We all know that Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space… but what if he wasn’t? What if the truth were more complex, and that Gagarin’s true feat was being the first man in space who survived?
The space race was the best thing to come out of the Cold War; the tensions between the US and the USSR threatened to destroy the world but they also sparked the greatest advancements in human history. Both nations were desperate to beat the other, and for a while the Russians had a distinct advantage, with Sputnik being the first artificial satellite put into orbit and then Gagarin being the first human to escape Earth’s atmosphere. The competition was so fierce that safety was sometimes a secondary concern; there were some in the US government who thought we should send an astronaut on a one-way trip to the Moon so we could get there first. Once the astronaut was on the Moon we could then begin worrying about how to bring him home.
That recklessness - and the Soviet Union’s penchant for denials and cover-ups of setbacks and disasters - led to rumors of a top secret Soviet space program that was sending humans into space long before Gagarin’s journey. As far back as 1959 there were stories circulating that the Soviets had lost multiple cosmonauts - including a woman - in attempted suborbital flights. Some of these rumors came from misunderstandings, such as the 1962 death of Colonel Pyotr Dolgov. Dolgov parachuted from a balloon at almost 94,000 feet but didn’t survive; he hit the visor of his helmet while jumping from the balloon gondola and his suit depressurized, killing him. At least that’s the official story.
Some of the “Lost Cosmonaut” theories have the spacefarers dying in space or on the launchpad, but the conspiracy theory surrounding famed Soviet test pilot Vladimir Ilyushin is much more entertaining. Ilyushin, some claim, beat Gagarin to space by five days, launching on April 7th, 1961. But Ilyushin’s trip didn’t make the history books because it was a major embarrassment to the USSR, as a malfunction supposedly brought Ilyushin’s capsule down in China. He was taken prisoner and held for a year. There’s some plausibility to this tale, especially when you realize that unlike the US space program the Russians kept their launches secret. Gagarin’s feat was only publicized when he got home safely, so is it impossible that Ilyushin’s mission would be scrubbed from the records? In 1999 Nikita Kruschev’s son told documentary filmmakers that the story was true, but Ilyushin himself never spoke of it, taking the truth to his grave in 2010.
The spookiest and strangest “Lost Cosmonaut” story actually has audio evidence to back it up. In 1960 Italian brothers Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia set up an amateur radio listening station and began picking up transmissions from space. They listened in on and recorded some huge moments in space history, including Gagarin’s first flight and John Glenn’s conversations with mission control from the Friendship 7 capsule. But they also claimed they picked up secret transmissions, and some of what they heard was terrifying. That first year they claimed to hear two different Soviet space capsules get lost in space, with one sending an SOS message that got fainter as it drifted off into the interstellar reaches. In 1961 they listened in as a capsule orbited the Earth three times… days before Yuri Gagarin’s launch (did they hear Ilyushin’s ill-fated trip?). That year they picked up the sounds of a cosmonaut suffocating to death. They listened in as a number of Soviet capsules supposedly veered off course and disappeared into the solar system.
The most bloodcurdling recording the Judica-Cordiglia brothers made captures the sounds of a female cosmonaut burning up on re-entry in 1963:
“Come in… come in… come in… Listen! Come in! Talk to me! I am hot! I am hot! Come in! What? Forty-five? What? Fifty? Yes. Yes, yes, breathing. Oxygen, oxygen… I am hot. This… isn’t this dangerous?”
“Transmission begins now. Forty-one. Yes, I feel hot. I feel hot, it’s all… it’s all hot. I can see a flame! I can see a flame! I can see a flame! Thirty-two… thirty-two. Am I going to crash? Yes, yes I feel hot… I am listening, I feel hot, I will re-enter. I’m hot!”
Experts have questioned the veracity of the recordings, but it remains possible that the Italian brothers did stumble upon the dark truth behind one of the great legends of the Cold War.
This article originally appeared in the October issue of BIRTH. MOVIES. DEATH., available at your local Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.