The Space Race is one of the great tales in human history, replete with drama, competition, personalities, ingenuity, setbacks, heroes, perseverance, and pride. But some consider it to have a frightening sidebar, with some Soviet spacefarers said to have been aboard a doomed vessel that veered off course and into space, where they met a horrific and terrifying death.
The story of doomed cosmonauts stems from the extensive logs and audio recordings of two radio operators, the Italian brothers Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia. The polyglot pair, who taught themselves to speak Russian, recorded and documented the space race more thoroughly than any other amateurs. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning described their space race collection as “by far the most comprehensive private collection known.” They began their documentation and archiving with the Sputnik I launch and kept at it inexhaustibly for the few years.
They even converted a World War II bunker into a radio observatory.
According to Dunning, the pair taught themselves how to detect the Doppler Effect in signals from orbit and then use that calculation to determine a spacecraft’s speed and altitude. They were so efficient that by the time the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, the brothers had assembled equipment that enabled them to hear the heartbeat of the dog on board.
The disconcerting turn came in November 1960 when the brothers detected, from a Soviet space frequency, a continual relaying of “S-O-S.” Doppler calculations showed almost no relative speed, causing the duo to suspect that the spacecraft was on a course heading away from Earth. The signal grew progressively weaker until vanishing forever. It seemed that a manned Soviet spacecraft had permanently left Earth’s orbit.
Three months later, the brothers picked up another space transmission, which some listeners thought sounded like the dying breaths of an unconscious man. A signal from the same flight was interpreted by the brothers’ cardiologist father as being that of a failing human heartbeat. But the most harrowing recording was of a woman seeming to say (roughly translated here), “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.”
The Soviets made no mention of any of this. Of course, the USSR routinely covered up its failures, space-related or otherwise. And Dunning noted that its launch record in the early Space Race days was a poor one. And with a state-run media being the only news outlet, the Soviets could squash any inconveniences or embarrassments. Soviet authorities, in fact, did just that when they painted certain cosmonauts out of photographs. Also, the training death of at least one cosmonaut, Valentin Bondarenko, was concealed for many years.
However, deducing that there were cosmonauts who were catapulted to a sci-fi-worthy death in deep space requires ignoring some inconsistencies. Chief among these is that the supposed Morse code tapping and astronaut breaths and heartbeats were recorded when the Soviets were using dogs and mannequins in their launches. And while the Soviets had achieved the ability to escape Earth at this time, the Vostok 8K72 booster they favored used were far too small to be a manned capsule. Also, two Vostok missions were equipped with dummies and human voice tape recordings to test if the radio worked. That would make for a reasonable explanation that requires no doomed cosmonauts and subsequent cover-up of such.
Declassified Soviet documents on its space program have no reference to any of this. In addition, there is a lack of corroborating evidence from the radio tracking stations that were far more advanced than what the Judica-Cordiglias had assembled. Finally, Some Yuri Gagarin biographers suggest that most of the lost cosmonaut hypothesis could be explained by accidents that happened in low orbit, not in space.