Russian space pioneer and superstud Yuri Gagarin died 40 years ago today.
Gagarin and a flight instructor crashed in a MIG-15 during a routine training exercise on 27 March 1968. Details of the crash were hushed up by the Soviet government, leading to years of speculation that Gagarin was depressed, drunk at the yoke, or even bumped off by a by a jealous Leonid Brezhnev. As The Guardian reported a few years back, the common belief now is that the plane tangled with weather balloons and crashed before Gagarin could recover.
His death was somewhat ironic, as he had been banned from other space missions because his value as a Soviet hero was too high to put at risk. Yuri Gagarin insisted on flying, though, and that was his downfall after all.
Gagarin, you may recall, became the first man in space in 1961, following in the pawprints left by Laika four years earlier. As the rocket engines ignited, Gagarin hollered “Poyekhali!” — “Off we go!”
The Soviets hadn’t solved the problem of making a survivable landing in the capsule, so after completing his orbit Gagarin actually ejected at 23,000 feet. This, too, was hushed up by the Soviets because aviation rules required that the pilot control a ship from launch to landing for the flight to be officially recognized.