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Sharp plane manoeuvre ’caused Gagarin death’ : official

The tragic death of Yuri Gagarin on a training flight in 1968 was likely caused by his jet making a sharp manoeuvre to avoid a balloon probe, an official said Friday, citing newly de-classified documents.

Top Kremlin archives official Alexander Stepanov told a news conference that a Soviet-era commission — whose conclusions had until now been classified — has concluded that this was the most likely cause of his death.

“The conclusions of the commission are that the most likely cause of the catastrophe was a sharp manoeuvre to avoid a balloon probe,” he said. Balloon probes are often used for weather-forecasting purposes.

But he indicated that the conclusions of the commission, whose documents were de-classified to mark the half century of Gagarin’s voyage into space in April 1961, had not been certain.

“A less probable cause was avoiding entry into the upper limit of the first layer of cloud cover,” he added.

Over the years the death of the first man in space has been explained variously by the result of a rapid change in height to avoid an object, interference from another craft, or oxygen deprivation in the cabin.

There has been speculation of sabotage by conspiracy theorists although this has never been backed up by evidence.