Exactly 49 years ago on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to travel to outer space and orbit the globe.or was he? Speculation has risen in the past that Vladimir Ilyushin had been launched out of this world a few days before Gagarin, but after extensive research by WCU alum Joseph Felice, the mystery of the first spaceman has been unraveled. Joe Felice earned his Bachelor of Arts in World/Regional History in December 2008. Before graduating, Felice was honored with the West Chester University of Pennsylvania College of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Grant in November 2007, after submitting a proposal for a research trip to Washington, D.C. to study the historic Soviet space program. While in the nation’s capital during the summer of 2008, he researched at NASA Headquarters Library, NASA History Division, the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum and the Library of Congress.
While researching for a paper about his experience, Felice came across a 1996 article in Final Frontier magazine written by Soviet historian Gordon Feller. The article, “The Nightmare Mission,” disputed the idea that Lt. Yuri Gagarin was the first person in space. Instead, Feller claimed that Lt. Col. Vladimir Ilyushin orbited Earth five days prior to Gagarin.
Felice was captivated with the debate and delved deeper into the subject. He contacted Dr. Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who is now a professor at Rhode Island’s Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Dr. Khrushchev asserted that the Ilyushin story was completely mythical, but Felice was not convinced. He completed a 240-page manuscript about the Cold War era Soviet spaceflight happenings, stating that Ilyushin was the first in space. Upon graduation, he was encouraged by professors to pursue a graduate degree here at WCU and returned in January 2009 to enter the European History program.
Dr. Cecilia Chien commented, “Before I even had Joe as a student in my HIS 306 “Chinese Civilization” class several years ago, I noticed him in the class after mine because he frequently struck up a conversation or posed some content-related question of me. He later impressed me with his gung-ho attitude, always being proactive and was full of ideas. When I asked everyone on the first day of class what they hoped to do in this life, Joe described wanting to help get the US back on the moon by 2018.”
In April 2009, his research was presented at the WCU Holocaust and Genocide Studies Historical Conference. WCU’s Dr. Lisa Kirschenbaum attended the conference and encouraged Felice to investigate more before continuing his support of the Ilyushin theory. After watching pro-Ilyushin documentaries by Dr. Elliot Haimoff, the head of Global Science Productions, and contacting several of the interviewees in the films, Felice uncovered the truth. Many of the interviewees did not even know of the documentaries because Haimoff had misled them into thinking they would be featured in more reputable films.
After exposing Haimoff’s deception, Felice was invited by one of the documentaries’ interviewees to write an article for Quest magazine. His article, titled “Kosmic Konspiracy: How I Learned to Question the Evidence,” was printed in the December 2009 issue, and Felice sided with the idea that Gagarin was the first man in space due to Haimoff’s trickery of interviewees and false facts.
More recently, Joe Felice’s research was presented in Smolensk, Russia at the Y.A. Gagarin Museum on March 12, 2010 in honor of what would have been Gagarin’s 76th birthday on March 9. He was given a certificate of presentation signed by former cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first man to perform a space walk in March 1965.
Carol Fritz is a West Chester University student majoring in communication studies. She can be reached at CF716002@wcupa.edu.