Radiation-equivalent phantom flown aboard Zond 7 and Cosmos 368, Polytechnic Museum, Moscow, March 1994
Credit: © Dietrich Haeseler
by James Oberg
Author's note (1996) - This article first appeared in Space World magazine, January 1975. This was my first long space history report, and it is unfocussed, rambling, and over-eager to show off all details discovered during the research. With the charity of hindsight, I hope readers will seek the useful material contained in it and not get hung up on the amateurish writing.
Twelve (by publication date, 'fourteen') years ago Major Yuri Gagarin made the world's first manned space flight. There were many contemporary rumors that earlier manned shots had failed, killing a series of unknown cosmonauts.
Without access to the actual Russian space files, no one can ultimately say whether or not these alleged secret fatal flights ever really took place (We now have access!). Mr. Oberg will attempt to demonstrate, however, that no available evidence exists to support such rumors.
There were many strange events which gave rise to these stories. Now that Russian cosmonauts have really begun to be killed in space (two out of twenty, as of 1974, Russian ships have been lost), these stories are no longer heard. Their origin, if not their substance, forms the subject for a fascinating footnote to the history of space flight.
There is a suspicion among some Western observers of the Soviet space program that this list of Russian cosmonauts killed in the conquest of space is incomplete. The American list contains the names of six astronauts who died before they had a chance to make a flight into space. Such men, had they died in Russia, would never have been revealed to the world.
Four Russians are listed as having died in space. Many suspect, or firmly believe, that this list should be longer: that besides the well-known names of Komarov, Gagarin, Dobrovolsky and others, more names should appear. There should be names such as Ledovsky, Grachev, Dolgov and Zavadovsky.
These and other men are supposed to have lost their lives in the very first days of the space age, between 1957 and 1961, when the first flights into space were being attempted. These stories of secret Russian fatalities on hidden space missions had their origin in those early days.
No evidence for supposed deaths of cosmonauts on these early space missions can stand up under serious scrutiny today. The rumors, allegations, misinterpretations, distortions and outright frauds form a large but insubstantial mass of data.
Observers have tried to come to the conclusion that the very persistence of these stories indicates their validity, and that although one story might be a mistake and another a hoax, the fact that there are so many stories means that some must be true.
That analysis is not acceptable. We will show that the factors leading to these stories were real and that no hard evidence at all was necessary for the stories to spread. We will see how people came to certain conclusions intuitively and then manufactured or misread evidence to support their a priori conclusions.
The blame for the fact that these stories spread and thrived in the early 1960's must rest squarely on the shoulders of the Soviet news managers. Their publicity policy of evasions, boasts, distortions and outright lies created the atmosphere of mystery and secrecy out of which all sorts of sensational and outrageous stories grew. There are people in the world who love to read such stories: hence there will always be other people willing to write them. Truth takes second place to entertainment and intrigue.
Serious observers of the Soviet space program also gave a lot of careful consideration to these stories. Many reports took place amid a series of events which might have been interpreted as corroborating evidence. Many stories were not obviously wrong; they "made sense" and were entirely consistent with other reports from Russia and with the concurrent state of the art in the West.
The Soviets have reacted defensively that such stories are fabricated and spread by people who "hate the Soviet Union", who wish to "defame and downgrade the glorious achievements of Soviet scientists, engineers, and cosmonauts". Such accusations are absurd. Soviet reactions at this level have done as much to spread these stories as any other single factor. One merely has to look at the similar stories that belong to the same genre (such as the USAF coverup of flying saucers, the secret Zionist-Masonic-DAR assassination squad in Dallas, Jackie's latest lovers, the Oregon sasquatch) to see that anti-Soviet motives have nothing to do with them.
The blame lies with the Soviet system of secrecy and distortion. There are no rumors of unrevealed American space deaths.
In the early 1950's Senator Joe McCarthy kept the nation guessing with his accusations that there were 35 or 200 or 56 or 111 communists in the State Department. As a result, people didn't ask whether or not there were communists in the State Department, but rather how many communists were there in the State Department. A decade later, the stories began that 4 or 11 or 7 or 18 Russian cosmonauts had been killed on space missions.
The question we should ask is this: had any Russian cosmonauts been killed on space missions before 1967?
The only safe answer that this observer can give is that no one outside the USSR can know. We can say, however, that there is no hard evidence available that indicates that any such fatal secret missions ever took place.
In January 1958 the world had heard rumors of a successful Russian manned flight to an altitude of 186 miles. The report from Moscow was apparently based on a fictional radio program. The significant fact was that the story was at first widely believed by Western experts.
Following the selection of the Mercury astronauts early in 1959, Western observers tried to determine the details of the corresponding Soviet manned space program. Gossip from cocktail parties at international astronautical meetings in 1959 indicated that, yes, the Russians had a program, and yes, four men, experienced test pilots and WWII Veterans, had been selected for cosmonaut training. One had died in an "experimental accident", but the others were hard at work.
In October 1959 the popular Russian weekly photo magazine Ogonyok published a 2-page illustrated article entitled "Flights to High Altitudes" which showed doctors, technicians, and test subjects in a series of tests of life support equipment. It was probably an unfortunate coincidence that exactly three test subjects were shown. Some alert Associated Press journalist decided that these men, named Belokonev, Kachur, and Grachev, were the real Russian spacemen, and that these tests were part of the Russian spaceflight training program.
The article does not mention the word "space" at all. The equipment shown has since been seen on jet pilots, and never on cosmonauts. The men are young engineers, not experienced test pilots.
A few weeks later the Moscow evening newspaper showed some more photos and named another man, Mikhailov. A fifth man, Zavadovski, was shown later. When the first Russian spaceflights began in 1961-62 and these men did not appear, some observers jumped to the conclusion that these men must have perished on secret missions. Their names were assigned randomly to a series of mysterious Russian space shots. Belokonev and Mikhailov became, in the words of one 1962 report, "outstanding graduates of the Academy of Sciences Spaceflight Center, now mysteriously unaccounted for".
It is fortunate that no imaginative science writer has yet noticed that the Russians have given the name "Grachev" to a crater on the back of the moon. The immediate reaction would be to conclude that these old stories are correct and that this test pilot Grachev was really the first man in space, killed on the flight, but discretely memorialized" on the moon. Actually, Grachev is also the name of a famous Soviet propulsion engineer (1900-1964) who was involved with space rocket development. Of such are space rumors born.
