Yuri Gagarin’s Controversial Landing

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, after waterskiing in Dolgoprundy. Credit: Public doman via Wikipedia

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, after waterskiing in Dolgoprundy. Credit: Public doman via Wikipedia

Today marks the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight. On April 12, 1961, the unknown Soviet Air Force pilot became the first man to orbit the Earth. But there’s a controversy surrounding the flight that’s been lost in moden retellings: to ensure Gagarin’s flight would go down as history’s first manned spaceflight, Soviet space officials issued a false statement about his landing. It’s a bizarre twist, but there was a very brief moment when Gagarin was nearly stripped of the honour of being the first man in space. 

It came down to a technicality. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the body charged with verifying and keeping track of all aviation and spaceflight records, ruled that a spaceflight would only count if the astronaut or cosmonaut landed with his spacecraft. It was a holdover from aviation where pilots had to land with their aircraft to secure a record. Gagarin ejected from his Vostok and landed by parachute, but the Soviets issued a flight report to the FAI saying otherwise to ensure their man would secure the record. The full story is over at Discovery News, as well as in my latest installment of It Happened in Space.


  • Daniel Pike says:

    I really enjoy your work.

  • helmsb says:

    Leave it to the French to try and diminish such an amazing accomplishment over a technicality.

    • Joe Q. says:

      You drew a conclusion just based on the name, which you also mis-read.

      The FAI is an international organization based in Switzerland.

    • Joe Q. says:

      You also don’t seem bothered by the fact that the Soviets lied about the spaceflight to secure bragging rights.

  • Capcom says:

    Ejecting from the capsule was a very sound engineering decision. The ejection seat was already there for the launch phase, and it was based on proven technology (fighter airplanes). It also dispensed the engineers from adding equipment (like Soyuz retrorockets and shock absorbing systems) to the Vostok for a landing on ground (which is definitely “harder” than the sea on which contemporary US spacecraft were designed to land).
    A good description of this was given in the late 60’s by Kenneth Gatland (then BIS vice-president) on one of its most famous books: Manned Spacecraft.

  • George says:

    “That Gagarin had orbited the Earth was the real achievement.”

    Although he did not technically “orbit” the Earth, since he landed West of his takeoff point after less than one “orbit.” It was an amazing technical accomplishment – it just was not everything that the Russians claimed it to be.

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