Although today we tend to look back at the Space Race with the Soviet Union as a competition we were destined to win, it was actually the Soviets that secured many of the early victories. American officials at the time weren’t only worried about Soviet prestige winning out; they had very real concerns about Soviet space dominance providing them the ultimate high ground in the next global conflict.
Those concerns weren’t unique to Americans. The Soviet Union also saw space operations as the next logical step for their own military enterprises. In keeping with the differences in political ideologies between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the Soviets went about their space pursuits in a very different way than we did back here in the States.
While each new NASA effort was widely publicized (and even scrutinized) by the public, the Soviets made it a point to never announce a space mission until days after it was completed. This allowed them to maintain tight control over the flow of information, intentionally omitting stories about their failures, and releasing only information pertaining to their successes.
Of course, secrets are tough to keep, even behind the Iron Curtain. By the 1970s, it was revealed that the Soviet Union had doctored published photos from their early space program to completely remove certain individuals from the historical record. Long before the days of Photoshop, Soviet airbrush artists had painstakingly painted these men out of countless photographs, but when the public demanded an explanation, they received a variety of unconvincing stories. In the minds of many, it seemed like a cover-up was clearly at afoot.
It wasn’t long before these doctored images were linked to the controversial story of Italian brothers Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia. Back in the 1950s, the brothers began scavenging radio equipment they set up in an old bunker, and by 1960 they claimed to be recording radio signals broadcast from various Soviet launches. More pressingly, they claimed to be recording manned missions that were failing.
According to the brothers, they recorded a manned spacecraft flying off course and into the endless expanse of space in May of 1960, and then a faint SOS signal from yet another lost spacecraft in November of the same year. Then, in February of 1961, they said they recorded audio of a Cosmonaut suffocating to death in a failed craft, before also (they claim) tracking another craft as it successfully orbited Earth three times in April. Three days after the brothers claimed to record that successful test, the Soviet’s announced that they had successfully launched Yuri Gagarin into space, the first human ever to escape Earth’s gravitational veil.
The brothers claimed a number of other recorded Soviet failures from there, with at least five more reports of Soviet spacecraft being lost in deep space or burning up on reentry after Gagarin’s success. In one famous recording they released, a woman can be heard asking for help in Russian, making for either an interesting forgery or a deeply disturbing bit of history.
However, despite the airbrushed photos and troubling Judica-Cordiglia recordings, there remains very little concrete evidence to substantiate the claim that the Soviets left their earliest space pioneers up there to die. There have indeed been deaths associated with the Soviet space program, even Gagarin’s own best friend died in an orbital mission that many claim he knew was unsafe. According to one version of events, he opted to take the flight to spare his friend, the hero Gagarin, from having to take it himself. That death, however, was not removed from the historical record, nor was anyone airbrushed out of photos.
Instead, it seems, many of these “Lost Cosmonauts” were airbrushed from photos and removed from the records because they had run into health problems or gotten into trouble. The Soviets were extremely particular about who they would tout as national heroes, and any behavior or ailment that wasn’t in keeping with their image of Soviet strength and pride were removed from the program — and the historical record. Investigators have even tracked some of these men down and confirmed that they were still alive.
However, not every airbrushed cosmonaut has been found, and for some, that’s enough to warrant giving those chilling radio recordings a second listen. With so many Soviet records lost in the 1990s and a long-standing culture of secrecy, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get the full story about the earliest Soviet space efforts, but the truth is, it seems unlikely that there are any “heroes of the Soviet Union” stranded in orbit or beyond.
But in the minds of many, unlikely leaves just enough room to believe.