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  • Writer's pictureAeryn Avilla

Phantom Cosmonauts: The Lost Soviet Spacemen

Updated: Apr 18

Author's note: The original 2020 post was heavily edited in 2023.


Since the dawn of crewed spaceflight, there have been reports of people being sent into space and never returning. These individuals are known as "phantom cosmonauts", and the theory argues that the Soviet Union sent cosmonauts into space that were killed in the line of duty, thus being erased from history. We'll explore the shreds of truth in these tales and why such fabrications might exist in the first place, so let me introduce you to Yuri Gagarin's ghostly predecessors.


The Huntsville Times headline of the true first man in space (Smithsonian)



The first R-5 rocket launch
The first R-5 launch (RussianSpaceWeb.com)

The first of these stories takes place on November 1, 1957, one month after Sputnik became the first artificial satellite. The Soviet Union is said to have launched a cosmonaut by the name of Alexei Ledovskiy onboard an R-5 rocket, who later perished during his suborbital flight. The same happened to Serenti Shiborin on February 1, 1958, and Andrei Miktov on January 1, 1959. A woman named Mirya Gromova piloted a space plane into oblivion on June 1. These allegations were the first in history. According to legend, stories of these unofficial space shots were leaked by an unnamed high-ranking Czech communist in 1959. Renowned German physicist Hermann Oberth also claimed a pilot had been killed on a suborbital flight from the Kapustin Yar launch complex in Astrakhan Oblast in 1958. News spread when the Italian news agency Continentale reported the Czech claims.


By the time word reached the United States, it was discovered the launch of Ledovskiy turned out to be a radio broadcast stunt, much like Orson Welles's War of the Worlds from 1938. In reality, the R-5 did not launch until 1958, and carried the dogs Belyanka and Pestraya in August. There was a launch of an R-7 rocket on November 3, 1957 (only two days after the Ledovskiy tale) that did in fact carry a biological payload— a little stray dog named Laika.


Space dogs Belyanka and Pestraya (flickr)


A cosmonaut named Zavadoski is said to have died on the flight of Korabl-Sputnik 1 on May 15, 1960, when his capsule failed to separate from the booster and was trapped in orbit. Rather than perform a retrofire, the guidance system oriented the spacecraft incorrectly and it was instead inserted into a higher orbit. The story materialized from a Moscow newspaper that showed a picture of someone named Zavadoski testing high-altitude flight equipment. The Associated Press concluded that he was a cosmonaut in training and his name eventually appeared on a list of deceased cosmonauts. Korabl-Sputnik 1 did launch on May 15, 1960 and the spacecraft did fail to separate from the booster, but there was no person onboard.


One of Zavadoski's associates, Colonel Pyotr Dolgov, was killed in 1962 during a high-altitude parachute jump from a Volga balloon gondola when his experimental pressure suit depressurized during descent. Over the years, though, rumors sprouted that he actually died on October 11, 1960, during a failed Vostok mission. While the Korabl-Sputnik-1 was the first flight of the Vostok spacecraft, the mission designation "Vostok" was not used until Yuri Gagarin's flight in 1961.


Colonel Pyotr Dolgov (xwhos.com)


Russian space historian Yaroslav Golovanov, who researched these allegations in the 1980s, suggested that somewhere along the line, photos and testimonies detailing equipment testing and high-altitude experiments were twisted and exaggerated into a story about spaceflight. He interviewed Alexei Belokonov, a retired high-altitude parachutist, who told him about Zavadoski, Dolgov, and other men who appeared on the deceased cosmonaut list— Grachov, Kachur, Mikhailov, and Vladimir Ilyushin. These men existed and were indeed pilots and parachutists, but they never flew in space. In 1963, the New York American Journal published an article on these lost cosmonauts. Soviet newspapers Izvestia and Krasnaya Zvezda published refutations accompanied with pictures of some of these men, who were very much alive.