Within a month (in November 1959, at the American Rocket Society conference) Blagonravov declared "the whole thing is ungrounded, a journalists fairy tale". It was really research into flight safety for airplane pilots. He denied the existence of a man-in-space program.
The first published reports in the West which suggested that Russian spacemen had been killed on rocket flights came from the grand old man of astronautics, Dr. Hermann Oberth. Speaking in Austria, Oberth reported that a pilot had been killed on a sub-orbital ballistic flight from the Kapustin Yar launching site in early 1958. Oberth never told how he had gotten this information, although he hinted that he had picked it up while working on the U.S. Army rocket program in Huntsville, Alabama. But outside of his own words, the story has never been corroborated.
But it soon was embellished. It was too good a theme to leave in such a sketchy form. Imaginations were kindled all over Europe.
A few months later, in December 1959, the Italian news agency Continentale reported that a high-ranking Czech communist had told their man in Prague about a series of Russian space failures. Three men (Ledovsky, (1957), Shiborin (1958), and Mitkov (1959)) had been lost on suborbital flights from Kapustin Yar; a fourth pilot, a woman, had flown some sort of "space airplane" into oblivion.
This was not the first time this news agency, "specializing in news from the Soviet Union" according to their own self-prepared memo, had been involved in revelations about Russia's space shots. In May 1958 they had reported that a May day moonshot with a "new secret fuel" had exploded on the pad at the "Sputnikgrad" space base in Siberia. Later they announced that the first USSR manned shots would be on board two-man spaceships. These and other exclusive stories, none ever confirmed from any other sources, created for this agency the reputation of "rumor factory".
The unfortunate thing about these stories is that many observers would be more apt to believe them without these specific reports. In 1958 many American space specialists, of whom General Medaris was the primary spokesman, urged the government to initiate Project ADAM, a program to launch pilots on a Redstone rocket to an altitude of 150 miles. As an engineering problem, this project presented no great difficulties and experts felt that, given the go-ahead, the first shots could be carried out by the end of the year.
Many people find it hard to believe that the Russians would allow the US to grab this spectacular space first while the Russian program was pushing its own program into lunar probes, manned orbital flights, and bigger scientific satellites. In May 1957 a 3000-lb. capsule with dogs had been carried to an altitude of 130 miles by an upgraded V-2 rocket (1996: this is an unfair description, since it was a completely new Russian design) launched from Kapustin Yar. More shots followed, and it is not out of the question that the Russians could have decided to put a man in the capsule and make him the first man into space.
Such a launch could have been planned in late 1957 or early 1958; such a program, pushed by reasons of political expediency which carried great weight under Khrushchev's administration, would not have been assured of success.
Later in 1958, a new rocket began lofting larger capsules to an altitude of 280 miles, first unmanned, then with dogs. If the earlier phantom manned shots had not met with success (the Italian reports dated them at November 1957 and February 1958), this series of shots throughout 1958 were more carefully prepared. However, no manned shots were announced; the Italians reported a third failure in January 1959, and a fourth in November of the same year.
This analysis may be intriguing, but a less unlikely sequence of events would be to have the Russians suspend this hypothesized sub-orbital program when Project Mercury began, since Mercury's announced schedule would clearly lag behind the Vostok orbital program. The unpleasant surprise for the Russians took place in 1960 when the Americans announced plans for a Mercury sub-orbital flight; in the end, the first Vostok orbital flight preceded the first Mercury sub-orbital flight by only three weeks.
Did the Russians rush to cover their bets in 1960? Did they restart their manned sub-orbital program and make a few flights to prevent an American "first"? By 1960, ballistic flights were well tested. One famous Russian space dog made six flights in 1959-1960. The manned flights might have been made in secret, so that the Vostok program, if it beat the Americans, would get the credit; but if the Americans were able to get off a sub-orbital flight before Vostok-1, the Russians could then announce that they had been first again.
There were indeed stories to that effect which were reported in London later in 1960. No other supporting evidence has ever come out. Vostok-1 took the first man into orbit; the earlier program, if it existed at all, was swept under the rug.
We know now that the first group of about 18 Russian cosmonauts was not selected until March 1960. Most of them were young jet pilots, aged about 25. At least two older men were also included: Komarov, then 33, and Belyayev, 34. Both men, now dead, were WWII vets and experienced test pilots. A third man, noticed in recently released photographs of the early group, seems to have been about the same age as these other two. Could he have been one of the cosmonauts named Grigori or Valentin, both mentioned in early Russian reports on cosmonaut training but never subsequently identified? (1996: Indeed yes: we now know that the photos show Grigoriy Nelyubov and Valentin Bondarenko, secret training casualties, but not in-flight fatalities).
Furthermore, could these three men have been the pilots originally selected for the postulated 1958 suborbital program? Komarov and Belyayev were obviously senior and trusted men; they did not make the earlier solo flights (young jet jockeys made better guinea pigs) but were given command of the multiman Voskhod ships: later, Komarov died flying the first Soyuz ship. Belyayev died in 1970 following surgery for a bleeding ulcer. (1996: Answer: "No")
Russia's fourth artificial earth satellite was launched on May 15, 1960. The flight of the 5-ton 4 1 spaceship-satellite" with a "dummy pilot" on board was planned to test the orientation and communication systems of the new satellite in preparation for a subsequent flight with a man on board. At the end of the test the ship was to orient itself in space, fire the retrorockets, and eject the landing capsule. This capsule was expected to burn up on reentry since the main heat shield was not installed.
After four days the orientation was not carried out correctly and the landing capsule was ejected into a different orbit.
This failure of what was obviously a prototype manned spaceship led to speculation from some Western observers that there had indeed been a live pilot on board but that he had been lost when the orientation system failed. No radio intercepts were made to back this claim. The pilot must really have been a "dummy" to allow his retros to fire in the incorrect attitude. The actual cosmonauts had only been selected six weeks before and were still doing extended calisthenics at a training camp; they did not even see a rocket until August.
There were no such rumors following the test of the second "Spaceship-satellite" in August 1960, since after 24 hours in space the cabin with two dogs inside was successfully recovered.
