Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's death has been shrouded in mystery for over five decades. While new revelations have shed some light on the events leading to his 1968 demise, many conspiracy theorists have wildly differing beliefs regarding what happened to the Russian space hero. Gagarin died on Earth in a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base, just outside of Moscow. A KGB investigation ruled that the expert flyer made a sudden maneuver, which caused the plane to stall and crash, but they offered little more information than that.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US and the Soviet Union were engaged in a Cold War. Part of the competition between the two countries focused on being the first to outer space. Gagarin led the Soviet space race in the Vostok 1 spacecraft in 1961, a month before the US sent a man into orbit. He became an international and much-beloved hero.
But he didn't live to see the US place a man on the moon in 1969. He died just a little more than a year earlier in a plane crash that the KGB didn't speak about for decades, which led to some pretty outlandish theories about how he died. Was he murdered by the KGB or did something far more routine bring him down? While we certainly have some answers in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia is still a fairly secretive country, and—as with JFK's assassination—conspiracy theorists are still not convinced they know the whole truth.
He Became Such A Beloved National Figure, Russia Banned Him From Going To Space Again
After returning to Earth, Gagarin became a hero in the USSR and around the world, so much so that despite his desire to keep flying—he once said, "My biggest wish is to fly toward Venus, toward Mars, which is really flying"—Gagarin was not allowed to travel to space ever again.
The government refused to lose such a beloved icon. Instead, he trained other cosmonauts and held rank in the Soviet Air Force while touring the world as an international celebrity.
Gagarin Spoke Out Against The Soviet State When His Friend Died
The Soviet Union chose cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, a close friend of Gagarin's, to fly the Soyuz 1 in 1967. Despite being well aware of the dangers of the flight—the spacecraft was hurriedly put together as result of the race with the US—Komarov couldn't turn the job down, as Gagarin was the alternate choice, and the government would not risk Gagarin's life. Komarov likely sacrificed himself for his friend.
On the way back to Earth, Komarov's parachute didn't successfully deploy and he, along with his ship, crashed to ground at several thousand miles per hour.
Gagarin was devastated. He publicly blamed government officials in the weeks after the crash. Overcome with survivor's guilt, Gagarin allegedly wanted to "see the main man [Brezhnev] personally" to find out what he knew about Komarov's death, but he was warned by others to be "careful."
There Was A Bad Omen Before The Flight, But Gagarin Ignored It
Since the beginnings of space travel, cosmonauts have been superstitious, and on the day of his last flight, Gagarin saw signs that something terrible might happen. Gagarin forgot his ID, which he felt was a bad omen. He shrugged off his worries as nonsense, however, and flew anyway.
Russian flight crews today share many of the same superstitions Gagarin did. Before leaving their Star City training complex to fly, some pilots and cosmonauts visit Gagarin's Memorial Wall with roses or stop by his Zvyozdniy Gorodok office, which has been left untouched since his death, to sign a guestbook. There, they allegedly ask his spirit for permission to fly in the hope that Garagin will be with them during their missions.
An Open Air Vent Likely Caused Gagarin's Unconsciousness
Decades later, less sensational and more probable theories about the crash have come to light. In 2001, retired Soviet Air Force Colonel Igor Kuznetsov and a team of researchers studied the accident and came to the conclusion that an open vent caused Gagarin's demise.
When Gagarin realized the cockpit's air vent was open at 14,000 feet, he began a descent to 6,500 feet as per the airplane's operation manual. He moved too quickly, however, lost consciousness, and crashed. “It was not their fault,” Kuznetsov said later. “They were following the instructions to the letter.”