Space Jam: The forgotten cosmonauts, part 2

Rahul Rao

Last week in this space I talked about the Soviet Union’s Interkosmos scheme, a groundbreaking bit exploration that deserves to be far better remembered. Today, I’ll be returning to another misunderstood facet, if it can even be called that, of the Soviet space program: something that, in contrast to Interkosmos, doesn’t deserve to be remembered, full stop.

To start, most of us have accepted as common knowledge that Yuri Gagarin, on the twelfth of April, 1961, became the first human being in space. But what if he wasn’t?

This is the crux of the so-called “Lost Cosmonaut” theories: that at least one cosmonaut–often said to have been before Gagarin–was launched into space by the Soviets, only for their flight to have been covered up and erased from history. Most of the accounts state that the cosmonaut(s) in question died, and that the cover-up was conducted by a Soviet government to cleanse its space programme of any potential bad publicity.

As far as spaceflight-related conspiracy theories go, Lost Cosmonauts seem to be among the earliest. Rumours of failed Soviet manned launches started swirling out from the Eastern Bloc as early as 1959, well before Gagarin’s flight. Robert Heinlein, while visiting the Soviet Union in May 1960, was told conflicting stories of what might have been a crewed spaceflight, a year before Gagarin. American military personnel were openly talking about the possibility of unannounced Soviet flights by 1962.

Perhaps the most recurring supposed evidence comes from two Italian brothers, Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia. The pair were amateur radio enthusiasts, when, like so many other astonished observers across the world, they picked up the beeping tones of Sputnik. So they set up a listening post in a disused bunker outside Turin, trying to search the skies for more satellites. One day in 1960, their static was breached by what seemed like a fading SOS: perhaps, a manned spaceflight.

The press certainly caught onto it; the brothers received a great deal of notoriety, even winning a trip to America to visit NASA. Fuelled by publicity, the brothers, if their stories are to be believed, kept listening, and kept on picking up strange transmissions. Between 1960 and 1964, the brothers released a total of nine recordings from what seemed to be Soviet space failures. Some really are quite horrific: desperate distress signals; a transmitted heartbeat; a woman screaming “I am hot” as she supposedly burns up in the upper atmosphere.

From there, Lost Cosmonaut stories spiral deeper into the realm of the fanciful and eye-catching: parachutists dying in high-altitude jumps; accounts of cosmonauts whose flights were covered up because their spacecraft touched down in China; claims of haphazard Soviet Moonshots in 1968 or 1969 in desperate attempts to reach there before the Americans.

Much of the body of evidence crumbles rather quickly upon any sort of closer examination. The Judica-Cordiglia recordings, for one, have been quite thoroughly refuted–here, for instance, is one detailed rebuttal. To make a long story short, the transmissions’ depiction of spaceflight is dubious at best. Many of the recordings purport to depict spacecraft “losing control” and “veering off into deep space,” something that, considering how orbits work, makes little physical sense. Furthermore, the Russian recording that appears is simple, often grammatically incorrect and inconsistent with known Soviet space programme protocol.

Much of the rest can be easily accounted for by simple misinformation. For instance, Heinlein’s account was almost certainly referring to Korabl-Sputnik 1, an unmanned test flight launched on 15 May 1960 that mistakenly entered a wrong orbit thanks to a guidance systems malfunction; the Red Army soldiers who told Heinlein were probably relying on distorted hearsay. (I can’t say I like Heinlein very much, but considering the rest of the essay is about the Soviet press’s manipulation of truth, it’s oddly fitting.)

The most well-known spaceflight-related conspiracy theories–Flat Earth, faked Moon landings, Time Cube–have been thoroughly debunked to the point of beating some very dead horses. Yet, somehow, the Lost Cosmonauts live on stronger than ever as an urban legend. Purported evidence of Lost Cosmonauts frequently turns up, alongside creepypastas and serial killers, on the clickbait “Top X Unsolved Mysteries” lists that make the rounds on YouTube. Why?

The simple explanation is that any of the accounts date back to the 1950s and 1960s, when the Cold War was near its peak, and when information flow across the Iron Curtain was uneven at best. To Westerners, the shadowy Eastern Bloc had a mythos surrounding it: an aura of the brooding and the unknown, an aura that spawned no shortage of rumours. It is very true that the Soviet space programme was shadowy and concealed, the perfect foil to the relatively public and media-friendly NASA. It doesn’t help that Yuri Gagarin himself died under mysterious circumstances in a 1968 plane crash, something that fuelled its own clot of conspiracy theories. It doesn’t

Yet the Lost Cosmonaut speculation does not match reality. Ever since the public opening of Soviet state information in the late 1980s, with all the secrets that were uncovered, absolutely no information on any Lost Cosmonauts or any such cover-ups has emerged. Perhaps the most damning stake in the heart of any Lost Cosmonaut theory is that known cosmonaut deaths were not covered. Far from it: Vladimir Komarov of Soyuz 1 (1967) and Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev of Soyuz 11 (1971) all had quite public funerals. (Even American astronauts were invited to Soyuz 11’s.) With that in mind, I think it can, fortunately, be said with near-certainty that no hypothetical cosmonauts’ deaths were concealed.

But that will not stop the speculation. The median American is now thirty-eight and was a pre-teen when the Cold War ended. Memories of that past time have begun to blur into nostalgia-infused legends. At least in the West, the Soviet Union has once again developed something of a mythos; recent international tensions featuring Putin’s Russia have only contributed to it. On the one hand, combine this mythos with the modern West’s–and certainly modern America’s–deep social problems, and perhaps you begin to understand why so many American teenagers are willing to become card-carrying Leninists.

On the other hand, this mythos means that unwarranted stories and urban legends continue to circulate. Those stories may be compelling, but in the case of the Lost Cosmonauts, they make for a warped and misleading image of spaceflight. This false story is one best forgotten.