New rumors started soon afterwards when Russian scientists and Western specialists all agreed that the Russians were almost ready to make a manned flight. The size of the ship led many people to believe that at least two spacemen would be on board Other factors to support this belief was the observation that the Russians never sent important people anywhere without sending somebody else to watch them.
The International Astronautical Federation was meeting in Stockholm and Blagonravov told reporters that a manned Soviet space ship would be launched in the near future. Khrushchev himself announced that "we have everything ready -- a rocket and a spaceship in which a man can be sent, but it is difficult to say when the launching will take place". Leonid Sedov, in Berlin, said soon after the successful recovery of the second spaceship that the USSR would launch a manned satellite "soon". He added that there would be further tests before manned satellites were launched. Dr. Vasily Parin stated that "we are on the
threshold of our decisive state-of manned space flight". Western observers concurred. During August and September, such men as Dr. Lovell of Jodrell Bank, missile chief General Medaris, Air Force Chief of Staff Thomas D. White, and other specialists all agreed that a Soviet manned flight could take place at any time.
Khrushchev came to the UN in September 1960 and wound up pounding his shoe. During his visit the previous autumn, the moonprobe Luna-3 had been launched.
Stories of new Russian plans and hidden Russian failures spring up and thrived, and these stories still circulate. Willy Ley believed that this period was the only plausible possibility for some secret Russian manned failure. American
specialists such as General D.D. Flickinger and NASA head T. Keith Glennan made public statements at the time. A few months later, European observers such as Paul Ghali, Chapman Pincher and others came up with variant and contradictory
accounts of what really happened.
What did happen? Khrushchev came to New York on the liner Baltika, arriving September 19th. The Soviet Union told everyone to pay attention to the date of September 27th, but nothing happened. Soviet space tracking fleets were on
station in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Stories of a manned shot failure circulated. Khrushchev pounded his shoe, extended his stay, then flew home in a huff on October 13th. A defector from the ship Baltika said that there were
"spaceship models" on board. The space tracking ships lay dead in the water and finally headed for home on October 15th.
Was a man launched on September 27? On October 4th? On October 11th? All those dates were suggested.
The whole world was alerted, but no one saw what we know now really happened: on October 10th, and again on October 14th, two new-type Russian rockets (the standard booster plus new upper stages and payloads) were launched into space.
Their mission: flight to Mars.
Both launches failed early in flight. There is every reason to suppose that the military intelligence services who monitored the launchings were as puzzled by these shots as anyone else would have been. Perhaps leaks about these mysterious launches led to some of the later stories, but by this date, the earlier stories had already started.
One thing can be suggested: the "spaceship models" on the Baltika reported by defector Viktor Jaanimets were models of the Mars payloads. When the first successful Russian interplanetary probe was launched, photos and models were displayed almost immediately. It was more than five years after Gagarin's flight before photos and models of the Vostok spaceship were unveiled.
When Khrushchev was pounding his shoe, he was laughing in glee, not howling in anger. Some speculate that he was furious with some bad news from Baikonur. Photographs of his shoe-pounding episode shoot down this interpretation.
A "mystery satellite" had been detected some weeks earlier, traveling in such an odd orbit that specialists initially were completely at a loss to explain who might have launched it. The object was eventually found to have been an
errant reentry capsule from one of the Discoverer shots launched earlier that year. The story of the "mystery satellite" added to the suspense.
The "Day in the History of the World" program on September 27th was an extensive project to make a "snapshot" of all the activities of people all over the world, to put together a giant book about what the whole world was doing on September 27, 1960. The date was the 25th anniversary of a similar project carried out under the direction of Maxim Gorky on September 27, 1935. Yes, there was speculation that some scientific or space achievement was going to be announced; but no, there was no "official prediction" of such an announcement. (1996: The Soviets repeated this exercise on Sept 27, 1985).
The speculations by Western observers and the predictions by Russian scientists both contributed towards an atmosphere of expectation and excitement centered around Khrushchev's trip. The Russian propaganda machine could not have hoped
for better publicity.
Some specialists did indeed suggest that probes to Mars were in the offing. The celestial mechanics of the positions of Earth and Mars dictated that such a shot was possible early in October, just as a shot to Venus would be possible the following February. Early in 1960, the Soviet scientist Blagonravov had reported that the just-concluded rocket tests into the Pacific had been designed to test new space rockets for moon probes, rockets to Mars and Venus, and recoverable earth satellites; furthermore, he plainly said that preparations were going forward to make such flights.
After careful study of the newspaper reports, one can conclude that the Soviet space-tracking ships were positioned in September-October 1960 in the same formation which they repeated four months later (in February 1961) which was
along the first orbit ground track of an interplanetary probe in parking orbit. The ships assumed these positions again in January 1961 and remained there for the two Venus shots on February 4th and February 12th. By February 15th, they
were reported again steaming toward home.
In the West, the "morning-after" depression had set in by November 1960, and correspondents began trying to figure out why nothing had happened. A manned shot had been expected, and had not been announced. Why not? Perhaps it had been delayed, or perhaps it had been launched and the pilot had been killed. Perhaps both.
Something more was added by the Russians and their less-than-candid information policies. Field Marshall Mitrofan Nedelin, a top official in the Russian missile program, had reportedly "died in an aircraft accident". Within a few weeks, Nedelin was reported either killed by an exploding nuclear missile, driven to suicide by a furious Khrushchev after the failure to orbit a man, or perhaps actually killed in a plane crash. (1996: We now know he perished along with a hundred others in an unrelated ICBM accident at Baykonur on Oct 24).
What can be said of these stories? It is only about the Soviet Union that such stories arise. Does that prove the point of the Russian defensive complaints that the authors "hate Socialist reality"? Or can it be said simply that people are just used to thinking that in Russia one thing usually means something else?
These stories found new support some years later in the text of the so-called "Penkovsky Papers", allegedly the diary of Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. The man really existed. He was a Soviet military intelligence officer who worked for the CIA in the period 1960-1962 and was caught and executed in 1963. All the hard intelligence he gathered was transmitted to the West through his contact, Greville Wynn. The diary, according to its publishers, was smuggled by sensitive routes into the hands of Russian emigre groups in Germany. (1996: That was a cover story -- the CIA released the authentic but often unreliable book)
The book is full of stories, events and opinions which make for fascinating reading. In it we find the statements which allege that prior to Gagarin's flight several men were launched into the stratosphere and never heard from again.
