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Sergei Krikalyov, who holds the world record for total time spent in space _ 803 days on six space missions _ said the main unknown before Gagarin’s flight was how a human body would respond to the conditions in outer space.

“The main tasks were to make sure that a cosmonaut could breathe and swallow in zero gravity,” Krikalyov, who now heads Russia’s Star City cosmonaut training center, told the AP. “It was not even certain that a man could eat and drink during weightlessness.”

Gagarin, who later crisscrossed the world as a living symbol of Soviet talent, craved more space trips. Cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov told the AP that Gagarin was dreaming about going to the moon and was among those selected to train for the mission in a race against the U.S. “He hoped to take part in that, he hoped to fly to the moon,” Shatalov during an interview at Star City, where Gagarin trained.

Gagarin was a backup for his friend Vladimir Komarov, who died when his space capsule crashed on re-entry in April 1967. Fearing any injuries to their space star, Soviet authorities decided to bar Gagarin from flying into space again.

Gagarin’s own death in a training jet crash on March 27, 1968, is shrouded in conspiracy theories to this day. Shatalov, who had planned to follow Gagarin on another training flight that day, told the AP that the most likely reason for Gagarin’s crash was a sonic wave from another military jet flying too close.