Cosmonaut cover-up or another looney theory?

History books cite Russian cosmonaut Maj. Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space. Gagarin's tiny Vostok space capsule circled the Earth multiple times on April 12, 1961, making the former Soviet Union the first nation to successfully-and safely-put a living human into low Earth orbit.

Upon his return to Earth, Gagarin, as the first man in space, was treated as a superman-a hero of the Soviet state, the world's leader in space science and technology at the time.

But did the history books get it wrong about Gagarin's primacy in space? The answer is "yes" if you believe a Russian conspiracy enthusiast and his freelance filmmaker friend.

"Sergei Vladimir Ilyushin, Jr., a decorated Soviet pilot, was one of the few people who knew for certain that Yuri Gagarin was not the first man in space," says Paul Tsarinsky, a former public television producer and Russian translator.

According to Tsarinsky, at the dawn of the Space Age in 1957, the Soviet government refused to publicize embarrassing stories about its failed space experiments-and its biggest failure was, he claims, a botched April 7, 1961, spaceflight. It was made by a cosmonaut named Sergei Vladimir Ilyushin, Jr.

Tsarinsky says there's historical evidence that hints at a major Soviet coverup in April 1961-that Ilyushin made it into space five days before Gagarin. There were several Western communist news accounts of the period that did refer to a spaceflight a few days before Gagarin's.

According to Tsarinsky, citing extant Western communist news accounts published post-April 7, 1961, an emergency hard landing was made by Ilyushin, inside Red China.

There's no question about it, Sergei Vladimir Ilyushin, Jr. had the Russian Right Stuff. He was the Soviet version of Chuck Yeager, the U.S. Air Force pilot who broke the sound barrier in 1947. But after Gagarin's historic spaceflight, the young hero Ilyushin vanishes from historical records; he only reemerges from the shadows after the fall of the USSR.

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