We also find the Nedelin/nuclear missile story, in some greater detail than the earlier version, but with the particulars unchanged. No Western specialist felt that the original story was plausible; the retelling is even less so.
(The death of Nedelin in a missile explosion was unexpectedly confirmed in 1974 in the second edition of Khrushchev's memoirs. Although several dozen people really were killed the missile involved was the standard space booster, not an
exotic atom-powered vehicle.) (1996: No, it was a new-design ICBM).
"Penkovsky" writes that the Russian manned shots are launched from the Urals, "near Orenburg". This is like saying that Cape Kennedy is in the Appalachians, near Chattanooga. The real Penkovsky must have known (since the Russians
publicly announced the launch site In 1961) that Baikonur is more than 600 miles from Orenburg. Even in Central Asia, that's stretching the meaning of the word "near".
The Russian test program continued through 1960. As if showing their disdain for Western speculation, they launched their third spaceship-satellite on December 1st, in what was apparently planned as a repeat of the August mission. It probably was to have been the last shot before a manned orbital flight. However, the retro-fire orientation was off and the capsule descended along the wrong trajectory. The heat shield became overloaded and the capsule and its canine crew disintegrated.
Mission duration was reduced from 16 to a single revolution and two unmanned tests were successfully concluded in March 1961. The speculation and anticipation hit a fever pitch.
There had already been several false alarms. First in January, the launch of an object "with missile characteristics" from Russia across the Pacific, coinciding with the redeployment of the Russian tracking fleet and with suggestions in the West that Kennedy's, inauguration was a likely time for a Russian manned shot, all combined to a suggestion-in some circles to become a certainty-that a Russian manned shot was about to happen or had already happened.
A few weeks later, on February 4th, the Russians announced the launching of a seven-ton sputnik. The flight of this heaviest-ever satellite was surrounded by mystery. The Russians said little about it at first, leaving Western specialists to conclude that the actual results of the launching were unexpected. Somebody tuned in on 22 mhz and heard "moans and heartbeats". Someone else heard Russian morse code.
Was this a manned shot? Had the pilot been-incapacitated at launch, and was he now flying through space, slowly dying in the interplanetary vastness?
The Russians were obviously covering up something. A series of lesser scientists were trotted out to talk about the advances and experiments on the new sputnik. It would "study the earth as a planet". It had "a series of new scientific instruments". It "brought the first manned flight closer".
An Italian physiologist, listening to a tape of the "heartbeats", said that they were obviously from a dying man.
Knowledgeable observers have called this last report "utter nonsense". Some have used stronger words. Biomedical data from space is encoded onto telemetry carrier signals which are then decoded on the ground. Heartbeat, breath rate, temperature, etc., are all encoded together; the signal sounds like chirping or organ piping. It does not sound like heartbeats.
Some more comments are in order at this point concerning reports of intercepted radio signals from Russian space probes. On October 1, 1957, 3 days before the launch of their first sputnik, the Russians released the frequencies to be used for their space probes. Western experts were surprised to notice that these frequencies, at 20 and 40 megahertz, were right in the middle of amateur radio bands. Space-to-ground propagation is not optimal at these frequencies, but at the same time there already existed a large inventory of radio communications gear which could operate at these frequencies. Or could simulate operations at these frequencies.
There is no easy way to determine if a particular radio signal is indeed coming from a satellite. Doppler shifts can be observed on the signal. A better criterion would be in realizing that signals from a satellite can normally only be received while the satellite is in line-of-sight with a ground station, a condition which only lasts a few minutes for satellites close to the earth.
The radio spectrum is very busy, especially at the frequencies picked for Soviet space telemetry. The first radio intercept of an alleged Russian satellite was made in Sweden in January, 1958, and Western observers concluded that a third Sputnik had been launched. As it turned out, the signal was being transmitted by an idling experimental teleprinter in Leningrad.
Eight days after the mysterious shot on 4 February, the Russian Venus shot got off successfully. A new second stage launched an injection stage and payload into a parking orbit around the earth. After the appropriate coasting period, the third stage ignited and boosted the payload onto an escape trajectory.
It became quite clear that the February 4th launching was a earlier Venus shot where the injection stage had failed to ignite. Booster, telemetry, and time of launching all combined to present overwhelming evidence toward this conclusion. Yet in March another Italian news agency was still able to announce that "a high Soviet official in Warsaw" had admitted that the 4 February shot had indeed had a man on board and that he had been dead when brought back from space.
All these pre-Gagarin rumors and reports were expertly summarized in "Russian Murders in Outer Space", an article by James Mills, published in the June 196l issue of True magazine. His major points concerning the sub-orbital deaths, the September 1960 event, and the pre-Gagarin event, have already been dealt with in this paper. Of particular interest is his insistence that the February 4th launching was really a two-man capsule. Since the evidence against this is so devastatingly overwhelming, the careful structure of misinterpretations, half-truths, and errors concerning this event in Mr. Mills' article must be completely overturned.
In early April it was clear that the manned shot was imminent. The "cosmonaut" would be a young man, alone, planning to make one circuit of the earth.
By April 9th, every foreign newsman in Moscow was sitting by his radio set. On the next day, Dennis Ogden, the Moscow correspondent of the British Communist newspaper Daily Worker, scooped the world with his report that a man had been shot into space but had returned deranged and was now hidden away in a rest home. The pilot was indirectly identified as Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Sergeyevich Ilyushin, son of the aircraft designer and a famous test pilot in his own right. The cosmonaut, launched on April 7th or 8th, had circled the earth three times in his spaceship "Rossiya" ("Russia").
Amid the confusion, on April 12, the spaceship "Vostok" circled the earth once and landed. Major Yuri Gagarin, 27, was named as its pilot.
His bronze bust was unveiled in Moscow. Posters with his portrait were distributed to the cheering crowds. A new Soviet postage stamp was issued. All these factors indicate a long period of preparation for this precise event.
What can we make of the Ogden report? Even after the passage of years, many still believe that an earlier flight was made.
Ogden was aware of the rumors and stories about an imminent manned space flight. There had been indications that it had almost been launched several times. Or perhaps it had really been launched, and the official silence implied that it had failed.
