In the late 1950s and early 1960s the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full effect, with each of these superpowers pushing the limits of technology and rushing to be the first one to put a man into this new frontier of the unexplored. The Soviets had had some issues in their pursuits, plagued by a series of tragedies that seemed to have left them grounded. On one occasion in October of 1960 a Soviet rocket exploded upon take off, killing around 150 people, and this was followed by a cosmonaut who was immolated within his space capsule during a fire, but despite these setbacks on April 12th, 1961, the Soviets were proud to announce that they had put the first man in space. 27-year-old Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had been put into orbit, becoming the first man to circumnavigate Earth orbit in an artificial craft, the Vostock 1, and he became a media sensation because of it, making headlines all over the world. However, there has long been talk that there were others up there before even this, and that they have managed to vanish into a dark history of conspiracies and cover-ups, with the ultimate fates of these lost cosmonauts swept under the carpet to fall between the cracks of history.
There has long been talk that the Soviets had actually managed more excursions into space before and after Gagarin’s flight than they have let on. Indeed, not long before Gagarin’s launch there had been rumors that a successful space flight had already been made, with a news crew allegedly even on the ground covering it, but this story oddly just sort of disappeared and never aired, with focus instead directed solely to Gagarin’s mission. According to the news source that had been set to cover it, they insisted that a flight had been successful, piloted by decorated ace pilot and cosmonaut Vladimir Ilyushin, but that it had gone off course upon re-entry, leading to his capture by the Chinese government and was therefore unsuitable for showing the world the technological mastery of the Soviet Union. This was backed up by several journalists, most notably Denis Ogden of the British Daily Worker and French journalist Eduard Bobrovsky.
Ilyushin was soon being unofficially deemed the first man in space, but curiously the pilot himself was completely silent, according to official reasons because he was recovering from an automobile accident. The Soviet government was having none of it, denying that he was even a cosmonaut at all, and all the while details of the Illyushin incident were being changed all the time, making it all murkier. The Soviet government would also change its stance on the pilot’s absence, changing its story on several occasions, saying he was in a coma or other tales, and no one had any idea what was going on. In the end skepticism would be laid squarely on Ogden’s shoulders, as his article in the April 11 edition of the British communist The Daily Worker is the origin of every other article on the matter, and although he claimed that he was being provided information by an “inside source” there is no concrete verification as to who this could have been, and it may have all been pure stipulation and speculation for all we know.
There were also several reports from as early as 1959 that seemed to point to some amount of secrecy from the Soviets in relation to their space program. In one case, an alleged high-ranking Czech Communist created a stir when he leaked supposed top secret information concerning several unofficial space forays carried out by cosmonauts Alexei Ledovsky, Andrei Mitkov, Sergei Shiborin and Maria Gromova, all ending in tragedy, although the Soviets would not admit to this. There was also a report from space theoretician Hermann Oberth, who claimed that the Soviets had put someone in suborbital flight as early as 1958, but that the cosmonaut had died in the process, and he also related several other Soviet pre-Gagarin failed space missions, apparently from information kept by intelligence agencies. In 1959 there was also an article that appeared in the news publication Ogoniok, which claimed that high altitude parachutists Colonel Pyotr Dolgov, Ivan Kachur, and Alexey Grachov had all been involved with testing high altitude space flight equipment when they either died or mysteriously vanished to never be heard from again.
More well known are the allegations made by famed science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein in 1960. According to Heinlein, on May 15, 1960 he was informed by members of the Soviet Army that a man had been put into space on that day aboard what was called the Korabl-Sputnik 1, which had experienced mechanical problems to leave the cosmonaut stranded in orbit, but that officials had quickly shut the story down, backtracking to claim that it had been an unmanned flight. If there was a cosmonaut aboard, then whoever it was is forever lost in space without even being officially recognized, more or less erased from history.
Adding weight to such claims was a pair of Italian brothers by the names of Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, who were ham radio enthusiasts and had supposedly been monitoring Soviet and American space transmissions since 1957. According to them they would eventually record thousands of hours of communications from Sputnik, Vostok, Explorer, and many other Soviet and American missions over the years, but some of these were more chilling than most. In 1960 they came forward to make the claim that they had picked up Morse code transmissions from outer space which they believed conclusively proved that the Soviets had someone up there, in a craft they deemed to be moving away from the Earth, suggesting that something had gone wrong to send the poor cosmonauts hurtling out into the far reaches of cold space. The brothers would also claim to have captured at least nine separate emergency transmissions from various doomed cosmonauts, with one supposedly of a cosmonaut asphyxiating during his final transmission, one of cosmonaut seemingly in the midst of a cardiac arrest, and another of an alleged unidentified female cosmonaut who apparently burned up on re-entry. Her haunting last transmission would reportedly say:
Come in… come in… come in… Listen! Come in! Talk to me! I am hot! I am hot! Come in! What? Forty-five? What? Fifty? Yes. Yes, yes, breathing. Oxygen, oxygen… I am hot. This… isn’t this dangerous? Transmission begins now. Forty-one. Yes, I feel hot. I feel hot, it’s all… it’s all hot. I can see a flame! I can see a flame! I can see a flame! Thirty-two… thirty-two. Am I going to crash? Yes, yes I feel hot… I am listening, I feel hot, I will re-enter. I’m hot!
