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Why Yuri Gagarin Remains the First Man in Space, Even Though He Did Not Land Inside His Spacecraft

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Every year as the anniversary of the first human spaceflight approaches, I receive calls inquiring about the validity of Yuri Gagarin’s claim as the first human in space.  The legitimate questions focus on the fact that Gagarin did not land inside his spacecraft.  The reasoning goes that since he did not land inside his spacecraft, he disqualified himself from the record books.  This might seem to be a very reasonable argument, but Gagarin remains the first man in space.  The justification for Gagarin remaining in that position lies in the organization that sets the standards for flight.

Yuri Gagarin

Soviet cosmonaut Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin, probably on or about April 12, 1961, when he made his orbital space flight in Vostok 1.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) is the world’s air sports federation.  It was founded in 1905 as a non-governmental and non-profit making international organization to further aeronautical and astronautical activities worldwide.  Among its duties, the FAI certifies and registers records.  Its first records in aviation date back to 1906.  The organization also arbitrates disputes over records.  If nationals from two different countries claim a record, it is the FAI’s job to examine the submitted documentation and make a ruling as to who has accomplished the feat first.  When it was apparent that the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were planning to launch men into space, the FAI specified spaceflight guidelines.  One of the stipulations that the FAI carried over from aviation was that spacecraft pilots, like aircraft pilots should land inside their craft in order for the record to be valid.  In the case of aviation, this made perfect sense.  No one wanted to encourage pilots to sacrifice themselves for an aviation record.  Piloting an aircraft that could not land did nothing to further aeronautical engineering.

When Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth on 12 April 1961, the plan had never been for him to land inside his Vostok spacecraft.  His spherical reentry capsule came through the Earth’s atmosphere on a ballistic trajectory.  Soviet engineers had not yet perfected a braking system that would slow the craft sufficiently for a human to survive impact.  They decided to eject the cosmonaut from his craft.  Yuri Gagarin ejected at 20,000 feet and landed safely on Earth.  Soviet engineers had not discussed this shortcoming with Soviet delegates to the FAI prior to his flight.  They prepared their documents for the FAI omitting this fact.  This led everyone to believe that Gagarin had landed inside his spacecraft.  It was not until four months later, when German Titov became the second human to orbit the Earth and the first person to spend a full day in space, when the controversy began to brew.  Titov owned up to ejecting himself.  This led to a special meeting of the delegates to the FAI to reexamine Titov’s spaceflight records.  The conclusion of the delegates was to rework the parameters of human spaceflight to recognize that the great technological accomplishment of spaceflight was the launch, orbiting and safe return of the human, not the manner in which he or she landed.  Gagarin and Titov’s records remained on the FAI books.  Even after Soviet -made models of the Vostok spacecraft  made it clear that the craft had no braking capability, the FAI created the Gagarin Medal that it awards annually to greatest aviation or space achievement of that year.

One should keep other examples of a sports federations’ reconsideration of rules in the face of new techniques and technologies in mind when considering the FAI Gagarin decision.  The underwater dolphin kick in freestyle swimming and the introduction of the clap skate in speed skating both caused initial international flaps.  After the respective sports federations voted to accept these changes, that ended the controversy.  Yes, Gagarin did not follow the rules that the FAI established before his flight.  However, as is true with any sports organization, the FAI reserved the right to reexamine and reinterpret its rules in light of new knowledge and circumstances.  Yuri Gagarin remains indisputably the first person in space and the concept that the first cosmonauts had to land inside their spacecraft is a faded artifact of the transition from aviation to spaceflight.

Cathleen S. Lewis is the curator of international space programs and spacesuits at the National Air and Space Museum.

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36 thoughts on “Why Yuri Gagarin Remains the First Man in Space, Even Though He Did Not Land Inside His Spacecraft

  1. One of the happiest days of my life was the day the Berlin Wall came down, but come on!?. The first man is space means in space.
    As in Space above Earth. Who cares how he came down or landed.

    It’s foolish to miss the point. Was he or was he not. IN SPACE?….

    If he was the first to be outside of breathable air above planet earth, then he was the first in space. Period.

    The rest is just playing about with standards to point we
    forget that the only important standard of “First Man in Space”

    IS was he in Space, and he was. End of debate, unless one would like to give up on logic and common sense.

    All the best,

    Keep it real.

    John

  2. That’s not complete John. What if Gagarin had died during reentry? Would he still be considered the first man in space?

    No, of course not. Just like all the explorers who summited Everest before Hilary but died on the trip down. Like you say, it’s only common sense.

  3. Look on a map. Peshawar Pakistan is about 1,000 miles south of the Soviet Launch Center in Kazakhstan. The US had a listening site there on the day Gagarin went into space. Unfortunately, a few days before Gagarin, another Soviet citizen was launched from this site. He landed in China. Yuri Alexeivich was the second Russian to orbit the earth…….