Furthermore, he learned from other personal contacts that Lieutenant Colonel Ilyushin, who was a neighbor of Ogden's in Moscow, had been injured somehow and was in a hospital.
Ogden concluded that the flight had already taken place and that Ilyushin was the pilot. With extra details from the U.S. Mercury program, he wrote his story and sent it out to London. The correspondent was wrong on so many particulars that he probably never even got to any real news leak. There was enough evidence flowing around Moscow to put his story together with.
The best argument against the report of this and earlier failures is the fact that when Gagarin was eventually launched, TASS released its first bulletin while he was still in flight. This sequence of flight events and TASS announcements has been precisely expounded in Danilov's readable and complete survey of the Russian space program, The Kremlin and the Cosmos. If the flight had been preceded by unannounced failures, it is obvious that it would not have been announced until a successful completion had been achieved.
All this confusion and doubt about a possible previous flight, together with some glaring holes and suspicious silence on some aspects of the Gagarin mission, led many observers to voice serious doubt about whether Gagarin had really ever made the flight as reported by the Russians.
On this subject we can speak with some certainty. Despite the distortions, half-truths, errors and lies about the mission of Vostok-1, we can really believe that it did occur essentially but not exactly as the Russian official reports claimed.
A few weeks after the event, the doubts and suspicions were solidified into a story in US News and World Report. All the stories about the mysterious Ilyushin event were recalled. Many sources were quoted to the effect that the Gagarin flight was a fraud, a fictional rerun (with a stand-in spaceman) of a real event which occurred a few days earlier and which had incapacitated its original pilot.
We can now be certain that no launching took place a few days earlier. Furthermore, the booster that launched Gagarin was tracked and followed by US space facilities.
One factor which was quoted in 1961 as a serious flaw in Gagarin's story has since been shown to have been one of the most telling testimonials to the truth of his story. At the post-flight news conference, one of the few real facts that Gagarin was allowed to relate was that while in orbit he was able to discern villages, rail lines, plowed fields, and other small features on the earth more than a hundred miles below him. This claim was received with complete disbelief by Western specialists. Two years later, Gordon Cooper looked out his window on Mercury-9 and saw that what he claimed were smoke trails, highways, villages, and similar features. No one believed him either; no one believed that the human eye could detect such small features at such a great distance.
After subsequent tests on later Gemini flights it was determined that such resolution was indeed possible, that Cooper had seen what he claimed to have seen, and that Gagarin was also not lying when he claimed the same thing. Yet before the event, every specialist had maintained that such a feat was impossible. Had Gagarin been lying about his mission, there is no way he would have claimed to have done something that he knew everyone would discount as impossible.
Descriptions of portholes and cameras on the Vostok spaceship suffered from translation and censorship problems. The pressurized section inside which Gagarin rode was cylindrical in shape, with a porthole at his feet and another above his head. Today there is little doubt that Gagarin carried a camera and took photographs of the earth. In 1961, the U-2 flight was too fresh in people's minds for the Russians to make themselves vulnerable to space spying charges. They denied that Gagarin had taken cameras with him, even after he mentioned it in public.
Photographs of Gagarin, released in Moscow, showed him during various periods in his training. One shot of him during early training caught the fancy of a Western newsman. It showed the young flier in a Lindbergh type leather helmet, a broad smile on his face. In the West, some specialists jumped to the conclusion that this was the suit Gagarin had worn into space.
The orbit of the ship also gave rise to controversy. Blasting off from Baikonur on an easterly course into a 65' inclination orbit, the ship passed over Siberia, south across the Pacific, north across the southern tip of South America, across Africa, and down into southeast European Russia. Yet serious observers could claim at the time that there was no way Gagarin could possibly fly across South America. Part of the problem was in the TASS announcement that Gagarin had passed over South America 15 minutes after launch, rather than one hour and fifteen minutes. This misprint was corrected, but some people took it as a glaring error, not carelessness.
One more area of confusion must be approached: how did Gagarin land? The Vostok capsule has an ejection seat that the pilot can use during blastoff as an emergency escape system, and during landing; every subsequent Vostok pilot ejected from his capsule during the final descent phase and landed separately by individual parachute. Presumably the main chutes on the 6000-lb. descent capsule could not slow the rate of descent to a comfortable level at impact. US designers solved this touchdown problem by utilizing the cushioning effect of a water landing. This was not an option open to the Russians.
Early accounts described the Vostok-1 pilot as swinging from a parachute, singing Russian songs, landing on his feet with the capsule landing nearby. Suddenly the Russians began to hedge on this subject. At his news conference, Gagarin was asked directly (by a Western correspondent; the Soviet newsmen already had the script) whether he had descended in the ship or outside it. After a moment's consultation with the security officer, Gagarin gave what can be best described as an "extremely evasive" answer. He said that the Vostok design was so brilliant that both modes of descent were possible, and then went on to praise the "chief designer" for his foresight and engineering skill.
Why would the Russians lie about such a thing? A possible explanation has to do with all the "world records" which the Russians were claiming in connection with the flight. The accepted practice for certifying world records had to be
bypassed in this case because no neutral observers were present. There would clearly be some trouble about that. Furthermore, standard aircraft procedures required that to be eligible for a record a pilot must stay with his aircraft
and land it safely. Had Gagarin bailed out of his spacecraft, the debate over certification clearly would have been more fierce, with some parties, the Russians feared, demanding that future launches actually be witnessed by real neutral observers. Once this flight was accepted, future flights would have no such difficulties; the precedent would have been set.
Hence the lie about how Gagarin had landed. Several years later, as this story became harder and harder to maintain, the fiction was dropped altogether. The Voskhod flight in 1964 was hailed as the first flight in which the crew was able to "land in their ship".
Can we settle another intriguing and persistent question: do the Russians lie about their space missions? Some observers believe that once a mission is in progress the Russians are quite straightforward about it, and that rather than lie they will be evasive or just completely silent. In other views, the entire Russian space program is a fraud, a hoax, a lie, put together to fool the world into believing in the technical virtuosity of Communist science.
