Geek Trivia: A leap of fakes

Why didn't Yuri Gagarin qualify for FAI space records?

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Editor's note: Your friendly neighborhood Trivia Geek is on vacation this week, so I've pulled this Classic Geek Trivia from our archives (which originally ran Nov. 5, 2003) and republished it, while preserving the original discussion posts. Only two weeks ago, China opened its Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center to foreign journalists, so this particular topic seemed irresistibly appropriate.

On Oct. 15, 2003, China became only the third country in history to send a human being into space, joining this elite and previously U.S.-Soviet-exclusive fraternity more than 40 years after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin inaugurated the era of human space flight on April 12, 1961. Lt. Colonel Yang Liwei spent 21 hours in orbit aboard his Shenzhou V spacecraft before he and his ship ended the journey in a safe, parachute-assisted landing on the plains of Inner Mongolia.

While China's first manned space flight is unquestionably a daring and valuable technical achievement for the Asian nation, both Liwei and the Shenzhou V owe a great deal to the Russian space program. Liwei underwent weightlessness training in Russia, benefiting directly from the vast experience of cosmonauts in preparation for becoming China's first so-called taikonaut (taken from taikong, the Chinese word for space, though official Chinese reports refer to Liwei as a yuhangyuan, Chinese for "space navigator").

Moreover, China modeled its Shenzhou (meaning "divine vessel") space capsule extensively on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which Russia has tested in service since 1968. And, perhaps fittingly, China conducted its first manned space mission under extreme secrecy, though nowhere near as secret as the come-from-nowhere announcements of the Sputnik launch and Gagarin's historic flight.

So it should come as little surprise that observers and experts alike cannot help but draw parallels between Liwei's mission and Gagarin's—on historic, political, and technical grounds. However, there's a subtle distinction few have made between Gagarin's 1961 orbital mission and Liwei's recent journey to space and back: Liwei is eligible for consideration in Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) aerospace world records, while Gagarin was not.


Why didn't cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first human being to orbit the earth in 1961, qualify for Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) aerospace world records, despite his obvious place in history?

Gagarin was ineligible because his flight did not meet the strict letter of the FAI's Sporting Code, which clearly states that a pilot and his or her craft must take off together and land together—a condition that Gagarin's space flight did not fulfill. While Gagarin was indisputably inside his Vostok 1 capsule when it left the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome outside Kazakhstan on April 12, 1961, he wasn't in the spacecraft when it landed outside Engels Smelovka, Saratov, Russia.

The Russian capsule could not slow its descent enough during reentry to provide a landing soft enough for its pilot to survive, so Gagarin exited his craft at an altitude of 20,000 feet and parachuted independently to Earth. While certainly a daring and technically challenging feat, it nonetheless disqualified Gagarin from the FAI record books because he bailed out of the craft before landing.

Thus, he did not "legally" complete a piloted flight under the guidelines of the FAI, the international aeronautics governing body. For years, the Soviet Union hid this information from the world at large, omitting the pilot-egress portion of the Vostok flight plan and contending that Gagarin returned to Earth in his craft, therefore qualifying for FAI records and avoiding any political naysaying or second-guessing by Western powers looking to discredit Gagarin's achievements.

A similar space flight soon validated the rationale behind this subterfuge. On May 5, 1961—less than a month after Gagarin's flight—U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard journeyed into and returned from outer space without leaving his Freedom 7 capsule (which could land safely in part because of its ability to splash down over the ocean). The Soviet Union's deception went undiscovered for decades, well after others had surpassed both Gagarin's and Shepard's FAI records.

In the meantime, the FAI established an achievement medal in Gagarin's honor in 1968—marking his place in history, regardless of any technicalities.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This quibble comes from TechRepublic member Psecyugu in response to the Sept. 1 edition of Geek Trivia, "Can't place that name." Psecyugu questioned my citation of the Greek mythological monster Typhon as the etymological root of the word typhoon.

"It seems to me that the Chinese origin of the word typhoon ("great wind") makes more sense—considering the fact that the word refers to tropical storms that usually land in China or Japan… For more explanation, see the American Heritage Dictionary at"

Before I could rush to my own linguistic defense, member Adamswt took the words right out of my mouth: "The Greek giant's name Typhon blended with the Arabic tufan in India to form the English touffon and the like. But when the English heard tai fung, Cantonese for 'great wind,' they modified it to typhoon. The poet Shelley seems to have been the first to use the modern spelling." Thus, while Typhon was in fact an etymological component of typhoon, it wasn't the whole story—something I could have made more clear. Thanks for the linguistic assist, gang.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.