Lost cosmonauts: Did the Soviet Union cover up the deaths of secret spacemen?
By now, almost everybody knows about the conspiracy theories regarding the moon landing. Ever since that fateful day back in 1969, when Neil Armstrong took his first bouncing steps and planted an American flag in the cold, grey dust, thousands of people have speculated that the Apollo 13 mission was faked in some elaborate movie studio. It’s become something of a cliché in western culture for tinfoil hat-wearers to swear blind that NASA has lied to us for almost half a century. But what you might not know is that there’s another, even more pervasive and sinister, conspiracy theory regarding the space race - lost cosmonauts whose deaths were covered up by the Soviet Union.
Let’s put the theory into historical context, before we get to all the juicy X-Files stuff. Beginning with the Nazi development of the V2 rocket in WWII, as well as the Manhattan project, the Cold Wars in the 50’s and 60’s were characterised by a competitive struggle for technological dominance between the two superpowers that we now call “The Space Race.” The USA and the USSR both wanted to conquer space - to put men on the moon and in orbit around the Earth. Initially, the need for space exploration was simply an extrapolation of the nuclear programs; East and West built rockets and launched satellites in order to eventually improve the range, accuracy and power of their respective ballistic missiles. However, eventually, the issue had more to do with propaganda than anything else: who would manage to make the stars their own?
What we all forget is that, well before the Apollo 13 mission, the Soviets were way ahead of the United States. On October 4, 1957, a modified R-7 Semyorka/SS-6 "Sapwood" ICBM launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first man-made orbiting satellite, into space. They later followed this with Sputnik 2, which carried a dog called Laika that died in Orbit. By the time Sputnik 5 had managed to return a number of plants and animals back to Earth alive, the next logical step was to send a human being into space.
The trouble, of course, was that this venture was, by its very nature, suicidally dangerous. Not only this, but the high level of press and public scrutiny over the space race meant that any failure would mean a devastating blow for morale. The Soviet Union was only too happy to cover up the circumstances of Laika the dog’s tragic death. She died from overheating and stress, something that remained secret for nearly 40 years. Before then, the official word from Moscow was that she had been euthanized when scientists realised she couldn't be brought back safely. Did this mean however, that the USSR was prepared to keep the deaths of experimental cosmonauts clandestine?
On 12 April, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; orbiting the Earth in the Vostok capsule. The mission carried every chance of failure and Gagarin had trained intensely for it. But those who believe in the Lost Cosmonaut theory hold that other astronauts were sent into space before Gagarin, and either died during the flight, perished before the launch, or were unable to return to Earth.
There’s much evidence in favour of this idea: some plausible, some unfounded and some disproven. For starters, the death of Soviet fighter pilot Valentin Bondarenko, who was originally selected as a potential cosmonaut on the same mission Gagarin eventually flew, had long been covered up by the Kremlin. Bondarenko had died following a fire during a low-pressure endurance experiment when a cotton ball he had used to wash himself ignited on a hot plate and caught on fire. It took rescuers nearly half an hour to empty the pressurised chamber to save Bondarenko, who died of shock in hospital 16 hours after the accident. Because Bondarenko had appeared in numerous group photographs and videos during the flight experiments, various suggestions were put forward to explain his mysterious disappearance before the circumstances of his death were declassified.
Days before Gagarin’s mission was scheduled to conclude, numerous Soviet broadcasters were apparently contacted, with the news that the Vostok mission had been a success. Furthermore, many people have found it curious that Russia’s foremost test pilot Vladimir Ilyushin, who was more decorated and experienced than Gagarin, was not chosen to helm the first ever spaceflight. Instead, Russian authorities claimed that he was recuperating in a Chinese hospital after a plane crash - but this sounded suspicious. Could it be that Soviet authorities were more willing to risk a younger, less esteemed pilot if things went south?
The Soviet government also managed to successfully conceal all evidence of the Nedelin catastrophe until the year 1989. On 24 October, 1960, an accident on the launchpad of the Baikonur test range for a new form of ICBM prototype led to the deaths of approximately 78 technical personnel. Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev imposed complete secrecy, and a false story was put out that Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin, chief marshal of the base, had died in a plane crash. Although numerous Western news sources published details of the incident, the Kremlin did not acknowledge the truth until much later. If the government was capable of suppressing information about the deaths of more than 70 people, it’s not hard to assume that they could obfuscate the truth about dead astronauts.
But the most disturbing evidence in favour of the lost cosmonauts theory came in the form of a mysterious recording made by two Italian brothers. Giovanni and Achille Judica-Cordiglia were two amateur radio enthusiasts who claimed to have uncovered secret radio transmissions made in distress from Soviet astronauts. From their own experimental listen station, which they set up in the remains of a German bunker outside Turin, they allegedly managed to recover hundreds of transmissions from Russian probes and mission control.
The brothers also claimed to have heard an SOS message sent in Morse code. Giovanni and Achille deduced that the spacecraft was moving further away from Earth if the Doppler effect was taken into consideration regarding the transmission. "Two days later, once again, the Soviet Union announced that it has put a 7.5-ton spacecraft into orbit, and that it has disintegrated," Achille noted in an Italian documentary about his exploits. "Strange coincidence."
As well as hearing transmissions from Gagarin’s flight, the siblings also claim to have heard sounds of laboured breathing and a heavy human heartbeat in one recording, as well as the voice of a Russian woman stating "It is very hot. I see flame," in her native tongue. Their operations were shut down in 1965. Was this due to official censorship?
Perhaps not. Numerous experts have cast doubt over the validity of the recordings, stating that the transcripts are poorly translated, and do not follow standard communication protocols or use the correct terminology. Furthermore, rocket scientists have refuted the recordings by pointing out that the Vostok capsule was supposed to be a low-orbit spacecraft, so the possibility of it getting lost in deep space was extremely remote considering it never had enough thrust to leave the Earth’s orbit in the first place. The recordings certainly are creepy, but they aren’t conclusive proof. Despite this, in 2001, former Soviet engineer Mikhail Rudenko stated that the recordings were genuine, and claimed that the cosmonauts in the brothers’ recordings were named Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov, and died in 1957, 1958 and 1959 respectively.
Indeed, a number of other pieces of evidence have been uncovered as hoaxes and scams - attempts made to capitalise on something that may never be known. American journalist James Oberg extensively researched the case in his book Uncovering Soviet Disasters and found no evidence of any cosmonauts left unaccounted for. However, we have already seen that the Kremlin is remarkably adept at censorship.
We tend to think of space exploration as one of the great technological milestones of the human species, a game-changing triumph of ingenuity, endurance and curiosity which has led us beyond the frontiers of the Earthbound, and into the stars. And yet, despite all that, I just can’t shake off the suspicion that something is amiss, that we don’t know all the facts: the chilling image that somewhere out there, in the airless vacuum, a rudderless ship cast away from its moorings is drifting off into the void, bearing a body that will never decay.