Sergei Vladimir Ilyushin: First in Space?

What is the concensus among the experts (by which I mean of course Cecil and the SDMB’ers) on the story that S.V. Ilyushin was the first person to go into space (and return alive) as opposed to Y. Gagarin? The story I saw on a TV doumentary (WVNC, 26 July 2001) was quite convincing in this regard, but I understand that there are those that “say it ain’t so”.

The story is that he went up and something went wrong after a spell, rendering him unconcious. Eventually, the ship came down. The plan —as for Gagarin’s flight— was for him to eject aroung 10,000 ft and descend by parachute for extra safety. But since he was out cold, he landed rough with the ship and was injured. He also landed in China, so it is said. Relations with the Chinese were poor at the time, and he was held as a “guest” for about a year before returning. Since things were always supposed to go perfectly with all things Communist, the semi-failure was never publicized.

This is a lot more detail than I’ve heard, but it was mentioned in a video program on the Russian Space Program that aired in 1999.

I don’t know anything about the veracity of the claim.

What it is interesting is the fate some cosmonauts IN TRAINING had. In that case there is evidence that a lot has not been revealed.

The soviets seemed to have reached the position that if you did not reach orbit your death or failure would be ignored. But after that, no mishap was hidden. With America’s eyes on any soviet launch to orbit, it was not possible to hide failure. Indeed, several cosmonauts, after a successful Gagaring, did die and the news hit the world then.
Now it looks like even the American media only think it is worthy to bring back the memories of the other cosmonauts in training only in the guise of lurid conspiracy. I think it is sad that this the way we are remembering all those forgotten pioneers of space.

The feedback on another web site that posts essays on heroes has nice pro and con views of the controversy:
The Jim Oberg’s link in that site does not work, use this one instead:
This last link has the best explanations and summary of many other rumored cosmonaut mishaps.

Unfortunately one of the producers of the documentary resorts to name calling to defend the program and it sounded to me like one of those “I believe any conspiracy” guys.
And looking for reports on the documentary I found that, in the end, Ilyushin refused to be interviewed.

So I say that Ilyushin has been unfairly forgotten, but not because he was the first man in orbit, I think this honor still belongs to Gagarin.

For related info, you can also try the Lost Cosmonauts Website. The site is a mixture of hard information and speculation, and I don’t know what amount of it is real. Some portions of it are pretty convincing, while others… Be warned that some parts of it are just plain creepy - real or not - such as the “transcript” of the (alleged) first woman in space dying on re-entry.

At the risk of veering too close to GD territory…

Remember that the Space Race and the Cold War were tightly meshed. Both sides had a vested interest in downplaying the other guy’s space program, in order to increase the apparent success of their own. Claiming that the Russkies lost a metric buttload of cosmonauts but covered it all up because they were sneaky commie bastards… well, it has a long history, and as with so many things during the Cold War, truth was less important than the perception of truth. The Soviets told tales about the capitalist running dog American space program, too.

This sort of thing hasn’t stopped. Therefore, be very skeptical of any claims of “conspiracy” and “cover-ups” that don’t have the evidence to back them up. Remember that the Soviets publicly buried several cosmonauts who died in the line of duty, in state funerals with great ceremony. They were lauded as heroes, and the faithful lapped it up and continued to support the space program.

Last time this came up, I think the conclusion fell pretty convincingly on the “bullshit” side of the fence.

However, something strange indeed was going on prior to Gagarin’s launch. I’m now more inclined to believe that it was normal people acting excitably in the face of one of the greatest events in human history.

Science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein got the definite impression that there was a failed mission before Gagarin. He was in Moscow at the time, and the word around town (from a group of soldiers on leave) was that the USSR had that very day launched a man into space. The Pravda headlines the next day told of the failure of an unmanned rocket, with a mannequin on board.

Of course, this is not definitive: The soldiers could have been mistaken, or deliberately misleading. It’s still enough to make one at least suspicious, though.

There’s a two page article on this subject by James Oberg available here:


FWIW I think all of these stories are questionable at best. Don’t know about the Ilyushin one but it may not be covered in the article.

I just read through the article at the link I posted above, and it does mention Ilyushin. This is what Oberg wrote back in 1975:

Hope this helps.