Yuri Gagarin: Top 7 Things You Never Knew About the First Man in Space

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Yuri Gagarin. First man in space. For the rest of history his name will rank -- perhaps with Columbus, Magellan, Marco Polo and Neil Armstrong's -- among the world's greatest explorers. He was, after all, the first ever to leave the world behind.

On the morning of April 12, 1961, Gagarin, then 27, flew Vostok 1 on a single orbit of the Earth. It took him 108 minutes. He launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Soviet Union, reached a maximum speed of about 17,500 mph and an altitude of 203 miles, and was a hero by the time the sun rose over the eastern United States.

But flying as he did in the most chilling years of the Cold War, his trip was kept secret by the Soviet government until it was almost over. So myths and mystery abound about his flight, even today. Below, some surprising facts about Yuri Gagarin's flight, and a few falsehoods we hope to help debunk. Ten, nine, eight....

7. Gagarin Was Not the First

Even now, 50 years later, conspiracy theories abound: that the Soviets launched men as early as 1958 but could not get them back down, that a cosmonaut was killed in a launch attempt only five days before Gagarin's flight.

For lack of records from early Soviet space program, we may never know for sure, but Western students of space flight seem to agree that Gagarin was genuinely the first to fly in space.

So why did theories take root? Perhaps because everyone loves a good spy story, but also because the Soviets were so famously secretive (the name of Vostok's designer, Sergei Korolyev, was unknown in the United States until after his death).

"During the Cold War, everything that we knew about Gagarin was filtered through the official Soviet media or through rumor and hearsay in the West," wrote Asif A. Siddiqi, a Fordham University historian of the early space age, in an email from Moscow to ABC News. "Many people in the West didn't trust the former while there was never any reason to trust the latter."

6. Gagarin Was Almost Killed in Space

This is true, though it took the Russians 30 years to release the records showing what happened. Vostok 1 was a two-part spacecraft, with a spherical crew compartment for Gagarin, and an equipment module in back for rocket engines, fuel and support equipment.

Artist's conception of Vostok 1 in orbit. Gagarin flew in the spherical crew compartment at left.

As Gagarin neared the end of the flight, engines in the equipment module fired as scheduled to slow him out of orbit -- but the section failed to disconnect from the crew compartment for re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. There was nothing anyone could do. With the two sections still mated, the ship might tumble out of control on the way down and crash in pieces.

Fortunately for Gagarin, the cables holding the two sections together gave way as the ship was buffeted violently by the upper layers of the air. Vostok landed safely in central Russia. Gagarin ejected from his capsule a moment before and parachuted to the ground on his own.

5. The Soviets Were Afraid Gagarin Would Go Crazy in Space

Before Gagarin buckled in for his famous journey, even those closest to the mission worried about what would happen to a man in space. Would he lose consciousness? Would he go mad?

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