General Vladimir Ilyushin with an unnamed intercontinental nuclear bomber prototype in 1990
General Ilyushin with an unnamed intercontinental nuclear bomber prototype in 1990 (Collector's Weekly)

Vladimir Ilyushin, a test pilot in the Soviet Air Forces, is believed by some to have been the true first man in space, partaking in an orbital flight on April 7, 1961. Unable to exit his capsule Rossiya (Russian for "Russia"), he crash-landed in China and was detained before returning to his home country, badly injured, just in time for announcement of Gagarin's successful flight [1]. On April 10, Dennis Ogden published a story in the western communist newspaper the Daily Worker about an unannounced manned launch that had taken place a few days prior by a test pilot and son of an aircraft designer [2]. French correspondent Eduard Brobovsky elaborated upon the story, claiming the brave cosmonaut was Ilyushin and that he had slipped into a coma following his March launch. Later that year, the US News & World Report claimed Gagarin never flew in space himself and was merely a stand-in for the badly injured Ilyushin. In reality, he was badly injured in April 1961, but from a car crash. Despite this story having two accompanying movies and a number of believers, very few details surrounding the mission have ever been made public. Ilyushin, who lived until 2010, never corroborated these stories, nor was any spacecraft in history named Rossiya. The name itself is an inconsistency because all six Vostok spacecraft were named after birds, such as Lastochka ("Swallow" for Vostok 1), Berkut ("Gold Eagle" for Vostok 4), and Chayka ("Seagull" for Vostok 6).


The most infamous players in the phantom cosmonaut conspiracy were not those who were said to have died in space or beat Yuri Gagarin to orbit, but rather two amateur radio operators, Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia. They constructed a makeshift listening station in an old German bunker named Torre-Bert in Turin, Italy, which is why their allegations are typically referred to as the "Torre-Bert recordings". While they did pick up transmissions from satellites, they claimed to have heard messages of cosmonauts predating Gagarin, including one from May of 1960 (could this have been Zavadovski?) The most famed of their nine recordings was from November of 1960, in which the message "SOS TO THE WHOLE WORLD" was transmitted in Morse Code. Another recording was of a female cosmonaut describing flames engulfing her capsule during reentry. The Torre-Bert recordings are highly criticized and have tarnished the credibility of the brothers' legitimate recordings of uncrewed spacecraft. For example, those speaking in the these recordings made grammatical errors, ones that native Russian speakers would not make, and did not follow standard aviation communication protocols. No proof substantiating the Judica-Cordiglia brothers' allegations of phantom cosmonauts has ever been uncovered, for "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" [3].


The Judica-Cordiglia Brothers in Torre-Bert (Public Domain)


And, of course, there are allegations of manned Soviet lunar flights. Some sources claim the second launch of the N1 rocket on July 3, 1969, was to send a crewed Soyuz 7K-L3 spacecraft to the moon ahead of NASA's Apollo 11, scheduled to launch on July 16. However, since the rocket exploded during launch, the cosmonauts were killed. This was not possible, since the L3 was not qualified for crewed missions and this N1 launch was a test flight of the rocket's boosters. Even if there was a crew onboard, the launch escape system would have pulled the spacecraft away to safety. In fact, that is exactly what happened with this particular launch; as soon as the rocket cleared the launch tower, every engine except one shut down and the rocket crashed into the pad. At the moment of shutdown, the escape system fired and carried the spacecraft away from danger. The Soviet crewed lunar program was probably the most secretive aspect of the entire Soviet space complex, so it is understandable Western media might fabricate these kind of stories to fill in knowledge gaps.


 

For a few decades, though, there really were "lost" cosmonauts. A Bolshevik practice since the Soviet Union's founding was erasing individuals who had fallen out of favor from history and photographs. While the American space program was very transparent, the Soviet space program was notorious for its secrecy. The identities of cosmonauts were kept secret until they were successfully in orbit, so those who were removed from the cosmonaut corps for one reason or another were airbrushed out of group photos and expunged from historical records.


Cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko
Valentin Bondarenko (Museum Catalog of the Russian Federation)

Valentin Bondarenko, the youngest member of the first cosmonaut class at only 24, was killed during a pressure chamber training exercise on March 23, 1961. As the story goes, he was living in the chamber for ten days as part of an isolation exercise. He used cotton wool soaked in alcohol to remove adhesive left on his skin from medical electrodes, and accidentally tossed the wool onto the ring of an electric hot plate. The pure oxygen environment ignited immediately. The doctor on duty could not open the chamber's hatch because internal pressure kept it tightly sealed. He was recovered alive after multiple minutes of burning, but died eight hours later. Many believe if the Soviet Union had released this information to the US, which was using pure oxygen in its spacecraft as well, the Apollo 1 tragedy may not have occurred [4].