  4. pssst… John, Genius….

    you can’t breathe at 30,000 feet
    5.6 miles or so up…

    the edge of space (for the US at least) is about 80km, or 50 miles… that’s where you’re awarded Astronaut Wings

    100km is the FAI standard (the body that changed the record rules to suit Gagarin’s flight)

    air molecules will effectively slow the orbit of anything up to over 1,200 miles above the earth… so, yeh, be more precise with your thinking.

  5. Pingback: 50 Facts for the 50th Anniversary of the First Man in Space | Surprising Science

  6. I have heard that there were really 3 humans in space before Gagarin, but all three died in the attempt. Gagarin remains the first human to survive a trip into space – whether he landed the capsule or parachuted down anyway. Remember that the US space capsules parachueded down as well – albeit the entire capsule, not just the man.

  7. Its not like Yuri’s accomplishment is important anyways. Alan Shepard followed behind him 1 month later. It was Shepard’s accomplishment that really made it possible for future space flight, most importantly, the moon. The only thing the Soviets did was give us Americans something to strive for and in the end, we won.

  8. i am so sorry we did not get the space shuttle
    but am proud that the museum of flight recognizes the first man in space with a special program

    yea for us!!

  9. I agree that “who cares how he landed” Gargin and Titov did have the cutting edge on true orbital space flight if ejection was safest that was the best option for a Country that wanted capsules on land. This is about baby steps, and the USA took almost a year later to limp into orbit with Glenn on an Atlas missile.

  10. First man to ORBIT the earth.
    First two Americans to follow, Sheppard and Grissom were only ballistic flights on a redstone booster.

    I vote would be that Gagarin keep the record.
    He followed a re-entry plan and it worked. Give credit where credit is due.

  11. This article is misleading. Even if he had died in space, he still would have been the first man in space. Landing safely has never been the criteria for being the first man in space. What would not have been accomplished, if he had died (and what would not have been recognized by the FAI), would have been the “first successful manned mission to space”. This is quite a bit different from being the first man in space.

    To Sb: Nobody summited Everest before Hillary and Norqay.
    Also, there is no documented proof that anybody was launched into space prior to Gagarin.

  12. I agree with many on stupidity of the title. Who challenges the fact of being the first in the space? Often asked? By who? I can’t imagine an article with similar line to be published anywhere outside the US. Definitely education in this country goes down the drain.

  13. Ah los gringos! porque han de pensar siempre que son el centro del universo! Que si Gagarin no aterrizó dentro de la capsula! Que si Gagarin no llegó al espacio.

    Yuri Gagarin fue el primer humano en el espacio, punto. Antes de ruso (y no yanqui)fue un ser humano.

  14. Yuri may or may not have been the first man in space, it depends on the rules being applied and by whom. I’ve always thought of him as the first to ‘Orbit’ the earth successfully. To be in orbit in this case is to coast high enough and fast enough to make a revolution of the earth. Surely no-one would take that from him.

  15. Really! who cares he did not land inside his spacecraft?!?!! I agree who cares how he landed?!?!?!?
    He was and ll be the first man on space don t try to take out that merit.
    What d be your next article?? Man never stand the moon becuase Neil had a boot?

  16. I disagree with the questioning if Gagarin was truly the first man in space due to the way his spacecraft landed. Gargarin was the first human in space – period. That would be like questioning if Chuck Yeager was the first man to fly Mach 1 because his X-1 was air launched; or if Milburn Apt was the first man to fly Mach 3 because he did not survive that flight. I think we should leave the history books the way they are.

  17. Yeah! For me it’s still Yuri Gagarin who holds the First Human who Orbited the Space, no matter how he landed. Because of what the Soviet did was a challenge to the rest of the world what to do to achieve goal set forth by other countries like the United States of America.

    Yuri is still the First!

  18. I met Yuri Gagarin at a congress at the Humbold University in East-Berlin early 1965. Some years later I was told by a Swiss Space Expert (Bruno Stanek) that I met just a double of Yuri, since Yuri Gagarin died during landing. I do nolonger know, what I should belive ?

  19. Uhh, all this arguing is RIDICULOUS. I mean, all of you are forgetting the facts! It wasn’t Yuri, Alan or any of those guys to be the first in space……it was CHUCK NORRIS!

  20. You guys seem to be forgetting that the first man to actually go into space was on a sub-orbital flight.

    So if we’re going to use everybodys logic here than no he wasn’t.

    He was the first to complete one orbit, regardless of how he landed though, And getting a man into orbit was the goal.

  21. When a rocket is fired, all the stages are jettisoned, so there is no way any astronaut, up to the present time, can land in the same craft; let us not forget also the fuel, even if such a rocket is possible, there will be spent fuel. The American space shuttle too is an example where only part of the craft lands. One could therefore say that the space suit actually is the ultimate capsule. So I find the French definitions to be absolutely preposterous and valid perhaps for aeroplanes etc. in the early 20th century that cannot be applied to space flights and for more sophisticated journeys in the future; these definitions should be updated as technology progresses. And this updating should be carried out by agencies having the expertise and familiarity with the technology, and not by high-level French and other philosophers who are far-removed from the actual state of the art involved in these exacting ventures.

