Search for the Missing Cosmonauts
(Photo credit: Wikimedia)
During the late 1950's and early 1960's, the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was hot. Both sides built and tested rockets as quickly as they could, trying to be the first to launch an artificial satellite into orbit, often with explosive results. Both sides had their successes, and both sides had their failures. People around the world watched and listened. Some, most notably amateur radio operators, listened more closely than others. And of these, a pair of young brothers from Italy, Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, reigned supreme. Their library of audio recordings of nearly every flight from the space race is by far the most comprehensive private collection known. But the real reason it's notable is that includes a number of recordings of alleged events that didn't make it into the history books: doomed Soviet cosmonauts captured in their final moments of life, on flights that the Soviets said never happened.
During the cold war, the Soviet Union was a knot of state secrets. More than anything else, the cold war was a war of propaganda, each side trying to show the world that they were the smartest, the fastest, the highest, and the best. In this context, it's not surprising at all that the true progress of their space program would be closely guarded and only the best news released to the world. With their state-controlled media, the Soviets had the ability to accomplish coverups of failures to a degree that would never have been possible in the United States.
Achille and Giovanni were creative and scientific geniuses in the truest sense, both in their twenties. When the Soviets announced the successful launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957 and published the radio frequency for everyone to hear, the brothers scavenged what radio equipment they could and tuned it in. Here is the actual recording they made of Sputnik I:
From that one recording, their self-taught education proceeded like a rocket. They learned how to detect the Doppler effect in signals from orbit, and how to calculate an object's speed and altitude from that. They filled logbooks with conversion tables and Soviet frequencies. And so, when the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 only a month after Sputnik 1, they were well prepared. And this time, the brothers discovered something new: a heartbeat.
It was the heartbeat of Laika, a small dog. Sadly for Laika, Sputnik 2 was a one-way trip; there was no provision for re-entry or recovery. Three months later, the United States launched its first satellite, Explorer I, and like the Soviets, published the frequency of the signal. Achille and Giovanni captured it, and then their lives as local media celebrities began. They were the darlings of the local papers and radio stations. They took over a nearby concrete bunker left over from World War II, made improvements to their equipment, and built larger antennas. They called their little radio observatory Torre Bert, and anytime anything launched into space from anywhere, Torre Bert was filled with friends, reporters, local scientists, and anyone who wanted a good time.
The Torre Bert experiment took a more serious turn on November 28, 1960. A West German observatory announced that it was receiving a strange signal on a Soviet space frequency. The brothers tuned in, and heard hand-keyed Morse code repeating the international distress signal, S-O-S, over and over again. Their Doppler calculations showed almost no relative speed, which they interpreted to mean that the distressed spacecraft was on a course directly away from the Earth. The signal grew weaker and was never heard from again. Apparently, the brothers had just recorded evidence that a manned Soviet spacecraft somehow got off course and left Earth's orbit, permanently.
About two months later in February 1961, variously reported as the 2nd or the 4th of the month, they picked up another transmission from space, which experts interpreted at the time as the dying breaths of an unconscious man:
And another signal from the same flight, interpreted by the brothers' father, a cardiologist, as a failing human heartbeat:
The brothers' story and recordings were played throughout Italy. Two days after this publicity, the Soviets announced the failed re-entry of a large unmanned craft.
In April of 1961, a journalist at the International Press Agency in Moscow tipped off the brothers that something big was about to happen. They turned on their equipment, and the next day, listened in on Yuri Gargarin's voice during the first manned space flight.
But, the most dramatic of the brothers' recordings came about five weeks later in May of 1961, the date variously reported as the 17th, 19th, or 23rd. A woman's voice transmission, translated as "Isn't this dangerous? Talk to me! Our transmission begins now. I feel hot. I can see a flame. Am I going to crash? Yes. I feel hot, I will re-enter...":
Want to learn more about this recording? Check out my live show Solving the Missing Cosmonauts.
When I first heard about the Judica-Cordiglia recordings from Torre Bert, I was definitely intrigued. It simply appears plausible. We know that the Soviets covered up their failures. We know that their launch record in those days was absolutely abysmal, far worse than the United States. If Yuri Gagarin made it into space, it almost seems like a foregone conclusion that at least a couple of other guys must have previously died in the attempt.