A much different story is that of Grigory Nelyubov. He was one of the Sochi Six, the top performers of the twenty-member first cosmonaut class. While on leave in March of 1963, he and two other cosmonaut trainees, Ivan Anikeyev and Valentin Filatyev, were arrested by military police at Chkalovskaya station for drunk and disorderly conduct. Once it as established the trio were cosmonauts, the police were willing to let them go about their business, but one wanted the cosmonauts to apologize for their behavior. Anikeyev and Filatyev agreed, but Nelyubov refused. When word of this incident reached Nikolai Kamanin, the head of cosmonaut training, he grounded the three trainees for the next few weeks. They were dismissed on April 17 and sent to fly jets in Siberia. Nelyubov proclaimed his status as a former cosmonaut to the pilots he worked with, but due to the Soviet space program's secrecy, no one believed him. Disgraced, he became an alcoholic and slipped into depression, and in the wee small hours of the morning of February 18, 1966, he walked in front of a train near the Ippolitovka Station and was killed.


The Sochi Six (seated left to right) Andrian Nikolayev, Yuri Gagarin, Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, Cosmonaut Training Center Director Yevgeni Karpov, and parachute instructor Nikolai Nikitin; (standing left to right) Pavel Popovich, Grigory Nelyubov, Gherman Titov, and Valery Bykovsky. Notice Nelyubov is replaced by a bush in the photo on the right (credit: I. Snegirev)


Four more members of the first class of cosmonauts also left the corps before flying in space:

  • Valentin Varlamov retired for medical reasons on March 6 1961

  • Anatoly Kartashov retired for medical reasons on April 7, 1961 (interesting coincidence this is the day believers claim Ilyushin flew in space)

  • Mars Rafikov was discharged due to disciplinary reasons on March 24, 1962. This reason is very vague, but he was originally from the Kirghiz SSR (now Kyrgyzstan), so if he had flown in space, he would have been the fist non-Slavic cosmonaut [5]

  • Dmitry Zaikin retired for medical reasons on October 25, 1969


These stories spawn from the belief that Yuri Gagarin was the first person to successfully fly in space and return to Earth. The Soviet Union, to maintain global prestige, did not announce the success of its crewed missions until the cosmonauts entered orbit. With this in mind, it is not unreasonable to consider the possibility of other failed missions the USSR chose to not release information about. However, an abundance of information about formerly secret Soviet space projects and events was brought to light in post-Glasnost Russia. Memoirs of Soviet space leaders, engineers, and cosmonauts, as well as thousands of photographs and videos have been made publicly available over the past few decades. We know the cosmonaut selection and training processes. We know which rockets were launched from which launch complexes and when [6]. We know about Bondarenko's death, Nelyubov's dismissal, the N1 failures, and the Nedelin disaster, which begs the question: Why would phantom cosmonauts still be kept secret? Furthermore, American tracking stations abroad recorded telemetry from Soviet launches since the beginning, and countless ham radio operators around the globe listened to Sputnik's beeps. If the US received any concrete evidence of a failed manned Soviet mission, it without a doubt would have been exploited.


In the late 1950s and 60s, a mix of Cold War paranoia amplified by the Sputnik crisis, limited information about Soviet space missions, excitement about man's conquest of space, and fear of the unknown caused these rumors to take root [a]. While it may be fun to believe there are mysterious, faceless cosmonauts who have been lost to history, the same way it may be fun to believe in the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, there is simply no evidence they existed. Six decades later, the names of cosmonauts who died during training or left the corps before flying in space are known, but none match those of the original phantoms.


1962 propaganda poster featuring Gagarin, Titov, Nikolayev, and Popovich (russiatrek.org)



Author's note: Just for the record, I don't believe in phantom cosmonauts but have always found the idea super interesting. As always, thanks for reading and be sure to like and share!



[1] I suppose he would have survived the crash into Earth, since the dogs who flew on later Korabl-Sputnik missions were recovered alive and healthy.

[2] His father Sergei was the founder of the Ilyushin Design Bureau, a Soviet/Russian aircraft manufacturer.

[3] This phrase is known as the Sagan standard and was made popular by astronomer Carl Sagan in 1979.

[4] Though the deaths of the three astronauts would have been avoided, I've personally heard some Apollo astronauts over the past few years at panels and events attribute the success of the Apollo program to the lessons learned after the Apollo 1 fire.

[5] The first non-Slavic and non-American person in space was Sigmund Jähn from the German Democratic Republic onboard Soyuz 31 in 1978.

[6] A phantom rocket, like a phantom cosmonaut, is an alleged launch with no accompanying record of ever taking place.



 

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