  22. This is a pathetic article that seeks to create a controversy where none exists. Only in the minds of a few bitter American chauvinists is there a question of whether Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space and the first to orbit the earth. He beat you. Get over it.

  23. The Soviet propaganda machine being what it was, there is no way to believe or verify that Yuri Gagarin was ever in space, let alone the first man in space. One does not make a huge public announcement of an event that had a very good chance of ending up with a dead cosmonaut, that would have ended the Soviet space program right there and then. It is more believable that Vladimir Ilyushin was the first man to orbit the Earth on 7 April 1961, but he crash landed and therefore his story wasn’t good enough for the history books. On Youtube you can see the video about this titled: NASAFLIX Presents – SECRET SPACE: Cosmonaut Cover-up.

  24. To suggest the first man in Space was meaningless and that it was all about testing a man on the moon – a race claimed as ‘we won’ makes little sense.

    Neither Russia nor America can really claim these achievements as truly theirs. The moon landing and the first man in space were both achieved by scientists of the same nationality…German! Which country they moved to post war and who paid for the work is kinda academic.

    It should also be noted that a huge array of NASA technical staff during this period were Canadian, a ‘brain drain’ as it was then called as a consequence of the cancellation of the Avro Arrow.

  25. Facts are facts, and rules are rules. Yes, Gagarin was the first man in space, there is no dispute there, but Freedom 7 was the first space flight.

    If the “Soviet engineers had not yet perfected a braking system that would slow the craft sufficiently for a human to survive impact”, then I’m sorry, but they should not be credited with the first space flight.

    Performing a space flight is a technical achievement, and only those that have demonstrated that they have solved the technical problems required to achieve such a flight can claim to have accomplished space flight.

  26. still far better and supreior is the deed of Yuri gagarin rather than Faking a full moon landing as done by the Americans. Think who won and who lost, lol.

  27. Just a question: at the time of the Wright brothers were there rules about what would constitute a flight?
    If so, would that rules demand that the aircraft took off on its own power instead of depending on an external apparatus? In this case, the first true flight would have been made by Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont in Paris… The Wright Flyer was more related to an Angry Bird than to an airplane…

  28. With regard to the Wright brothers’ historic first flights on December 17, 1903, they were indeed true flights. On that day, the Wright Flyer took off under its own power, from level ground, with no external apparatus assisting take-off, and made sustained, controlled flights. Beginning in 1904, the Wrights did use a catapult assist device to help launch their aircraft when flying at Huffman Prairie near their home of Dayton, Ohio. However, this device was not required for flight. In October 1905, for example, the Wrights made a flight of nearly 40 minutes in the air, clearly flying and making a substantial sustained, controlled flight. This was more than a year before Santos-Dumont made his short straight line flights in 1906. Nevertheless, the Wrights did not use the catapult, or any other assist device, in 1903. Advocates of Santos-Dumont often assume the catapult was used from the beginning. It was not. But even the catapult assisted take-off flights of 1904 and 1905 were true flights. Obviously, the airplane would not stay in flight for 40 minutes solely from the momentum of the catapult.

  29. Wow, that was a hornet’s nest. I do have one question. When the FAI changed the rules, did they back-date them? That is, did the rule change take effect the day that they changed them (after Titov’s flight) or did they backdate them to before Gagarin’s flight. I ask because in any sport when a rule is changed they never go back and apply the new rule to old games it only applies to games from that day forward. If they did not back-date them then, by their rules, they would have disqualified Gagarin and Titov.
    Let me add on that I consider Yuri to be the first man in space, but this smacks of a GREAT bar bet.

  30. I just came across this because I was double checking exactly how Gagarin landed from his space mission.
    This essay presents a weird perspective.

    Heck, the fact that the man blasted off into space on a rocket, orbited Earth, came down in that space craft, though at 7km he was shot out of his space craft, left to land on his own – Is pretty damned amazing… impressive. Don’t comprehend why that ‘heroic’ landing should detract from his orbit through space and around Earth.

    It always amazes me the things people can find to complain about.
    By the way I think the first post by John hit it on the nail.
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    Then I noticed the comment by Sb which really begs a response:
    Sb claims: “… Just like all the explorers who summited Everest before Hilary but died on the trip down. …”
    Like who?

    The only possible candidate for summiting is Mallory and Irvine, but there’s no evidence they made it to the top. And I have the feeling if there were proof they’d made it to the top, they’d be in the record books.

    Think about early voyages of discovery and circumnavigation. Magellan, Cook, they and other captains never made it home, yet are credited with those voyages.
    ~ ~ ~

    Back to this article, it’s seem a petty waste of energy.
    just my two cents worth.
    see ya.

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