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Fifty years on, Yuri Gagarin's death still shrouded in mystery
Moscow (AFP) March 27, 2018

Space pioneer Yury Gagarin killed in plane crash 50 years ago
Paris (AFP) March 26, 2018 - The first man in space, Russian Yury Gagarin, was killed in a mysterious plane crash a half-century ago, just seven years after his historic feat, a Soviet-era propaganda coup.

Gagarin's 108-minute foray into space, which beat the United States' own effort by three weeks, made him a Russian hero even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Here is a recap of his life, which ended on March 27, 1968.

- Humble beginnings -

Gagarin was born on March 9, 1934, in the rural village of Klushino, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of Moscow, to parents who worked on a Soviet socialist-style collective farm.

His schooling was interrupted by the 1941 Nazi invasion when the family's home was requisitioned and they were forced to move into a mud hut.

Passionate about planes from childhood, Gagarin joined a flying club at the age of 20 and later trained as a military fighter pilot.

- Selected for space -

As a member of the Soviet air force, Gagarin volunteered in 1959 with 19 others to train to fly what was called a "new type of apparatus".

The group was whittled down to six, including Gagarin.

In April 1961 he was picked for the first manned mission to space, an announcement made just days before the flight.

By then Gagarin was aged 27 and married to a nurse with whom he had two daughters.

- 'We're off!' -

On April 12 at 9:07 am Moscow time, Gagarin uttered the famous words "Poyekhali!" -- translated as "Let's go!" or "We're off!" -- as his spacecraft blasted off and took him into orbit.

At 9:12 am he said over the radio: "I see the Earth, it's magnificent."

After a flight of 108 minutes that included a single orbit of the Earth, Gagarin landed by parachute, the first man ever to have crossed the frontier with outer space.

Two days later he received a hero's welcome in Moscow. Thousands took to streets decked with flowers and posters as he was paraded in an open top car.

- Grounded -

The Soviet regime sent the space hero on "missions of peace" and he met world leaders such as Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

But he had become too precious a symbol to risk on any other dangerous missions and his career as a cosmonaut or pilot was halted.

Television footage from a few years after his space flight showed he had put on weight and appeared out of condition.

Soviet general Nikolai Kamanin, head of cosmonaut training at the time, wrote in diaries published in 1995 that Gagarin had spent a lot of time at receptions.

"Everyone wanted to drink with Gagarin 'for friendship', 'for love' and for a thousand other reasons, and to drink to the bottom of the glass," he said.

Gagarin had to beg the authorities to lift his flight ban and in 1968 he was eventually allowed to return to flying, retraining as a jet pilot.

- Mysterious crash -

On a training mission on March 27, 1968, his MiG fighter plane entered a high-speed spin and crashed into the ground.

Gagarin and his instructor were killed. The circumstances were unclear and the accident was hushed up for days.

The investigation became a state secret, leading to various conspiracy theories.

Documents declassified 50 years later say the most likely cause was a sharp manoeuvre to avoid a weather balloon. Questions remain, nonetheless.

Tens of thousands attended Gagarin's state funeral three days after the crash.

But the space pioneer has become immortal, living on in statues, images and film, as well as buildings and sites named in his honour, including a launchpad at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and a crater on the moon.

Yuri Gagarin, feted as a Soviet national hero for being the first man in space, was killed in a plane crash 50 years ago but the details of his death remain shrouded in mystery.

On March 27, 1968, at 10:18 am, Gagarin was preparing for a training flight in his MiG-15 plane at the Chkalovsky aerodrome near Moscow, his former cosmonaut colleague Vladimir Aksyonov recalls.

"Yuri and I consulted the same doctors and listened to the same weather forecasts, my takeoff was due an hour after his," the 84-year-old tells AFP.

But Aksyonov's flight was cancelled. At 10:30 am, when he returned to his base, Gagarin and his co-pilot Vladimir Seryogin were no longer responding to radio calls.

At 2:50 pm, helicopter crews searching for the plane said they found parts of the wreckage 65 kilometres (40 miles) from the aerodrome.

Gagarin's body was found the next day. He was 34.

- 'Gagarin is dead!' -

Sergei Kravchinsky, 74, remembers learning of Gagarin's death when he was a young space engineer and had just finished a gymnastics class.

"We heard a scream in the corridor: 'Guys, Gagarin is dead!'"

"It was a shock, all the women were crying," he recalls.

For the first time in Soviet history, a day of national mourning was declared for someone who was not a head of state.

The engineers knew Gagarin was training on a MiG and that he had already experienced landing problems. When they heard the investigation commission give its conclusions, they were perplexed.

According to the official version, the plane's crew had to make a sudden manoeuvre because of a "change in the situation in the air", which led to the crash.

"The report of the official commission, which was 29 volumes, was never published," Alexander Glushko, a historian studying the Soviet space industry, told AFP.

"This pushed colleagues and experts to start their own research."

- Rumours -

At the time, wild rumours surrounding Gagarin's death were circulating around the Soviet Union: that he was killed by the Kremlin, drunk in the cockpit or kidnapped by aliens were just some popular theories.

In 2011, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's historic 1961 flight into space, the Kremlin released some fresh information on his death.

Newly declassified documents said "one of the probable reasons" for the crash was a sharp manoeuvre made to avoid a weather balloon after which Gagarin and Seryogin lost control of the aircraft.

"One of the probable reasons! This wording does not mean anything. None of the documents from the 29 volumes of the investigation was published in full," said historian Glushko.

He believes that the secrecy around Gagarin's death was retained to hide "the flaws in the organisation and the functioning of the Soviet space sector," a symbol of the USSR's might.

"In the absence of the truth, rumours are multiplying and continue to circulate to this day," he added.

- The second plane theory -

"My parents always assured me that Gagarin died because he was drunk," says Alexander Volodko, a policeman from the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk, on a recent visit to Moscow's Museum of Cosmonautics.

Volodko tells AFP that he would like "the truth to be finally revealed".

He said he personally believed the version put forward by legendary cosmonaut Alexei Leonov -- the first ever to go on a spacewalk -- after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

According to Leonov, who was a member of the 1968 investigation commission, a Sukhoi plane approached Gagarin's planned route, passing less than 20 metres from his plane. This would have caused Gagarin's aircraft to spin and crash.

In June last year, 83-year-old Leonov repeated this version: "I saw a declassified document of the investigation that confirmed (this)," he told state news agency RIA Novosti.

Leonov believes the commission covered up the truth to protect the Sukhoi plane's pilot, whose name he refuses to reveal but describes as "quite famous" and currently "old and sick".

"This is no longer a secret: it is about negligence and a violation of aviation rules," he insists.

But until the investigation's official documents are made public, said historian Glushko, "this claim is just a hypothesis".

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Sixty years ago, a grapefruit-sized aluminium sphere with six antennas and some tiny solar cells was launched into Earth orbit. The Vanguard 1 satellite is still up there and is the oldest human-made object in space. It's our first piece of space archaeology. Other early satellites - such as Sputnik 1, the first satellite to leave Earth in 1957, and Explorer 1, the first US satellite - have long since re-entered the atmosphere and burnt up. Vanguard 1's legacy, as we enter the seventh decade ... read more

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