descended to a safe altitude. But in their weakened state they lost control, passed out and crashed.
He also ruled out any blame on the part of the pilots. "The half-opened cock and the quick descent in diving was not the crew’s fault," Kuznetsov said. "The cock could have been left open either by the technician or the pilot who flew the plane before Gagarin. The men acted strictly according to instructions."
Gagarin became a household name in 1961 when he helped the Soviet Union beat the Americans into space.
His Vostok I blasted off from Tyuratam, home of what is now the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in modern-day Kazakhstan and successfully orbited the earth at an altitude of 112 to 203 miles. When Gagarin landed back on Earth less than an hour later his place in history was secured.
His trip came just four years after the Russians had plunged the Cold War to new depths by launching the world’s first satellite, the Sputnik.
Gagarin became an instant hero for the Soviets, and in Moscow he was feted by the ruling elite as a symbol of Soviet heroism, a product of proletarian scientific progress that had been reflected in the strength of the Russian space programme.
He toured the country and seemed destined for a life as an international promoter of the communist regime in the USSR. Even today he still has a crater on the far side of the moon named in his honour.
But rumours suggested that the pressure of his position as an international ambassador for Soviet communism had begun to wear on him, and he was said to have started drinking heavily.
Until now the most popular theory over the crash of his Mig-15 was that he was drunk while in the plane, and this had caused the crash.
The investigation at the time was one of the most detailed carried out by the Soviet military and involved hundreds of investigators. But its findings were immediately shrouded in secrecy. Leonid Brezhnev would not permit investigators to publish an article detailing their conclusions. He said it would "unsettle the nation" and instead only a very brief summary was released much later that year.
It was unclear why Gagarin and Seryogin did not eject from the plane if they were in trouble. There were no technical problems with the plane and investigators could find no evidence of sabotage.
The alcohol-induced crash theory had been fuelled by Gagarin’s presence at a birthday party two nights before his death at which he was rumoured to have downed so much vodka that he was still drunk when he got on the plane 48 hours later. But investigators said he had passed two medical examinations before take-off, and a post-mortem examination found no alcohol in his system.