Did Soviet cosmonauts die in space in the early 1960s?
Any space buff worth his or her salt is keenly aware of the tragic fate of Vladimir Komarov, who died on April 24, 1967, due to parachute failure after the reentry of Soyuz 1.
But the question really is: were there events like this (or ones even more dramatic) earlier in the Space Race that the Soviet Union chose to hide from us?
As a child I heard a number of stories of amateur radio operators intercepting signals of cosmonauts dying or otherwise meeting some dark fate in their efforts to conquer space. The most dramatic I can recall was of a cosmonaut stranded in orbit, his heartbeat failing as he dies, the cabin depressurizing, and his lifeless body taken from the cabin by unknown means.
(Of course, how an amateur radio operator would be able to tell that last part is way beyond me.)
I’m sure these kind of stories helped prime my young mind to be distrustful of the official accounts of Soviet space activities, and lead to my imagination being seized in 1969 by the speculation that Luna 15 (an ostensibly unmanned probe sent to the Moon during the same time as America’s Apollo 11) was secretly a manned space shot. This in turn lead to a short story I wrote that, many years later, became the basis of the novel Red Moon.
Other than these rumors being good creepy stories to tell the kids just before bedtime (to make sure they never sleep again) is there anything to them?
After some research, the story I related above may have in fact been transmogrified from several stories that circulated during the early 1960s.
One story that may have fed this was an item brought to my attention by a fellow member of an online forum. I tracked it back to the UFO Evidence website, which relates a story (without, unfortunately, any references or citations whatsoever) where a pair of cosmonauts (which would place this in the Voskhod period, October, 1964 to March, 1965) reported to mission control: “It’s closing on us ….. it is truly massive…if we don’t get back the world will never know of this.” Supposedly contact was lost almost immediately afterwards, and the world never learned the destiny of these intrepid explorers.
This story, in turn, may have been a variation of a story I found referenced at Wikipedia, which goes so far as to cite specific names of alleged lost cosmonauts:
Alexis Belokoniov is reportedly one of three (two men and a woman) cosmonauts aboard a November flight. [Amateur radio enthusiasts] in Italy allegedly picked up a frantic set of messages relayed by the three occupants. ‘Conditions growing worse why don’t you answer? … we are going slower… the world will never know about us . . ‘
In an article originally published in Space World Magazine by aerospace and Russian space program expert James Oberg, we see the source of this story may go back to none other than writer and broadcaster Frank Edwards, author of Flying Saucers, Serious Business:
The definitive article on the subject was published in FATE magazine under the byline of Frank Edwards. He catalogued a whole series of shots. Unfortunately his notes must have been highly illegible; he misspells practically every Russian name, quotes non-existent sources and articles, and thoroughly jumbles the cosmonaut names and launch dates of the alleged manned shots.
The planned sequence of Russian orbital flights had already been described in 1959 by Mr. Edwards. First, a single man would circle the earth. Then, a few weeks later, two men would fly around the moon, sending reports to earth by radio. It would probably be a suicide mission.
The May 17, 1961 event is described in particularly intriguing detail. With reports of signals from space and several Russian spacemen reporting to earth (from the “moon,” using the call sign “cave,” or “hole,” for the earth control center), Mr. Edwards decided to describe the event in just the way he had predicted it more than a year earlier. A man and a woman reported “Everything satisfactory, we are maintaining the prescribed altitude.” On May 24th, however, the voices reported that trouble had developed, and with ever increasing excitement described the sequence of events. Finally, the man sighed, “If we do not get out the world will never learn about it.” Presumably he meant that the flight would remain a secret. In Flying Saucers, Serious Business, Edwards decided that he really meant that the world would never learn about the flying saucer that was intercepting them. Edwards also decided that the flight had occurred in February, not May.
(I’m not sure, but I think I’m sensing just a hint of professional disdain towards Edwards here.)
I do have to note that Flying Saucers – Serious Business was published in 1966, a little later than when I believe I first heard this story.