Part of the trouble you find when you research this is that the recordings from Torre Bert are only one small square in a quilt the size of Texas. There are many, many stories circulating about missing cosmonauts who died in spaceflights as early as 1957. According to some Western intelligence sources, as many as 11 fatal Soviet accidents occurred, both in flight and on the ground, all before 1967. We know that the Soviets painted certain cosmonauts out of photographs, in fact you can see some great before & after examples of this on the LostCosmonauts.com website. We know that the death of at least one cosmonaut killed in a training accident, Valentin Bondarenko, was concealed until 1986, and even then was only declassified after western journalists found out about it in 1980. There's also considerable controversy about the case of Vladimir Ilyushin, who claims to have launched five days before Gagarin, but a problem caused him to re-enter early and land inside China, where he was held captive for a whole year. Some of Ilyushin's supporters even assert that Gagarin's flight never took place; rather that he was hastily shuttled to a mocked-up landing site in Ilyushin's backup capsule so the Soviet propaganda machine could attach a healthy, smiling young face to Ilyushin's heroic flight. Ilyushin still lives in Moscow at last report, and still maintains his story.
Much of the criticism of the Judica-Cordiglia brothers comes from space historian and author James Oberg, who wrote a book based on his investigations into all of these stories of lost cosmonauts. His principal conclusions were that there was insufficient evidence available to substantiate any of these stories. But Oberg's research concluded in 1973, when the Iron Curtain was still strong. 35 years later, virtually everything has been long since declassified. It's now possible to read detailed histories of those early days, and the dates and types of all their launches, failures included, is thoroughly documented. I compared the timelines of what the Judica-Cordiglia brothers recorded to the timeline of the Soviet space program. I did find some problems.
The main inconsistency is that during the times of the Morse code and the astronaut's alleged breathing and heartbeat sounds, the Soviets were still launching dogs and mannequins. A few days after the Morse code recording, Sputnik 6 carrying two dogs was deliberately self-destructed upon a failed re-entry, and three weeks after that, two dogs were launched and safely recovered even though the third stage of their Vostok booster failed and the craft did not achieve orbit.
While it's true that the Soviets did have a proven capability to escape the Earth by the time of the fading Morse code (Luna 1 had passed the moon a year earlier), the Vostok 8K72 booster only had the ability to lift 500 kilograms to escape velocity, way too small for a manned capsule. Even for several years afterward, the Soviets had no rocket capable of lifting a manned capsule beyond Earth's gravity.
In the two months following the brothers' recording of the breathing and the alleged heartbeat, the Soviets made two successful low Earth orbit flights, each carrying a small dog and a mannequin. These are the type of test flights made when you're not yet ready to launch a man.
Following the Soviets' success at launching Gagarin in April 1961, the Judica-Cordiglia version of events suggests that their next feat was to launch a woman, thus the May 1961 recording. However, the Soviets' next launch wasn't until August, and it was another man, Gherman Titov, who flew for a full day in orbit. Valentina Tereshkova, credited as the first woman cosmonaut, didn't fly until more than two years after Gagarin, in June of 1963.
Of course these inconsistencies don't prove anything, they just show that if you accept the Judica-Cordiglia assertions as fact, they show an illogical backwards progression by the Soviets that's contradictory with the character of the space race. The Soviets never took backward steps.
A more compelling reason to be skeptical of the Judica-Cordiglia brothers' interpretation of their recordings is the lack of corroborating evidence from the numerous, far more sophisticated radio tracking stations that existed. These were the days of the Distant Early Warning Line and the birth of the North American Air Defense Command, and the Americans, British, Canadians, Germans and French all had equipment that far exceeded the humble capabilities of homebuilt Torre Bert, with things like tracking dishes that Torre Bert lacked; and moreover, the western propaganda machine would have loved nothing better than to publicize Soviet failures. The best explanation for why such announcements were never made is that no such failures were ever observed.
Indeed, the story of the Soviets announcing a failed unmanned flight after hearing that the brothers' recorded their dying cosmonaut doesn't match the history books. It's a great sound bite but I found no such report anywhere. Moreover, current records show a successful test of an R7 booster carrying a dummy missile warhead on February 7, 1961, about the day of the claimed admission.
Am I saying Achille and Giovanni were hoaxers? Far from it. In fact, in researching their story, I gained tremendous respect for their abilities and for what they accomplished. As I said before, their library of recordings is a treasure of inestimable value, and there's a documentary film about them called Space Hackers, which I found on YouTube, and which I highly recommend. Unfortunately their story is too often told without critique or inquiry into the plausibility of their most extraordinary claims. There are simply too many other possible explanations for their recordings to comprise useful evidence of lost cosmonauts. Is there stuff we still don't know about the Soviet space program? Absolutely. Might it include accidents, even deaths? Probably. Might it include unknown spaceflight failures, possibly even lost cosmonauts? Maybe, but now you're into territory that western intelligence too easily could have known about. I maintain an open mind on the subject, and look forward to your comments on the website.
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