The year was 1967 and the Cold War was at its height. The 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution was fast approaching, and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev wanted to do something flashy to commemorate the triumph of Communism. Ultimately he decided that the Soviets would take their victory lap to space, staging a rendezvous between two spacecraft during which a cosmonaut would transfer from one capsule to the other before returning to Earth.
It was an unprecedented technical maneuver and would be the crowning achievement of the Soviet space program. The cosmonaut selected for the job was Vladimir Komarov. His backup was Yuri Gagarin, Komarov's close friend who had stunned the world by being first human in orbit some six years earlier.
The only problem was that technicians working on the project all agreed that the spacecraft would not be ready in time for the anniversary and everyone involved in the project knew it (especially Gagarin, who upon inspection of the craft found 203 structural problems that made it unfit for flight).
Given how committed Brezhnev was to making this flight happen, nobody wanted to tell him that such a maneuver was totally inadvisable in light of the spacecraft's condition. Finally Gagarin himself drafted a note to the General Secretary urging him to postpone the flight. The plea came to naught, and anyone who saw his note ended up demoted or sent to Siberia.
As the date for the historic rendezvous approached, Komarov began to say his goodbyes. When asked why he wouldn't back out of mission if he knew it would likely mean his death, he said that it was to save his friend Gagarin who would be sent as his replacement.
And so Komarov traveled to space on April 23. From the outset, the mission was a disaster. Technical failures marred his initial hours in orbit, and the capsule that was supposed to launch the following day to meet him never left the launchpad.
US military analysts listening in to the radio transmissions from Komarov heard him tell the Soviet mission commanders that he was going to die. They listened as Komarov gave a tearful goodbye to his wife, who wanted to know what to tell his children.
Komarov's death followed on the heels of the three Apollo 1 astronauts who were asphyxiated earlier that year after a fire broke out on the launch pad, rounding out a tragic year for the burgeoning space race.
While the official organs of the Soviet Union mourned him as the first martyr of their space program, stories began to circulate in the West that called into question whether Komarov was really the first cosmonaut to be claimed by the Soviet's cosmic ambitions. The rumors cited a number of causalities that allegedly preceded Yuri's groundbreaking orbit in 1961, the ill-fated pioneers of space exploration who were forever lost to history due to Soviet cover-ups.
"I think these stories [of the lost cosmonauts] have always fascinated people," said Nicolás Alcalá, director of The Cosmonaut, a film inspired by the conspiracy theories. "On the one hand, there's the stories of all the secret things that happened in the Soviet Union that we now know for fact. On the other, there's the idea of a human being getting lost in space and being completely alone. That feeling of not being able to come back, even though you can see Earth right there—it terrifies and fascinates."
The USSR stunned the world in 1957 when it launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made object to be put into orbit. The success of the Sputnik mission in 1957 led to the rampant speculation that a Soviet manned space flight was imminent. Western media even began reporting that the Russians were already flying humans to space, and that some of these astronauts had died.
A fictional radio broadcast from Moscow in January of 1958 claimed that the Russians had successfully launched a cosmonaut to an altitude of 186 miles; many Western media outlets continued to report it as fact in the following weeks. In a separate incident in 1959, Austrian Rocketry pioneer Hermann Oberth also reported that a Soviet pilot had been killed in a suborbital space flight in 1958, although he never revealed his sources.
An article published in October of 1959 by Russian magazine Ogonyok seemed to confirm Western suspicions that a handful of Soviet pilots had already been launched into the cosmos and perished in the attempt. The article in question featured a photo of three Russian pilots who were testing out high-altitude flight suits. In reality, these suits were being tested for suborbital flight, and the first group of Russian cosmonauts would not be selected until March of 1960.
When Gagarin did complete the first orbit of Earth and 1961, people remembered the rumors about these men. As Russia never mentioned their names in conjunction with this historic orbit, many were led to suspect that they had been killed in pre-Gagarin test flights.
The evidence for these accusations was spurious to say the least, but it was bolstered a few months later when an Italian news agency claimed that a high ranking communist official in Prague had tipped them off about a number of failed Soviet space flights. These reports were further buoyed by the release of the Penkovsky Papers, the diary of a Russian intelligence official who was bankrolled by the CIA, which also made several allusions to failed suborbital launches.
The authenticity of the Penkovsky reports on the Soviet space program is dubious, as many of the details in the report that could later be confirmed were erroneous, and could not be corroborated by Penkovsky, who was exposed and killed by Soviet authorities in 1963.
All of this is not to say that early Soviet spaceflight was not without its failures, many of which were in fact swept under the rug. Some of the most notable examples were the two failed rocket launches to Mars in October of 1960, followed by a failed Venus launch in February of 1961 (another Italian news agency erroneously reported that this failed Venus shot had a man on board).
"There are so many stories about cosmonauts getting lost in space."
When Yuri Gagarin became the first human to (officially) complete an Earth orbit in April of 1961, his success was slightly marred with controversy. Three days prior, a British Communist newspaper had reported that a Vladmir Ilyohn had successfully completed three orbits of the Earth. According to this report, Ilyohn's historic flight was ultimately covered up by Soviet officials when he proved to be completely deranged upon his return to Earth due to a mishap during flight.
It was a month after Gagarin's historic flight that things truly took a turn for the bizarre, however.
On May 19, the amateur Torre Bert observatory in Italy and the Bochum Observatory, a private research initiative in Germany, picked up voice transmissions believed to have originated with Russian cosmonauts. While the Bochum observatory would later denounce these signals as ground based, the signals received by Torre Bert continue to be mired in controversy.
The signals, received by the Judica-Cordiglia brothers, allegedly featured the gasping breaths and failing heartbeat of a cosmonaut trapped in space and doomed to perish alone in the cosmos. While it is certain the brothers heard something on the radio (since the days of Sputnik 1, it was not uncommon for Russian launch frequencies to be on bands that were easily accessible to amateurs), it's unlikely that it was a cosmonaut's dying breath.
The mystery immediately ignited the global imagination and the brothers became the subjects of a number of articles on the subject in outlets ranging from the US News and World Report to Readers Digest. While it may have made for good headlines, as it turned out, the technical details of the Cordiglia brothers' claims simply didn't add up.
"There are so many stories about cosmonauts getting lost in space," said Alcalá. "I think these legends are mostly Western stories, but I love the idea that they could have happened and I think that's why people will keep coming back to them."
Whether or not these phantom cosmonauts ever existed is still up for debate, and my request for comment from the Russian space agency Roscosmos was not returned. However the general consensus now seems to be that they were mere figments of a paranoid Western imagination, the creation of a handful of news outlets with a penchant for the sensational. Yet for others, the evidence of their existence is far from conclusive, leaving one to wonder if there may in fact be the remains of a few lonely cosmonauts out there, doomed to anonymously traverse the void for eternity.