We saw that the Russians did indeed lie about aspects of Gagarin's flight. They lied about the Venus-failure on February 4, 1961, claiming it was a special scientific satellite. They lie when they claim that their entire program is devoted to peaceful purposes, as opposed to the US program, ignoring completely their reconnaissance, satellite interception, and Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, which is in spirit if not in fact a clear violation of the Nuclear Weapons Ban in Outer Space.
In many cases they lie when they claim that the mission (manned or unmanned) has ended, "fulfilling the entire flight program". They have claimed that they do not hide, because they have none, launch failures.
Of course, real missions with undeniable objectives have been observed to end in failure: the early Venus and Mars shots, the first soft-landing attempts, Luna-15 and -18, Soyuz-1 and Soyuz-11. Such failures as these cannot be hidden, but some very clever footwork is observed in news released which describe how the mission went perfectly until the last-minute hitch.
In other words, the Russians hide things which many Americans would like to hide about their own program, but with more success. Blame for this must be placed on the high-level decision to utilize successes in space as a propaganda tool for displaying "the superiority of socialism".
Observers who do not believe in the superiority of socialism may be tempted therefore to disbelieve the entire Soviet space program. John W. Campbell called this the "Say-it-isn't-so" syndrome, and described it and its chief prophet, Lloyd Mallan, in a definitive article in "National Review".
Since 1957, Mr. Mallan has maintained that each successive Russian space feat has been faked or greatly exaggerated. In 1959 he testified before Congress that the Russian moon-probe had never existed. The next year he maintained that the farside moon photos were faked. Later he picked up and played up the discrepancies and distortions in the manned flight program. The 1965 space-walk was a fake, he maintained; the 1967 Soyuz disaster was not what it appeared, he claims, but was possibly the first "real" Russian spaceflight.
Mr. Mallan's research is thorough; his understanding of some basic principles of astronautics is somewhat less so. He takes a safe and reasonable maxim ("Don't believe everything the Russians say") and extends it ad absurdium ("don't believe anything the Russians say"). Certainly, as this study clearly indicates, Russian claims must be carefully judged against their context and against other sources. Clearly, the Russians would like to hide failures and set-backs, and to give the best possible image to the world. This public relations effort has been known to employ careless if not fraudulent techniques, such as the method of taking US sketches, photos and charts, changing the language, and releasing them, explicitly or implicitly, as Soviet achievements.
The Luna-3 photos are really genuine, all of Mr. Mallan's tedious details notwithstanding. Conversely, Mr. Mallan is right when he says that most of the Leonov spacewalk movies are not genuine. They are shots underwater, shots from wire-suspension training sets, shots in simulations and practices. The Russians were often careless in describing the sources of these films. The spacewalk itself was real.
After Gagarin's flight the Vostok program made five more announced shots in 1961-1963; Voskhod, an extensively modified Vostok, made two flights in 1964 and 1965.
In parallel with these flights, which were publicly announced soon after launch (and which, we will also see, were often preceded by "unofficial" announcements), we are told to believe that there was a second series of flights, never presaged and never announced, which always killed the crews. As Dr. Charles Sheldon has worded it, we are to postulate a public success program which always (until 1967) returned its crews safely and a secret failure program which always killed its crews.
Although the Soviet manned space program is shrouded in secrecy, and Western observers are annoyed by the official policy of never announcing shots until after launch (and never announcing mission goals until after they are accomplished successfully), there have been real cases of leaks through this veil of secrecy. The prologue to Gagarin's flight demonstrated that a big story just can't be hidden, even in the Soviet Union.
Almost every Soviet manned flight was indeed preceded by some sort of unofficial leak. On July 29, 1961, a "source" in Moscow reported that the next manned shot would take place in a few weeks, and that the pilot would fly for a considerably longer period than Gagarin's single revolution of the earth. A week later the cosmonaut Titov was launched on a flight of 16 revolutions.
Beginning in the fall of 1961, a series of predictions concerning women in space were made by Soviet space officials. By the time that the actual launch took place, in June 1963, the age, character and training of the female-cosmonaut had already been made public in the Soviet press. An Italian news agency even claimed (erroneously) to know her name.
The commander of the seventh Soviet space mission was interviewed on Moscow radio in 1964, some months prior to his flight. Identified only as "K", the pilot described his life, hobbies, and background to the radio audience. The day before Komarov took off, a Moscow source described the upcoming mission of the world's first passenger spaceship. As detailed in the report, a pilot, a scientist and a physician would together make a "long" space flight.
The three men were indeed launched in October 1964. The spaceship, named the "Voskhod", landed after only a single day in space, prompting speculation which endures to this day that the mission was cut short for technical or medical reasons. Stories that they were called down by the new Kremlin chiefs are in error; the mission was over before word of the Khrushchev ouster reached the control center.
Toward the end of 1966, stories began spreading that a new type of Soviet space ship would soon begin an extensive series of flights. This program was to completely eclipse the accomplishments of the American Gemini shots, which had carried out repeated rendezvous and space-walk tests, made record breaking endurance and altitude flights, and trained a generation of American astronauts for the Apollo moon missions.
The new Russian ship would carry "many cosmonauts". It would employ a revolutionary new landing system. It would be capable of flights around the earth and to the moon.
In April, 1967 the rumors became more specific. Two manned ships would be launched soon. They would dock together in space, and cosmonauts would transfer from one ship to another.
Komarov was launched into orbit on Soyuz-1. "Sources" predicted that three men would follow the next day on board Soyuz-2.
Soyuz-1 ran into difficulties and was recalled to earth. Komarov perished, allegedly when the main landing parachute failed to open. No one knows what the actual mission was to have been. The Russians, of course, claimed that but for the slight disappointment at the end the flight was a complete success. (1996: we now know the two-ship docking and transfer was indeed intended).
Six months later the Russians did launch two Soyuz spaceships. They docked together in space, then separated and landed. They were launched unmanned and carried out their entire mission automatically.
In October 1969 the world was told to expect the launch of three Soyuz ships together. The ships were launched.
Four years after Komarov's death, the next major step in the Soviet space program was in preparation. In April 1971 the now-familiar "sources in Moscow" reported that the launch of a prototype space station was near, and that three cosmonauts would be launched later to inhabit the station for 30 days.
The "Salyut" space station was in due course launched into space, and a few days later a Soyuz spaceship with pilot and two "engineer-cosmonauts" was launched after it. The two craft linked up. The Soyuz and its crew suddenly cast off from the station and returned to earth.