There is quite a bit of online material about “lost” or “phantom” cosmonauts, though the majority of it debunks the subject. On the “believer” side of the aisle is Giovanni and Mario Abrate’s The Lost Cosmonauts website. The site is a disappointingly sparse overview of the probable source of most of these kind of stories, the Italian amateur radio enthusiast brothers Achille and Gian Battista Judica-Cordiglia, and the transmissions intercepted through their “Torre Bert” tracking station in the 1960s. (I may in fact have been exposed to this material earlier than Edwards’ book, through my father — he was a serious, life-long amateur radio enthusiast, and may have passed along stories he had heard to us through the airwave grapevine.)
James Oberg responds specifically to the claims of the Judica-Cordiglia brothers (and mentions a copyright violation of his own material on the part of the brothers …) in a portable document file posted on his website.
He also chimes in about some of the same stories mentioned on The Lost Cosmonauts website, and notes he was unable to find verification of any of them. On Oberg’s website is also an excerpt from his book Uncovering Soviet Disasters (Random house, New York, 1988) which shares some very absorbing commentary on the subject.
Looking over these stories there are a couple that jump out at me — even with my limited knowledge of astronautics — as not being even remotely plausible.
One: In an interview with Gian Battista Judica-Cordiglia posted on The Lost Cosmonauts website, Mr. Judica-Cordiglia makes reference to SOS signals they received on November 28, 1960 which they determined, due to the Doppler shift of the signals, to be from a vehicle which was on a trajectory taking it into deep space. The brothers theorized this mishap was caused by a misfire of the spacecraft’s retrorockets inadvertently pushing the vehicle farther into space rather than returning it to the Earth.
We now know that the amount of velocity change possible by the retrorockets of the one person Vostok spacecraft (from which was derived the Voskhod, the three person Soviet followup) was about of 500 feet per second, or about 340 miles per hour. The velocity of the orbiting craft would have been around 17,500 miles an hour, and the velocity required to escape the Earth’s influence from low Earth orbit would be about 25,000 miles in hour.
You don’t even need to do the math. There’s just no way.
Two: the second story, cited (and correctly dismissed) by Oberg, recounts:
On October 14, 1961, a multiman Soviet spacecraft was knocked off course by a solar flare and vanished into deep space.
Simply, this couldn’t happen either. Solar flares are masses of sub-nuclear particles and electrified gas blown and dispersed into the vacuum of space from the surface of the Sun. With 93 million miles to cross, these might pose a problem to cell phones, satellites, and power grids, and to anything in low earth orbit the potential hazard would be to the electronics of the craft and the health of any occupants — but not even remotely to the vehicle’s path.
No eddy currents, no gusts, no getting “blown off course.”
If there is any reality to any of these stories, I personally do not have the resources to dig up what must be long-buried relics of another era. Clearly the internet is not the be-all and end-all of definitive information on any subject, but through it I found no evidence to support the stories that the Soviets lost cosmonauts in space in the early 1960s.
Due in part to the paucity of verifiable information revealed about the USSR’s space program because of their tight, iron-fisted policy of secrecy, and due in part to the desire by the western world to read between these widely separated lines, the wild claims of the Judica-Cordiglia brothers were taken at face value by the American media during the first few years of the Cold War in space. Clearly, most of these claims do not hold up under even modestly educated scrutiny, and further exposes them for what they were — the work of (frankly) opportunists.
There are still outstanding questions about the last few months of the Soviet side of the Moon Race, but as for this earlier period, these intriguing and faintly horrible stories of cosmonauts lost in space are almost certainly just that.
Stories that kept this kid awake later than he should have been, entranced by the mystery.
Still to this day there are times I pause to wonder.
© 2007, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.
- Reposted from Daniel Brenton’s Weblog, The Odd Little Universe of Daniel Brenton
This article was featured in Episode 65 of Mind Shots, the subscription podcast from Mysterious Universe.