Phantom Cosmonauts: The Lost Soviet Spacemen
Updated: Jul 8
Since the dawn of manned spaceflight, there have been reports of people being sent into space and never returning. We'll explore the shreds of truth in these tales and why such fabrications would ever exist in the first place, so let me introduce you to Yuri Gagarin's ghostly predecessors.
The earliest of these legends begins where arguably the entire international exploration of space began, in Nazi Germany. In 1944, famous Nazi commando Otto Skorzeny began selecting and training pilots for the Third Reich's Astronautenkorps (which literally translates to "Astronaut Corps"). Six men were chosen of an unspecified starting group to fly in space. Their launch vehicle was the A9/A10 manned ICBM created by Wernher von Braun, the creator of the A4 rocket (known in the United States as the V-2) and later on, the mighty Saturn V moon rocket. The pilot chosen to hold the esteemed title "first man in space" was Rudolf Magnus Schroeder. He was to fly a suborbital mission to New York City and launched on January 24, 1945 in the presence of visionaries such as von Braun and his mentor Hermann Oberth. However, fire engulfed the vehicle ten seconds into the flight. To avoid a painful death, Schroeder ingested a cyanide capsule the doctors had given him before the flight.
V-2 rocket launch (Pubic Domain image)
In reality, there was a manned A9/A10 project that was scrapped so von Braun's team could focus on the V-2's. He actually launched two prototypes two years after the program was cancelled, one being on January 24, 1945. Furthermore, there was an effort to fly manned V-1 subsonic cruise missiles but the mission profile was nearly suicidal. It was decided that kamikaze missions were not part of German military tradition so the program was cancelled. This legend actually originated in the 1990s.
The next attempt at launching men into space would be fifteen years later by the USSR. On November 1, 1957, less than one month after the superpower launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, a cosmonaut by the name of Aleksei Ledovskiy launched atop an R-5A rocket. This rocket would later be used to launch the dogs Belyanka and Pestraya. However, he perished during his suborbital flight. On February 1, 1958, the same thing would happen to Serenti Shiborin 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, the names and stories of these unofficial space shots were leaked by a high-ranking Czech Communist in 1959. Hermann Oberth also claimed that a pilot had been killed on a sub-orbital flight from Kaputsin Yar in 1958. News spread when the Italian news agency Continentale reported the Czech's claims. When word reached the US, the launch of Ledovskiy turned out to be a radio broadcast stunt, much like Osron Welles' War of the Worlds from 1938.
Welles performing the infamous live broadcast (history.com)
Yet another cosmonaut named Gennady Zavadoski is said to have died on the flight of Korabl Sputnik 1 on May 15, 1960. His capsule failed to separate from the booster and was stuck in orbit. Rather than perform a retrofire, the guidance system had oriented the spacecraft incorrectly and it was instead put into a higher orbit. Korabl Sputnik 1 actually did launch in May 1960 and it actually did fail to separate from the booster. The story arose from the Moscow evening newspaper showing a picture of someone named Zavadovski testing high altitude equipment. The Associated Press concluded that he was a cosmonaut in training and his name eventually appeared on a list of deceased cosmonauts. One of Zavadovski's associates, Pyotr Dolgov, was killed in 1962 during a high-altitude parachute jump from a Volga balloon gondola. Ivan Kachur disappeared around this time as well. Both these names would make the list of dead cosmonauts. Russian journalist Yaroslav Golovanov suggested that somewhere along the line, the testing was twisted and exaggerated into a story about spaceflight. He interviewed Alexei Belokonov, a retired high-altitude parachutist, who told him about Zavadoski, Dolgov, Kachur, and three others who appeared on the list, Mikhailov, Grachov, and Vladimir Ilyushin. After New York Journal American published an article on these lost cosmonauts in 1963, two Soviet newspapers included testimonies and photographs of the parachutists who had never been to space.
Ilyushin is actually rumored to have been the true first man in space, partaking in an orbital flight on April 7, 1961, that had crash landed in China. Two days before Gagarin's April 12 launch, the Daily Worker ran a story that the USSR's announcement that Ilyushin had been in a car crash was a cover story. A similar story was told in France with the launch occurring in March and the pilot slipping into a coma afterwards. Later that year, the U.S. News & World Report claimed Gagarin had never flown in space himself and was a stand-in for the badly injured Ilyushin (who was badly injured from a crash, just one on the ground). Though two entire movies have been made supporting this conspiracy, very few details surrounding the mission have ever been made public except that his spacecraft was called Rossiya. Vladimir Ilyushin was, in fact, a pilot who had no association with the Soviet space program.
The most famous people of the phantom cosmonaut conspiracy are not those who are said to have died but rather two amateur radio operators, the Judica-Cordiglia brothers. They built their 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 actually did pick up transmissions from satellites, they claim to have heard messages of cosmonauts flying in space before Yuri Gagarin. The most notable of these was in actually in Morse code: "SOS TO THE WHOLE WORLD". Another recording was of a female cosmonaut in 1961 describing the flames that engulfed her capsule. In reality, the first women cosmonauts were not selected until 1962. There's a lot more information about the Judica-Cordiglia recordings out there for those who are interested.
Achille and Giovanni Battista Judica-Cordiglia with their equipment (wikipedia)
And, of course, there are allegations of manned Soviet lunar flights. Some sources claim the second launch of the N1 rocket was to send a crewed Soyuz 7K-L3 spacecraft to the Moon. Since the rocket exploded, the cosmonauts were killed. This is not possible since the L3 was not ready for crewed missions and the second launch of the N1 was a test of the boosters. Even if there was a crew onboard, the launch escape system would have pulled the spacecraft away to safety. In fact, that's exactly what happened with this particular launch: As soon as the rocket cleared the tower, every engine except one shut down and the rocket crashed into the launch pad. At the moment of shutdown, the escape system fired and carried the spacecraft away from danger. There are also rumors that the Lunokhod rovers were actually crewed by cosmonauts taking part in suicide missions (see "Moonwalker. The Soviet Lunokhod Program") However, there is not enough room for a person in the rovers, and that's excluding life support.
These stories all spawn from the belief that Yuri Gagarin was the first person to successfully fly in space and return to Earth. The Soviet Union, to prevent embarrassment, did not announce the completion of missions until after they had already happened to hide any problems that may have occurred during the flight. Using that logic, it is not difficult to believe that there may be other missions that failed that the Soviet Union chose not to release information about. However, a great deal of information about "secret" Soviet programs, such as the cancellation of the N1 and the women cosmonauts, was brought to light in post-Glasnost Russia. Even the missions the Soviets did reveal were accompanied by sparse and sometimes misleading details. Furthermore, people in the West trying to make sense of it all frequently misinterpreted reports from Soviet news agencies. The conspiracy still holds up even with all the technology and access to information in this day and age partly due to doctored images, which I will explain in another post down the line.
There are more stories out there that have been confirmed hoaxes, some of which were art projects or satire. My favorite, though, is the urban legend of Profiri Yebenov. It claims the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the moon due to a malfunction in their lunar module's ascent engine. A naked cosmonaut who had been stranded on the moon helped the two Americans repair their spacecraft so they could return to Earth. The story seems kind of stupid to most people, at least until they learn that Yebenov means "f*cked" in Russian.
The real, legitimate first time man ever flies in space (airandspace.si.edu)
photo of ily: wikipedia