This article accompanies the latest episode of Extremes, which is a VICE podcast exclusive to Spotify. Listen to the rest of the show here
The year was 1957 and the Soviets had just launched an aluminum beach ball called Sputnik 1 into orbit. For many onlookers, this signalled a terrifying escalation of the Cold War. But for two brothers in Italy with a burgeoning interest in radio, it presented a fascinating challenge.
Their names were Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia. Both were in their 20s, living in the northern city of Turin, where surplus war equipment was being sold by the kilogram. For several years they'd been buying and repairing broken radio receivers when Sputnik's launch was announced, prompting them to tune in and listen. And there it was, weak but unmistakable: a beeping sound coming from space.
"My god, it was unbelievable," recalls Giovanni. "We were the first people in all of Europe to listen to the signal of Sputnik 1."
From that moment, Achille and Giovanni became obsessed. Night and day they'd tinker with their radio equipment, and the roof of their parents' apartment building began to bristle with homemade antennas. With every new space launch the brothers listened in, capturing radio transmissions from Sputnik 1, 2, and then Explorer 1 in 1958.
But then on November 28th 1960, Achille and Giovanni intercepted a transmission that changed everything. It was on one of the Soviet frequencies, but there hadn't been a launch announcement. And instead of meaningless bleeping, as they'd heard from all the other satellites, they intercepted an SOS call in morse code. Three dots, three dashes, three dots, and transmitted from a craft that was apparently moving away from Earth.
"It was going very, very fast," says Giovanni, "and therefore it was moving away from the earth at escape speed. And so it made us think that rather than bringing the vehicle back to Earth...it was moving away from Earth into space."
By this point the Soviets had launched a dog into space, but neither they nor the Americans had managed to get a human beyond the stratosphere. Yet here was a craft emitting a very human distress call as it hurtled off into deep space, which didn't make much sense.
"Maybe the Soviets had managed to launch a cosmonaut into orbit, but they’d lost them into space. We had no proof, but it was the only theory that seemed to fit. Why would an unmanned craft transmit a distress signal?"
For the brothers, this was the first in a series of mysterious mayday calls intercepted from space. They later recorded a human heartbeat, transmitted as biometric data, and then later a mysterious broadcast in Russian, begging for help.
This particularly haunting message was intercepted by the brothers on May 17, 1961, without any indication from whom it came:
"Conditions growing worse, why don't you answer? We are going slower... the world will never know about us."
Through all of this, the Soviet Union announced only one successful manned mission, which was that of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961. The other apparently manned (and disastrous) missions overheard by the brothers were never mentioned. To Achille and Giovanni, this seemed to point to one thing: that the Soviets were launching people into space, losing them, and covering up their accidents.
It's a story that's been the subject of debate ever since. I first read a sceptical account of the brothers' claims on a Quora thread, only to later find an online version of a 1965 Reader's Digest article which presented their story as indisputable fact. Some sceptics believe the brothers forged their recordings, while others say their claims are credible, and point to Russia's longstanding history of cover-ups as validation.
Either way, when I first read about this story I became so intrigued I decided to make it the focus of an episode of Extremes. (For those of you who don't know, this is our show about people who've lived through extreme events). I figured it would be interesting to get Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia on the show and ask him directly. So we managed to track him down in Turin, where he still lives to this day. The older of the two brothers, Achille, died a few years back, but Giovanni is a sprightly 80-year-old and was only too happy to walk us through his story.
If you want to hear the full account, along with the deeply spooky recordings, you'll have to listen to the show. But I will say this: after listening to Giovanni answer my questions and then reading through the translations and spending hours assembling the story, I came to the conclusion that fictionalisation is probably beyond him. And not because I found him overtly principled, but because his mind is just so geared for scientific process that he seemed incapable of exaggeration.
Throughout the interview I had our translator repeatedly ask questions like "how did that make you feel?" or "can you explain your reaction to that?" and time and time again Giovanni avoided talking about feelings. Instead he just wanted to talk endlessly about aerials and broadcast frequencies. Anytime we asked him something non-technical it was like getting blood from a stone. And I don't think it was because he had anything to hide, but because he simply wasn't interested. For Giovanni, the technology was the adventure, and the mysterious mayday calls were a side note. And so, for better or worse, I offer you Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia's story, convinced he was telling us the truth.
For the full story listen to Extremes, available for free, exclusively to Spotify