This particular recording is notable because it would have not only been a cosmonaut who had beaten Gagarin to space, but would have also been the very first woman in space, and yet if she was real we do not know her name or who she was. Indeed, at the time the brothers’ recordings made headlines and were widely publicized despite continued Soviet statements that they were false. Over the years there would be much doubt cast on the recordings of “lost cosmonauts” made by Judica-Cordiglia brothers, with much of the skepticism based on the fact that not only were the transmissions blatantly not conforming to usual communications protocols and were often inaccurate with relation to technical and operational details, but these transmissions were not picked up by the numerous audio monitoring arrays set up by the Americans, British, French, and Germans, and additionally often featured Russian that was sloppy and not grammatically correct, suggesting that it was all an elaborate hoax or that the brothers had been tricked.
Stories of mysterious lost cosmonauts continued well into later years as well, with the most famous of these perhaps being the claims that the Soviets were the first to put someone on the moon, or at least try. A long running rumor and conspiracy theory is that just before the historic Apollo 11 landing on the lunar surface the Soviets had desperately thrown together their own mission to beat the Americans to the punch. Allegedly, on July 3, 1969, the Soviets attempted to launch a crewed Soyuz 7K-L3 craft, but it would spectacularly explode on the launch pad, killing all aboard and quickly covered up by the government and officially explained as an unmanned test of lunar hardware. More mysterious is a claim that in early 1969 cosmonaut Andrei Mikoyan and another crew member had been successfully been launched towards the moon, but that technical glitches and miscalculations had conspired to make sure that they had then overshot their target to go hurtling out into the blackness of space.
There have also allegations made by Russian fiction writer Pelevin that the Soviet unmanned Luna, Korabl-Sputnik 1, and Lunokhod rover missions were all actually crewed by cosmonauts on suicide missions, which would have technically put cosmonauts on the moon before the Americans, although there is no evidence whatsoever of this ever happening, and the craft involved were not designed to hold human beings. In 2001, a senior engineer on the Soviet space program came forward to allege that the Judica-Cordiglia brothers had been on the mark, and that pilots named Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov were launched from the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome in 1957, 1958 and 1959 only to vanish off of the face of the earth. Is there any truth to this all?
This is the problem with most of these reports, a lack of any real confirmed evidence, plus the fact that the United States would have been very quick to jump any any such Soviet failures, yet there is nothing to suggest they ever did. In the meantime, the first official man in space would remain Yuri Gagarin, who in later years would spiral into alcoholism and before dying in 1968 in a jet crash he would for his part deny the rumors that anyone had been put into actual space by the Soviets before him. Interestingly, Gagarin would also make some rather odd claims along the lines of the supernatural, saying that had had a weird space encounter in April of 1961. At two points during his spaceflight aboard the Vostok-1, Gagarin allegedly had inexplicably gone silent and lost contact, and when he was asked about it later he was not sure what had happened, thinking he may have just briefly lost consciousness. In later years during hypnotic regression, Gagarin would come out to claim that he could remember seeing an enormous, mysterious figure floating in space in front of him, and that he had heard a voice in his head saying, “Do not worry, everything will be fine. You’ll come back to Earth,” before the apparition vanished into thin air right before his eyes. Had he lost his mind or was this just one more strange oddity to add to the rest?
In the end we are left with quite a mess of conflicting reports and allegations concerning the darker side of the Soviet space program. Were there really all of these cosmonauts who perhaps predated Gagarin and beyond who were just sort of erased from the records, in some cases with their identities never known at all? On the face of it it certainly seems plausible that such things might get buried under the copious amount of secret files and hidden documents from the Cold War era. It would also make sense that the Soviet Union would want to erase their missteps and mistakes, after all, this was a time of intense back and forth bravado and competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, when there were certainly instances when nothing could be taken at face value. Yet, there has been nothing truly concrete dug up on these lost cosmonauts or any evidence of cover ups of their deaths or disappearances. If they ever really did make history, then it is buried history, and they are perhaps forever lost to the mists of time, with no posthumous awards or recognition and faded away and forgotten. Whatever the truth may be, the story of the lost phantom cosmonauts has been discussed and debated to this day, and shows no signs of going anywhere.