On April 12th, 1961, the Soviet Union reported the successful launch and
orbit of the first man into space, Major Yuri Gagarin. People around the
world went wild over Gagarin's accomplishment and the Soviet Union's
Yuri Gagarin immediately went on tours and parades around the world. He
went on to become one of the world's greatest heroes, with Air Force
academies, museums, statues and streets named after him, along with other accolades.
But Sergei Vladimir Ilyushin, Jr., a Soviet pilot, was one of the few
people who knew for certain that Yuri Gagarin was not the first man in
space. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite, into
orbit, both the U.S.S.R. and U.S. saw space as a way to compete. Due to
poor relations between the superpowers, the Soviet government was
reluctant to publicize stories about failed space travel experiments, and
so it gave as little attention as possible to the story of Sergei Vladimir
Ilyushin, Jr., who made it into space five days before Gagarin.
One of the most popular and experienced test pilots with dozens of speed
and altitude records to his credit, Sergei Ilyushin was the Russian
equivalent of America's Chuck Yeager (the U.S. Air Force pilot who first
broke the sound barrier). He was a born risk-taker and the best hot-shot
pilot around. His father was a designer and builder of WWII fighter and
bomber planes, a deputy leader within the government, and also great
friends with Kruschev, who was then the country's leader. Ilyushin, Jr.
was a natural choice for the space program.
At first, young Ilyushin snubbed the idea of flying in space; since the
flight would be
completely controlled from the ground, he saw no challenge in it and
considered it fit for "dogs and lab rats." But he changed his mind and
soon was placed in a special space training course.
On April 7th, 1961, five days before Gagarin's successful flight, Ilyushin
was launched into orbit. There had been no publicity about the
launch. After three orbits, Ilyushin lost contact with the mission control
engineers on the ground. During reentry, when he was supposed to
eject from the capsule and parachute to safety, Ilyushin was unable to
eject (he had lost consciousness at some point during the flight) and made
a "hard landing" in the capsule. Ilyushin survived, but was injured.
Although the U.S.S.R. did not publicize the flight, Western reporters
caught wind of the flight and the condition of Ilyushin, and reported the
event all around the world. But, since the flight had been so unsuccessful,
the Soviet leaders did not see Ilyushin as a good way to promote their space
program. They refused to respond to Western stories about Ilyushin's
flight. They even claimed that the pilot was in the hospital in Moscow as
the result of a car accident and not a failed flight. Later, they
shipped Ilyushin off to China where he stayed in a rehabilitation hospital
for over a year.
Five days after Ilyushin's flight, Gagarin was launched into orbit, and only after
his safe return, did the Soviets release film footage of the event. While
Sergei Ilyushin was in the hospital, the government was sending Gagarin
out into the world as the first man in space. Only recently have the top secret state archives in the Kremlin been opened up to the world,
revealing Ilyushin's space mission.
In 1999, Ilyushin was living in a modest apartment in
Moscow with his wife of over 45 years, still active as a test pilot,
aircraft designer and spokesperson for a major military aircraft
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Sergei Vladimir IIyushin is a hero to Paul Tsarinsky. He believes that
Sergei Vladimir IIyushin was the first man in space, but there are others
who do not agree with his opinion.
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