The Soviet Union’s Lost Cosmonauts


The Space Race was a huge aspect of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although the U.S. eventually became the first to land a human being on the Moon, the Soviets had been in the lead for much of the Space Race in areas such as the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, the first man in space, and the first woman in space. The Soviets in particular were infamous for the total secrecy regarding military and scientific matters, and today one of the most enduring and grim legends of the Space Race is that of the Lost Cosmonauts.

Censored Cosmonaut
A photo of a censored cosmonaut

The Lost Cosmonauts, sometimes referred to as the Phantom Cosmonauts, is a legend that suggests the Soviets had launched more cosmonauts into space than officially recognized. For example, although Yuri Gagarin is the first man in space, some claim that Gagarin was merely the first cosmonaut to enter space and return successfully.

Erasing people from history is nothing new to the Soviet Union; during Stalin’s purges numerous rivals were removed from photographs and documents. In regard to the space program, such censorship also took place. For example, failed rockets received no coverage in the press, and many cosmonauts in training who washed out were removed from photos.

One such cosmonaut was Valentin Bondarenko, a former pilot in the VVS (Soviet Air Force) who was selected for cosmonaut training. Bondarenko was unfortunately killed in 1961 during an experiment involving a low pressure altitude chamber in which he was burned alive and died 16 hours later. Despite receiving the Order of the Red Star, Bondarenko’s accident and death were covered up by the Soviet government and wasn’t revealed to the West until 1980 and to the Soviet people until 1986.

Valentin Bondarenko
Valentin Bondarenko

Today a crater on the Moon is named after Bondarenko, but in 1971 the astronauts of Apollo 15 placed a plaque on the Moon with the names of both American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died in service, although Bondarenko’s name was withheld by the Soviets and thus not included. A 1977 book written by cosmonaut Georgy Shonin even included a picture of the supposedly “young Valentin” Bondarenko, who (along with eight other cosmonauts) were listed as having left the Soviet space program alive, showing the Soviet attempts to cover up cosmonauts who died or washed out of training.

There were other similar examples, such as cosmonaut Grigori Nelyubov who left the Soviet space program because of drunken behavior in 1963 but returned to the VVS until his death in 1966. Nelyubov was removed from photos of Soviet cosmonauts, which helped fuel the myth of cosmonauts who were dying but suppressed by the Soviets. However, the modern myth of Lost Cosmonauts generally focuses on those lost on failed space missions that were subsequently covered up.

The flames of this legend were fueled not by NASA officials or declassified Soviet documents, but rather two Italian radio enthusiasts. Known as the Judica-Cordiglia brothers, they had established a radio listening post known near the city of Turin in northern Italy called Torre Bert and were supposedly able to pick up radio transmissions from Soviet spacecraft as they passed overhead. To help back up these claims, the Judica-Cordiglia brothers were able to provide recordings of some transmissions, such as the most infamous one in which a woman’s voice can be heard as her capsule reenters the Earth’s atmosphere that was recorded in May 23rd, 1961.

Throughout the transmission, the cosmonaut can be heard saying things indicating a potentially fatal reentry, such as “Talk to me! I am hot!,” “Isn’t this dangerous?,” and “It’s all hot! I can see flame!” The recording can be listened to in its entirety below.

Many have argued the validity of the recording, suggesting that some of the cosmonaut in question’s terminology wasn’t in line with Soviet protocols, while others claim that there are errors in the cosmonaut’s Russian. However, aside from the female’s voice, the Judica-Cordiglia brothers claimed that they had picked up two male voices as well, suggesting that it may have been an early attempt at a rendezvous in orbit that went awry.Some sources claim that in this transmission the cosmonauts could be heard saying,

“Conditions growing worse, why don’t you answer? … We are going slower… The world will never know about us…”

Then there is how the Vostok capsule used at the time only had room for a crew of one, while the two-person crew Voskhod wouldn’t come along until later. The female cosmonaut, dubbed “Ludmilla” from the recording was also reported before the first official woman, Valentina Tereshkova flew into space. However, three days after the transmission was supposedly recorded, the Soviet news agency TASS reported on May 26th, 1961 that a large, bus-sized unmanned satellite had returned to Earth. Oddly, the launch of the satellite had not been advertised and the purpose of the satellite has never been revealed.

Vostok Model
Model of the Vostok spacecraft

While this recording has received the most attention, the Judica-Cordiglia brothers reportedly picked up many other transmissions from Soviet spacecraft. For example, they also claimed to have recorded an “SOS to the whole world”  in November of 1960 that was being broadcast in Morse code. The brothers have suggested that the SOS was being broadcast universally in an attempt to possibly receive help from the Americans, as the signal from the doomed spacecraft was gradually getting weaker as if it was drifting farther away from Earth until it finally disappeared.

