Ghosts of the Cold War: The Legend of the Lost Cosmonauts

A reconstruction of Sputnik 1.

A reconstruction of Sputnik 1.

The Cold War is a fascinating time in our history, when the United States and its allies were united against the Soviet Bloc, consisting of the Soviet Union, its satellite states, and its Communist allies. The lands beyond the Iron Curtain were a mystery to most Americans, a giant red enigma frightening in its size and implacable in its intent. This combined with the frantic efforts on both sides to one up each other in nearly every sphere of endeavor–especially technology–led to the strange story of The Lost Cosmonauts.

 

Mysterious transmissions

To understand this legend, we must begin with the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth–Sputnik 1. Needless to say that the thought of a Soviet made machine orbiting high over head with intents unknown was traumatic for America and her allies, but it wasn’t a pair of American amateur radio operators who took the initiative to snoop on the satellite but rather Italians. The brothers Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, using surplus American equipment, managed to pick up the monotonous radio transmission issuing from Sputnik 1. This feat made them something like local celebrities, a fame that grew when they made the sensational claim that they had caught horrific signals from failed Soviet manned space missions.

These alleged transmissions were first recorded in May of 1960, when the brothers claimed to have heard a manned space craft issuing a distress signal that it had gone off course. Later that same year came an even more disturbing signal–an SOS in Morse code that faded over time, suggesting that its craft of origin was moving away from the Earth. From then on the claims became even more sensational and disturbing. One recording allegedly captured a dying cosmonaut’s fading heart beat and ragged final breaths as he suffocated to death in his capsule. Another recorded a female cosmonaut’s frantic final signals as she burnt up upon reentry. There were several more that involved cosmonauts flying off into the void of space after their equipment failed or after their capsules skidded off the Earth’s atmosphere like a flat rock across the surface of a pond.

If true, the implications are horrifying. Few deaths could be more terrible than being lost in the vastness of Deep Space in a capsule about the size of a small car, slowly suffocating as you use up your last oxygen reserves. I can see why Westerners at the time would find this scenario believable–after all, everyone knew how small a premium the Communist countries put on human life, their compulsive tendency toward secrecy, and they also knew (to a lesser extent) how crazy dangerous the space program was. It was a simple enough matter to put two and two together and surmise that the Soviet space program must have been like a meat grinder. But how true was that, really?

 

More legend than fact

Certainly, more people died in the Soviet program than their American counterparts. Most of these deaths didn’t come out until after the Soviet archives were opened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. But it would be inaccurate to say that the Soviets simply threw cosmonauts through the proverbial wood chipper until they could get their rockets working properly. A cursory examination of this notion shows how ludicrous it is–after all, both astronauts and cosmonauts were highly trained professionals. It’d be insane to sacrifice them recklessly simply by virtue of their expertise, let alone the fact that they’re human beings.

But a look at the alleged transmissions themselves and the stories around them shows they were little more than sensationalism. For one, any vehicle undergoing reentry is under radio silence, since rocketing through the atmosphere at several hundred miles an hour results in a lot of radio interference. Second, most of the vehicles said to be zooming out of the Earth’s orbit were incapable of going fast enough to achieve escape velocity from Earth’s orbit. Once they did achieve orbit, unless some force powerful enough to yank them out of Earth’s gravity worked on them, they wouldn’t just suddenly whip out of the Earth’s grip. Once you’re in orbit, there are only two ways to go unless worked upon by an outside force–you either remain stationary or starting heading back down to Earth.

Suffice it to say, it doesn’t seem very likely that there are any lost cosmonauts zooming through the endless blackness of space. While it is true that Achille and Giovanni did make some amazing recordings of both Soviet and American spacecraft in orbit, the dark tales of lost cosmonauts are nothing more than sensationalism.

 

Sources:

Dunning, B. “Search for the Missing Cosmonauts.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 19 Aug 2008. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4115>

Hollington, Kris. “Lost in Space.” Forteantimes.com. July 2008. Fortean Times. May 18, 2014. <http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/1302/lost_in_space.html>