Six weeks later a second Soyuz was launched. Its three-man crew did indeed transfer to the larger craft and did remain there for 23 days. On their return to earth they lost their lives in a freak accident.
These "sources" seem to have a remarkably good track record, especially in regard to their other main competitor in the Russian-prediction field: technological forecasts by Western experts.
The Soviet space program usually progresses through a series of developmental flights toward more and more complex missions. Sometimes these earlier flights can be observed and extrapolated into their logical conclusions. Without access to Soviet plans, this process is very hit or miss. Data points can be completely misinterpreted. Much information necessary to make this scheme valid is simply not available. In the end we are left with hunches and guesses.
When would the first Soviet manned spaceflight take place? We have already seen how the intense speculation about this subject throughout 1960 led to the air of expectation and mystery which contributed to the "dead Russian cosmonaut" rumors at the time of Khrushchev's UN visit.
When would the Russians send the first woman into space? When would a Russian space capsule first carry more than a single crewman? When would the Russians send the first men to the moon? When would the first Russian cosmonaut die in space?
These were serious questions. All the attempts to answer them would fill a book. Some of the wrong answers will be discussed here.
Beginning in 1958, Western observers repeatedly predicted the imminent launching of Russians into space. In July, Marquis Childs reported from Paris that "Sputnik-4" would be launched into orbit that month with a dog on board; the capsule would be brought back to earth, paving the way for a manned shot before the end of the year. At the August 1958 meeting of the International Astronautical Federation in Amsterdam, Western experts cited a "minimum timetable" of one year before a manned shot could be attempted by the Russians.
"Aviation Week" reported a few months later that the USSR would put its first man into orbit early in 1960. The following year, the same journal reported that the Soviet timetable was slipping but that the project was still assigned high priority.
In August 1959, "West German intelligence sources" were quoted in a report that preparation for sending a man into orbit were "virtually complete". The shot might occur during Khrushchev's scheduled visit to the UN the following month. In October, the London Daily Herald reported from Moscow that the manned shotwould occur the following spring. According to correspondent John Mossman's dispatch, twenty young Russians had been training for more than two years in a secret base in Central Asia.
The persistence of these reports and the lack of any Russian announcements of success probably contributed substantially to the spread of rumors of failures, which began soon afterward. The extensive Western speculation and the complete Russian silence on the subject prepared very fertile ground for these stories to thrive on. Once begun, the stories continued to grow right up until the eve of Gagarin's flight.
A month after Gagarin's flight, new signals were picked up on the regular Russian space telemetry frequencies. Both the amateur Torre Bert station near Turin, Italy and the Bochum Observatory in Germany independently picked up voice transmissions in Russian. At Bochum, director Heinz Kaminski reported hearing the words "moon" and "cave" in Russian, but stated that the broadcasts had originated on the ground.
The Russian Venus probe, launched in February, had lost its main communications system after a week of flight. Now in mid-May, as it was nearing its target, the Russians contacted Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory in England to inform them of a stand-by communications system which would be activated automatically. The British observatory did pick up signals on the appropriate frequency.
We now have mysterious Russian signals from space; we have voice transmissions, picked up on the same frequency that Gagarin (and thousands of Russian ham radio enthusiasts) used; we have the active imaginations of an alert world.
The elements fermented and synthesized into a new story, a story of a multi-man Russian spacecraft, secretly launched on a week-long trip through space, with the transmissions monitored and the final words-during a mysterious failure of all spacecraft systems-heard by radio tracking stations all over Europe.
In reality, only one station claimed to have heard these broadcasts: the Torre Bert station near Turin, Italy, operated by two radio enthusiasts, the brothers Judica-Cordiglia. Bochum heard voice transmissions ("from the ground", they concluded) and Jodrell Bank thought they were getting the Venus probe beacon.
When Titov was launched on a 24 hour flight in August, the list of stations picking up his ship's signals reads like a directory of space tracking facilities: US Minitrack stations, the Army Ft. Monmouth Astro-Observation Center, the BBC Caversham listening station, Jodrell Bank, the French national radio observatory at Meudon, the Torre Bert station, and others.
During this mysterious event in May, allegedly lasting seven days, only Torre Bert heard the voice communications from the "cosmonauts".
A similar occurrence took place in October. On the 13th, the American Discoverer-32 satellite was shot into orbit. On board was a signal propagation test beacon operating at 20 mhz. Sure enough, within 24 hours this beacon was picked up around the world: at the Postal-Radio Wave Institute in Tokyo (which even was able to estimate the orbital characteristics fairly accurately), at the Enkoping Telegraph station in Sweden, and at Bochum in West Germany. Other receptions were reported from Dakar and Sydney.
This time, Torre Bert stayed out of it, and it was the job of Paul Meskil, a New York World Telegram and Sun staff writer, to report that "secret intelligence sources" had revealed that the unsuccessful multi-man shot on October 14th had been "knocked off course" by solar-flare interference in its radio guidance system. The capsule had flown off into space and had vanished.
These two mysterious events -- May 17 and October 14, 1961 -- set the pattern for later reports. Unlike earlier stories, which were connected with real Russian launchings with mysterious characteristics, these new reports were triggered simply by mysterious radio signals on the appropriate frequencies.
There were no new Russian spacecraft in orbit at these dates; all sources of spacetrack information agree on this. There is absolutely no chance that a multi-man crew could have been launched in a Vostok in 1961.
Furthermore, the pilot sequence for the first Vostok flights is perfectly clear. Titov was backup for Gagarin in April (photos released at that date show half his face), and made his own flight not on May 17th but on Vostok-2 on August 6th. Nikolayev was his backup (he is shown in photos) and made his flight the following year. There is no space in this sequence for missing pilots on secret missions.
We are left with no alternative but to completely reject these two reports. Furthermore, these reports are so patently fraudulent that their sources, and any similar stories originating from these same sources, must be regarded with the deepest suspicion.
The United States finally matched Gagarin's flight when John Glenn circled the earth three times in February 1962. At this point, several observers independently tried to summarize the relative standings of the two spacefaring nations in terms of manned space flight. The subject of hidden Russian manned failures was brought up for comparison with the American policy of open and public efforts.
