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The Space Race's Best Conspiracy Theory: Sputnik 4 Was a Soviet Ghost Ship

How Robert Heinlein kickstarted a conspiracy theory that the Soviet Union covered up the deaths of countless cosmonauts.
May 15, 2015, 1:00pm
A plaque commemorating fallen astronauts, placed on the Moon by Apollo 15 crew. Image: NASA

Today is the 55th anniversary of the launch of Korabl Sputnik 1, or Sputnik 4, as it's known in the West. This mission marks the first time the Soviet Union ever tested out its Vostok spacecraft, the vessel that would carry Yuri Gagarin into space less than a year later, making him as the first human ever to orbit the Earth.

Or was he? Not according to a vicious rumor that emerged in the United States during the Space Race, propagated by none other than the influential American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. In his 1960 travel essay "'Pravda' Means 'Truth,'" Heinlein ruminates on the possibility that Sputnik 4 was manned by a doomed cosmonaut, whose death was covered up by the Soviet government to avoid bad press.

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Heinlein based his hunch on a misunderstanding he experienced with some Red Army cadets while he and his wife were visiting Soviet-occupied Lithuania on the day of the launch. "Shortly one of the cadets asked us what we thought of their new manned rocket?" he recounted. "We answered that we had had no news lately—what was it and when did it happen?"

Robert Heinlein autographing books. Credit: Dd-b

"He told us, with the other cadets listening and agreeing, that the rocket had gone up that very day, and at that very moment a Russian astronaut was in orbit around the Earth—and what did we think of that? I congratulated them on this wondrous achievement but, privately, felt a dull sickness. The Soviet Union had beaten us to the punch again. But later that day our guide looked us up and carefully corrected the story: the cadet had been mistaken, the rocket was not manned."

"So what is the answer?" Heinlein asked in the essay. "Did that rocket contain only a dummy, as the pravda now claims? Or is there a dead Russian revolving in space?—an Orwellian 'unperson,' once it was realized he could not be recovered."

"I am sure of this: at noon on May 15 a group of Red Army cadets were unanimously positive that the rocket was manned. That pravda did not change until later that afternoon."

"Is there a dead Russian revolving in space?—an Orwellian 'unperson,' once it was realized he could not be recovered."

Heinlein's incredibly provocative suggestion sparked the Lost Cosmonauts conspiracy theory, which purports that Yuri Gagarin was only the first human to survive a trip to outer space, but not the first person the Soviets sent up there. As The Toast's Mallory Ortberg pointed out last year, this theory has just the right amount of tinfoil persuasiveness and ghoulish charm to seem mildly plausible, even 55 years after Heinlein's fateful conversation with the cadets.

It's no wonder, then, that the theory immediately gained traction in the United States. Nonetheless, its popularity had more to do with sour grapes than it did with real-life lost cosmonauts. Remember: The Soviets were parsecs ahead of the Americans during the early years of the Space Race—beyond the milestones snagged by Sputnik 1 in 1957 and Gagarin's Vostok 1 in 1961, the Soviets had both orbited and crash-landed on the Moon as early as 1959.

Soviet stamp celebrating 15 years of space exploration. Image: Russian Federation

Point being, the USSR was an incredibly intimidating rival, and it must have been tempting for Americans to chalk up their success to salacious conspiracies about space skeletons in the Kremlin's closet.

Heinlein himself is Exhibit A of this wishful thinking in action, and it's interesting that he blows off his initial gut feeling of envy—which, frankly, the Soviets had earned—and instead found himself drawn to wild speculation about the slippery morals of Star City. For a man who wrote so convincingly about the dangers of jingoistic blinders, he fell for his own awfully quickly.

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I don't mean to single Heinlein out, because he certainly wasn't the only one who suspected astronautical foul play in the 1960s. As space historian William E. Burrows pointed out in his book The New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, the rumor caught on like wildfire after Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, an inside man for British and American forces, leaked a report claiming that dozens of cosmonauts had died in space before Gagarin's launch. Penkovsky was later executed for treason, in 1963.

"Because it was following all Soviet launches with utmost care, the US intelligence community knew that [Penkovsky] was making it up," said Burrows on page 313. "But the idea that the Communists were sacrificing young pilots probably soothed some Americans, knowing as they did that they had been humbled by an obsessively secretive and repressive regime."

To that point, even high-ranking skeptics were somewhat swayed by the Lost Cosmonauts theory. Thomas Keith Glennan, NASA's first administrator, recorded his doubt in his diary, writing that the Soviets "could stand the horrified criticism of the rest of the world were they to do this," according to Burrows.

"On the other hand, there is no guarantee that they have not already put a man in space and left him there," wrote Glennan. "There seems to be some evidence that the May 15 [1960] shot was just such a shot"—referring to the launch of Sputnik 4.

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For the Soviets, Sputnik 4 represented their first test run of the equipment that would safely send Gagarin to space, and bring him home again. The only humanoid inside the capsule was a dummy, who silently orbited the Earth for two years before the spacecraft finally burned up in reentry on September 5, 1962. All that's physically left of the mission is a disk marking where the only known remnant of Sputnik 4 impacted with Earth, near Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

The impact marker for Sputnik 4. Image: Jonathunder

But despite the scant remains the spacecraft left behind, Sputnik 4's narrative legacy as some kind of blacklisted Soviet ghost ship has persisted well into the 21st century, despite countless investigations that have proved these claims baseless.

Given that the Soviet Union was genuinely up to some shady business throughout its lifespan, it's somewhat understandable that this lie has enjoyed such longevity.

But however enticing the Lost Cosmonauts theory may be, it is more of a reflection of American humiliation at being so resoundingly outpaced than it is an indictment of the Soviet space program's ethical failings (of which, incidentally, there were many). Heinlein may have been a brilliant thinker, but his suspicion that Sputnik 4 was manned would have made better fodder for his science fiction work than it did for his nonfiction musings.