Written by Adam Christopher
It’s the ghost story of the space race–a haunting tale of death and loss, a mystery the truth of which will likely never be proved…or disproved. They are the lost cosmonauts, a group of men and women sent into space and lost to history. As the story goes, Yuri Gargarin was not the first man in orbit. He was the first man in space…who made it back alive.
The story began with the Judica-Cordiglia brothers, two Italian radio enthusiasts who set up an amateur listening post in a disused German bunker just outside of Turin in the late 1950s. Over the next several years, they picked up both Soviet and US transmissions, including communications relating to Sputnik and the first American satellite, Explorer 1.
The brothers picked up something else, too. A serious of strange communiqués between Russian ground control and space capsules which do not appear in any official timeline of space travel. The transmissions–the recordings of which still survive–are straight out of a horror movie. In one, the last dying breaths and heartbeats of a doomed cosmonaut can be heard as his capsule spirals out of control into deep space, while in another the familiar SOS signal can be heard apparently receding as the craft moved away from the Earth. In the most famous recording, a female cosmonaut dubbed “Ludmila” desperately reports to ground control as her capsule burns up on re-entry. The list goes on, a catalogue of phantom cosmonauts who never were, all meeting their ends far above the Earth.
But it’s just a conspiracy theory, isn’t it? An urban legend of space travel. The recordings are unclear, and Ludmila’s mostly unintelligible transmission sounds more Italian than Russian–one theory being that the brothers had tuned into a garbled frequency used by local air traffic control. There are other problems with the recordings, too: incorrect terminology and odd, grammatically incorrect Russian–unlikely to have come from educated and highly trained cosmonauts on an official mission.
And that’s where we could leave the tale…if it weren’t for the fact that the Soviets were secretive, and at the height of the Cold War, people really did disappear in the USSR. On Stalin’s orders, dissidents were erased, their records expunged–even photographs were doctored to delete former aides and advisors who had fallen out of favor. In one apt example, an official photograph from 1961 of eleven cosmonauts has been shown by researchers to have had at least five people airbrushed out of it.
Given the hotly contested space race with the USA, it’s easy to believe that the Russians would have been so keen to keep their failures a secret that all records of cosmonauts killed or lost on missions were destroyed. There is some evidence of this: the death of fighter pilot Valentin Bondarenko during his cosmonaut training, just three weeks before Gargarin’s flight in 1961, was not made public until 1980. Later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, much documentation relating to the Soviet space program was destroyed or lost.
So, did the lost cosmonauts really exist? Were people sent into space before Gargarin’s historic flight? Unless new documentation surfaces, it’s impossible to tell whether these phantoms are a sad legacy of a secretive program, or just a tall tale to be passed down the generations of space travel enthusiasts and science fiction fans.
But that doesn’t stop us looking at the night sky and wondering, what if there really were others left out there….
From the Tor/Forge March 17th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.
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