History books cite Russian cosmonaut Maj. Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space. Gagarin's tiny Vostok space capsule circled the Earth multiple times on April 12, 1961, making the former Soviet Union the first nation to successfully-and safely-put a living human into low Earth orbit.
Upon his return to Earth, Gagarin, as the first man in space, was treated as a superman-a hero of the Soviet state, the world's leader in space science and technology at the time.
But did the history books get it wrong about Gagarin's primacy in space? The answer is "yes" if you believe a Russian conspiracy enthusiast and his freelance filmmaker friend.
"Sergei Vladimir Ilyushin, Jr., a decorated Soviet pilot, was one of the few people who knew for certain that Yuri Gagarin was not the first man in space," says Paul Tsarinsky, a former public television producer and Russian translator.
According to Tsarinsky, at the dawn of the Space Age in 1957, the Soviet government refused to publicize embarrassing stories about its failed space experiments-and its biggest failure was, he claims, a botched April 7, 1961, spaceflight. It was made by a cosmonaut named Sergei Vladimir Ilyushin, Jr.
Tsarinsky says there's historical evidence that hints at a major Soviet coverup in April 1961-that Ilyushin made it into space five days before Gagarin. There were several Western communist news accounts of the period that did refer to a spaceflight a few days before Gagarin's.
According to Tsarinsky, citing extant Western communist news accounts published post-April 7, 1961, an emergency hard landing was made by Ilyushin, inside Red China.
There's no question about it, Sergei Vladimir Ilyushin, Jr. had the Russian Right Stuff. He was the Soviet version of Chuck Yeager, the U.S. Air Force pilot who broke the sound barrier in 1947. But after Gagarin's historic spaceflight, the young hero Ilyushin vanishes from historical records; he only reemerges from the shadows after the fall of the USSR.
By all accounts, Ilyushin was a "hot-shot" pilot. He was the son of the famous World War II-era hero and aircraft designer, Sergei Vladimirovich Ilyushin, Sr. The senior Ilyushin was a close Communist Party pal of Soviet Premiere Kruschev, so he could have gotten his son lined up to be the prime pilot for the Red's first manned spaceflight.
For Tsarinsky, Yuri Gagarin seems an odd choice to fly the historic "first" mission. Why? Well, he says, Gagarin was a complete unknown in the Soviet Air Force, at least until the Reds broke the story mere moments after the historic flight was successfully concluded.
A news story, filed by a British Communist Party journalist in Moscow dated April 8, 1961, reported that after three orbits, Ilyushin lost contact with mission control.
The British Red's report continued with an amazing story-
After reentry, and as his Vostok approached the ground, Ilyushin planned on ejecting from the capsule (just as Gagarin did a few days later). The plan was for the cosmonaut to parachute safely to the ground. But, the story goes, a fouled escape-hatch prevented Ilyushin from bailing out in time. He lost consciousness just as the spacecraft impacted the ground. Although still alive, the cosmonaut was severely injured. And one final matter complicated Ilyushin's rough return to terra firma: the Vostok had landed inside Red China; at that time, China was on rocky terms with its neighboring communist state, the USSR
The USSR's state-controlled news outlet, TASS, did not publicize a pre-Gagarin flight; however, TASS reported that a pilot named Ilyushin was injured in an automobile accident and was recuperating in a Moscow hospital-a clear sign that something was afoot. Conspiracy or confusion?
As far as Tsarinsky can tell, Ilyushin was badly injured upon impact; he remained in a Chinese hospital for more than a year.
"I assure you that the whole story is true...," says Tsarinsky, who cites his media mentor, filmmaker Eliot Haimoff, as the source of the story. "Haimoff went to Russia to interview Ilyushin. In 1999, Ilyushin was living in a modest apartment in Moscow with his wife of over 45 years. He was still active as a test pilot, aircraft designer and spokesperson for a major military aircraft manufacturer."
Haimoff's telling of the alleged Soviet coverup is seen in the documentary, "The Cosmonaut Cover-Up". During his visit to Moscow, Haimoff claimed that the aging aviator refused to talk with him on camera, but off-camera, Ilyushin told his story as a cosmonaut.
So, all we really have is Haimoff's word regarding his 1999 meeting with Ilyushin.
While the British newspaper account of an alleged "first flight" exists, this writer doesn't believe it is accurate; it wasn't the first time a newspaper got the facts wrong. (The RMS Titanic was reported saved on the front pages of several daily newspapers in 1912). An alleged cosmonaut cover-up would have been impossible to maintain after the fall of the USSR.
What's in the Sky: The constellation Cassiopeia is easy to view in the northeast this week. It rises as a giant "W" in the night sky after 8 p.m. Several Messier deep space objects within Cassiopeia, star-clusters, are seventh apparent magnitude which means they are easily seen through binoculars (see chart).
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., is a former NASA science writer. He is involved with the NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador program in Vermont. He was recently honored with the Maj. Gen. Chuck Yeager Award for Aerospace Education presented by the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.