For this month’s mystery post, we’re heading back to Conspiracy Land. History will tell us that Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet astronaut, was the first man in space – but what if this was a well crafted lie? According to some, the Soviet Union sent other cosmonauts into space before Gagarin – but covered those spaceflights up when the astronauts died. Did the Soviet Union truly cover their failures up, and refuse to acknowledge the death of their astronauts? Let’s explore.
So we’re going to cover the gist of the theory here and then get into the nitty-gritty of each “instance” later on in this post. The general idea of this theory is that the (former) Soviet Union, in their haste to get ahead in the Space Race, was attempting to send astronauts into space with untested, poorly constructed, and unsafe equipment. These astronauts would then die due to the faulty equipment or miscalculations. According to the conspiracy theory, some astronauts were consumed by fire upon reentry; some suffocated due to an insufficient or leaking supply of oxygen; some were apparently flung out to the far reaches of space due to a trajectory miscalculation, never to be seen again. The USSR would then cover up documents or other proof that these spaceflights ever took place, in order to make their successes seem more triumphant, and to try and keep the appearance of blood off of their hands.
One of the most notable pieces of “evidence” that’s connected to this theory is a sound recording allegedly captured by the Judica-Cordiglia brothers in May of 1961. In this recording, a female voice can be heard speaking Russian and screaming. The recording then fell silent, indicating that the woman had died. The translation of what the woman was saying is roughly:
“listen… listen! come in! come in… come in… talk to me! talk to me! I am hot… I am hot! what? forty- five? what? forty-five? fifty? yes… yes… breathing… breathing… oxygen… oxygen… I am hot… isn’t this dangerous? it’s all… yes… how is this? what? talk to me! how should I transmit? yes… what? our transmission begins now… forty-one… this way… yes… I feel hot… I feel hot… it’s all… it’s hot… I feel hot… I can see a flame… I can see a flame! I feel hot… I feel hot… thirty-two… thirty-two… forty-one… am I going to crash? yes… yes… I feel hot… I feel hot! I will re-enter…”via the Vintage News
However, other accounts of the brothers’ recordings do not list this recording in May of 1961. A recording they claimed to have caught in November 1963 contained a female cosmonaut dying during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. I would think the brothers would loudly advertise the May 1961 recording had they captured it – it would have been proof that Valentina Tereshkova had not been the first woman in space, after all. It would have been a scandal. But perhaps they had some incentive to keep it under wraps. Now let’s take a look at the other supposed sources for this infamous theory.
The first allegations of the Soviet covering up astronaut deaths came in 1959, with a “leak” of information from someone claiming to be a high-ranking Czech Official. The leak listed the names of four astronauts who died during Soviet spaceflights. Of course, no information to substantiate these claims has ever been found. Also in 1959, a Russian magazine called Ogoniok published information and photos of three men parachuting. One of the men was killed when his suit depressurized after hitting his head. The second man apparently vanished. No further information on the third man was found. It was speculated that the trio was testing high-altitude equipment, the presumed precursor to and foundation of space exploration technology. There doesn’t seem to be any further information that these men were involved in any space program initiatives. Historians speculate that this story may be the seed that grew into the current Lost Cosmonauts Theory. It then got out of control, morphing from parachutists testing high altitude equipment and suffering from a freak accident into men being sent into space and dying horrifically.
In 1960 Robert Heinlein penned a piece in which he claimed a spceflight had taken place in May of that year. In the piece, Heinlein claimed that a cadet with the USSR had told him a Soviet had been launched into space that day. Government officials denied this claim, chalking the information up to rumor. It would later come to light, however, that an unmanned capsule was launched with dummies and pre-recorded vocal tracts to test equipment. It seems like the actual mission’s details got muddled through the grapevine by the time the cadet had heard of it, and Heinlein ran with the more bombastic story.
Next, we have Vladimir Ilyushin. Ilyushin was a Soviet General and test pilot. Just two days before Yuri Gagarin’s landmark spaceflight, a newspaper wrote that the government was covering up for Ilyushin’s death or severe injury as a result of a test flight by…telling everyone he had been in a car accident. News outlets then let the story run even further, claiming that Gagarin did not actually make the landmark flight, and Ilyushin was the pilot. Why? No clue, really. There are several conspiracies surrounding Ilyushin himself, and documentaries dedicated to them. Whew.
The last point of origin we are going to touch on revolves around an attempt to get to the Moon before the USA. According to theorists, the USSR launched a manned spacecraft on July 3, 1969, despite previously failed experiments with the same equipment. The craft allegedly exploded, and no crew member was left alive. This was covered up, with official reports stating that the craft was not yet ready for manned missions into space.
Why It’s Believed
This section is going to be all speculation on my part, so buckle up! With the first reports of these supposed “lost cosmonauts” coming at the tail end of the 50’s, I think we can point to the cold war and the space race as solid motivators behind the belief in this theory. These two things seem to be deeply tied together – warring patriotism, the fear of an imminent nuclear attack, and each country aggressively working to be the first one to enter the new frontier of space all tie into this conspiracy theory.
I’m not going to get into a hugely intricate history of the relationship between Russia and the USA, or the context of the cold war here, but suffice it to say that tensions were high. Americans always seem to jump at the chance to believe the worst about Russia (and it’s not always unwarranted, let’s be honest). We’ve all seen the memes and the deepfakes making fun of officials. The fact that the USSR beat the US into space by less than a month has always been a patriotic sore spot. So the idea that the only reason the USSR was able to get into space before us was their unethical experimental spaceflights that resulted in a number of deaths probably makes some Red-Blooded Americans feel that the race was rigged in some way.
Then there is also the allure of the macabre. People are drawn to death. They always have been, and probably always will be. We are also both fascinated by and terrified of the unknown. And what is more unknown than the vast, vacuous frontier of space? The idea of dead USSR astronauts being stuck in that frontier, having succumbed to a slow and painful death, was always bound to attract intrigue and horror at once.