|Notoriously savage alcoholic Yuri Gagarin, Cosmonaut|
Given the penchant for the late Soviet Union to hide its errors (just like the 2nd Assyrian Empire), it's not inconceivable that Gagarin wasn't the first but rather the 2nd or 3rd attempted cosmonaut to travel into space, albeit the first successful one, which nobody argues.
From this page:
Though officially the first human being in outer space and the first to orbit the earth - several weeks prior to American astronaut Alan Shepard's Project Mercury flight - cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was living a Soviet-engineered fabrication, according to the documentary. The filmmakers contend that five days before Gagarin's April 12, 1961 flight, another cosmonaut, Vladimir Ilyushin, was launched into space but after three orbits the mission went awry and Ilyushin was severely injured in a crash landing in mainland China where he was held, possibly as a prisoner, for many months, though the Soviets claimed he was there for treatments related to an auto accident.
The evidence presented in the film is pretty compelling, noting Ilyushin's status as an experienced, record-setting and much-decorated test pilot (and son of renowned airplane designer Sergey Ilyushin) compared to handsome but inexperienced Gagarin, who was never a test pilot and had only 75 or so hours flying time in the Soviet Air Force. The film also cites official Soviet reports on Ilyushin's whereabouts, which change from day-to-day, and the suspicions of foreign correspondents such as the London-based Daily Worker's Moscow correspondent David Ogden, who was interviewed for this documentary shortly before his death.
My own feelings would be that this is crackpot conspiracy bunk, except that I recently befriended a fellow Mechanical Engineer, 70, who was a professor of Aeronautical Engineering in Smolensk, and immigrated to America as soon as Yeltsin came to power. He's definitely one of the most intelligent people I've ever met, and he insists Gagarin was the 3rd launched attempt by the Soviets to orbit and safely return a cosmonaut to Earth, and that the first 2 failed. I intend to press him for details.
Stay tuned ...
Reposted from June 29, 2010, but with edits