Another brief transmission was on February 4th, 1961 when an artificial Soviet satellite was found to be transmitting heartbeats, which eventually stopped, causing some to suggest that it had actually been a manned spacecraft. The brothers claimed to have recorded the sounds of a cosmonaut suffocating to death in February of 1960.

Korabl-Sputnik 1
Korabl-Sputnik 1

Aside from the Judica-Cordiglia brothers, there are a few other sources that suggest the Soviets may have covered up some possible failed missions. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote an article entitled Pravda means ‘Truth’ in which he claimed to have received information related to Lost Cosmonauts. While visiting Vilnius, the capital of the Lithuanian S.S.R. on May 15th, 1960 Heinlein claimed that a group of Red Army cadets told him that the Soviets had launched a man into space that day, although the claim was denied later on that same day. However, the spacecraft Korabl-Sputnik 1 was launched on May 15th, 1960 and suffered from a guidance error which caused it to enter a higher orbit before reentering Earth’s atmosphere two years later on September 1st, 1962. Heinlein subsequently theorized that Korabl-Sputnik 1 was supposed to be an orbital launch, but the failure of the rocket caused it to be relabeled an unmanned mission.

Interestingly, author Michael Cassutt did some research on Lost Cosmonauts and sent a Freedom of Information request to the CIA regarding “cosmonaut training fatalities between 1960 and 1975,” and was denied being allowed to view the full documents. However, the CIA informed him of nine documents involving fatalities in the Soviet space program from the time period including a report after the Voskhod-2 space walk in 1965,  three during the Soyuz tragedy in 1967 and two others also that same year, and three more between 1973 and 1975. While the full documents were not revealed to Cassutt, it suggests that intelligence agencies in the West may have more information possibly related to Lost Cosmonauts than has been revealed.

Vladimir Ilyushin
Vladimir Ilyushin

One Soviet pilot and son of the famous aircraft manufacturer, Vladimir Ilyushin, has been suggested by many conspiracy theorists as having actually been the real first man in space. While Yuri Gagarin’s flight took place on April 12th, 1961, some (such as the Judica-Cordiglia brothers) claim that Ilyushin went into space on April 7th, but a combination of equipment malfunctions and Ilyushin passing out caused him to crash land in the People’s Republic of China. Being seriously injured, Ilyushin was kept as a “guest” in China for one year, while his mission was supposedly kept secret and the backup pilot, Gagarin, was launched into space a few days later. While Ilyushin was injured at the time, it was supposedly from an accident and wholly unrelated. The story, propagated by British and French newspapers, has been proven as fabricated and that Ilyushin was named as the possible cosmonaut due to his high status in the Soviet Union. In fact, Ilyushin never even became a cosmonaut or joined the Soviet space program to begin with.

As to whether or not the overall legend of the Lost Cosmonauts is true, then it all depends. It has been proven that cosmonauts who died, were injured or left during training for any reason at all were censored from photographs and removed from lists of cosmonauts. However, as for cosmonauts who were censored from failed space missions, then there’s not much evidence. The Judica-Cordiglia recordings provide most of the “evidence,” but as others have pointed out there are a few technical inconsistencies here and there.

Baikonur CIA
Photo of the Baikonur Cosmodrome taken by a CIA U-2 spy plane in 1957

Part of why the myth has grown to such an extent is because of the nature of the Cold War during the 1960’s, when so little information on Soviet activities was available in the West. There is also how in the United States, rockets (such as the Apollo or Gemini programs) were launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and could be viewed by both visitors and nearby residents, preventing the possibility of secret or censored space missions. Meanwhile, the majority of Soviet launches took place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a facility located in the middle of the desert in Kazakhstan. So while one space program is very open and visible to the public, the other is located in a very isolated area with a government that is highly secretive to begin with, giving the Soviets greater ability to hide failed missions than the West.

A major factor would be the number of deaths in the Soviet space program. While the Soviets were ahead for the majority of the Space Race, this also unfortunately meant they would encounter many unexpected dangers first. While the U.S. didn’t lose any astronauts during spaceflight (until the Challenger and Columbia disasters), this is largely because they were able to learn from the mistakes made earlier by the Soviets. After all, American listening posts in Turkey were able to hear the last words of Vladimir Komarov as Soyuz-1 plummeted to the Earth, although his death was not censored. Combining the number of cosmonauts killed in space with the censor-happy nature of the Soviet government, it only makes sense that people would assume there were a few spaceflight casualties erased from history.

Unless some new evidence is provided by the Russians or an intelligence agency like the CIA, the legend of the Lost Cosmonauts who secretly died in space will remain just that, a legend. Then again, with the highly secretive nature of the Soviet Union, there’s always the possibility that some unfortunate cosmonaut perished on a censored mission.


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