Today marks 60 years since the Soviet cosmonaut Gagarin shocked the world as he became the first man to reach space. Murals, statues, and other public displays of gratitude were erected in the years following the feat of human ingenuity and exploration. He quickly became a national hero for what was then the USSR, and to this day remains an iconic figure for Russia.
In the US, the country’s space agency, NASA, was left dumbstruck.
NASA astronaut Charles Duke, who walked on the Moon during the Apollo 16 mission in 1972, said it was a defining moment for the outfit.
In 2011, he told the BBC: “I was a young fighter pilot in Germany I was flying F-102s in Rammstein Germany.
“We were more focused on the building of the Berlin Wall that year, rather than the space race.
“When he flew, my first impression was – well, they beat us again.”
Yet for all the celebrations, many have questioned the success of Gagarin and Soviet Russia.
A book published on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the launch in 2011 revealed how scientists twice miscalculated where the astronaut would land – explaining why there was nobody there to meet him when he touched down around 500 miles south of Moscow on April 12, 1961.
Titled, ‘108 Minutes That Changed the World’, it claims that the Soviet writing surrounding the landing was “far from the truth” and in fact obscured the reality of the mission.
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The book claims that the Soviets also lied about the way in which he landed, claiming that he had touched down inside the capsule while he had actually landed separately via parachute.
The reason they lied, the book said, was to bypass strict rules that would have prevented them from officially registering the flight as a world record.
Author, Russian journalist Anton Pervushin, alongside the claims, included a letter Gagarin wrote to his wife before the launch.
Pondering his own mortality, he told her not to “die of grief” if he never returned.
He said he hoped that they would never have cause to read his words.
He wrote: “But sometimes people slip on even ground and break their neck.
“Something could also happen here.
“If it does I ask you Valyusha (affectionate name for his wife) not to die of grief. After all life is life and there is no guarantee for anybody that tomorrow a car might not end one’s life.”
Just four years before, Soviet scientists had sent Laika the dog into space, only to see her die within hours from overheating.
Despite having made it to space and back, Gagarin died in a tragic and mysterious plane crash in 1968, aged just 34.