Drew Pearson summarized the earlier stories in his column in the Washington Post. Five Russians had died in space, he reported: first, the three sub-orbital shots reported by Continentale Agency in 1959 (but not the fourth shot, nor the woman in the space aeroplane"); next the first unmanned test in May 1960; finally, the unsuccessful attempt in September 1960. The Ogonyok article about 11 spaceman training" was reported, and the names of the men listed. The suggestion was made that they, too, have perished. Senator Henry Jackson asserted (and maintains to this day) that "lives were lost in their attempts". The U.S. News & World Report, in a comprehensive article on March 12th, revealed that a whole series of Russian space shots had gone awry. While Khrushchev was at the UN in September 1960 a man was shot into space. The rocket failed and the man perished. Two other shots at Mars both failed. Other test shots and probes fell short. The definitive article on the subject was published in FATE magazine under the byline of Frank Edwards. He catalogued a whole series of shots. Unfortunately his notes must have been highly illegible; he misspells practically every Russian name, quotes non-existent sources and articles, and thoroughly jumbles the cosmonaut names and launch dates of the alleged manned shots. The planned sequence of Russian orbital flights had already been described in 1959 by Mr. Edwards. First, a single man would circle the earth. Then, a few weeks later, two men would fly around the moon, sending reports to earth by radio. It would probably be a suicide mission. The May 17, 1961 event is described in particularly intriguing detail. With reports of signals from space and several Russian spacemen reporting to earth (from the "moon", using the call sign "cave", or "hole", for the earth control center), Mr. Edwards decided to describe the event in just the way he had predicted it more than a year earlier. A man and a woman reported "Everything satisfactory, we are maintaining the prescribed altitude". On May 24th, however, the voices reported that trouble had developed, and with ever increasing excitement described the sequence of events. Finally, the man sighed, "If we do not get out the world will never learn about it". Presumably he meant that the flight would remain a secret. In Flying Saucers, Serious Business, Edwards decided that he really meant that the world would never learn about the flying saucer that was intercepting them. Edwards also decided that the flight had occurred in February, not May. From European sources, Mr. Edwards comes up with some new material. The September 1960 event (Mr. Edwards says October 11th) is assigned to the Russian test pilot Pyotr Dolgov. He is supposed to have "been tracked for 20 minutes by stations in Turkey, Japan, Sweden, England and Italy". That report was certainly a surprise for these stations. As we have seen, none of them had ever claimed to have picked up manned signals at that date. Early in 1963, Sir Bernard Lovell, director of Jodrell Bank, categorically wrote that "we have no reason to believe that there have been any unsuccessful manned space attempts by the USSR". Lieutenant Colonel Dolgov is another matter. Dolgov, an experienced test pilot and stratospheric parachutist, really did disappear under mysterious circumstances about that time. More than two years later the Russians announced that he had just died in a high altitude jump in November 1962! A defector reports that Dolgov was killed testing the Vostok ejection seat in March 1961. As in the case of Nedelin's death, the less-than-candid publicity policies of the Soviet space program were instrumental in the creation and sustenance of these rumors. (1996: the Nov 1962 story appears correct). Clearly stung by the persistence and growth of these stories, the Russians released a series of denials and explanations. The alleged Ilyushin pre-Gagarin mission was the subject of particularly strong denunciations. The Ogonyok article was explained and the present occupation and location of the men involved were disclosed. The Continentale story was denied. Outside of FATE magazine, no one gave any credence to the two 1961 multi-man reports. Observers in the West rejected the obviously incredible stories and believed the ones that sounded right. Some "sounded right" because they were of the type that everyone was expecting. In other words, speculating led to selecting which rumor to believe. The speculation came first; evidence was then selected or rejected to fit preconceived assumptions. As suggested by Pearson, the names of the Ogonyok pilots Belokonev, Kachur and Grachev were soon added to the list of "dead Russian cosmonauts". An Italian journalist named Lazzero published a list of nine fatal Russian cosmonaut shots. Other European sources reworked and repeated the rapidly growing mythology. The Edwards story formed the basis for a series of reports throughout the next year or two: in the Washington Evening Star in December 1962, and in May 1963 in the New York Journal-American, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington D.C. "Space Business Daily". Coinciding with a series of Senate committee hearings on Russian space failures, these last reports were widely circulated and elicited a strong denial from Alexei Adzhubei, editor-in-chief of Izvestia.
The real Soviet manned space program continued its series of advances, and other than historical interest in the subject of dead Russian spacemen began to fade. The Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera published a summary of such events shortly after Leonov's spacewalk in March 1965. Besides the events already described, new shots were detailed: a November 1962 flight when Belokonev was killed; a female cosmonaut, lost on 10 November 1963; another flight, with tragic results, in April 1964. The course of these stories was the Torre Bert radiomen , the brothers Judica-Cordiglia. The Judica-Cordiglia brothers were themselves described in "Reader's Digest" later that year. General Kamanin, director of Russian cosmonaut training, issued a particularly thunderous denunciation soon afterwards. Also in 1965 we first encountered the document known as the Epstein report. This well researched and finely organized study swept away all the accumulated errors in the stories and concisely enumerated all the mysterious events: the first Vostok test with a "dummy" cosmonaut, the Khrushchev mission, the Venus-failure shot, the pre-Gagarin shot, the two multi-manned shots of 1961, later shots. (1996: I met with Epstein at his office in California in 1971) Bob Considine wrote up the Epstein report in his column in June 1965; UPI carried it as a news story in May, 1967; it was read into the Congressional Record in 1971. This report is the best summary of the early stories. The facts are well organized and some new opinions added, but there is nothing in it to throw any doubt on the explanations and rebuttals already advanced in this present report. This present report has attempted to describe all the rumors about secret Russian manned spaceflights which are alleged to have occurred in this period. It is the considered judgment of this author that many of these stories were obvious frauds, but that many others were supported by substantial, even overwhelming evidence. We have tried to demonstrate that such latter cases were the result of a series of factors, none of which has ever really indicated that such flights took place. We maintain that there is absolutely no believable evidence of any kind that would warrant the conclusion that any Russian spacemen were killed on space missions prior to 1967.
(1996: What we did NOT know in these years was that cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko had died in a ground training accident just weeks before the Vostok-1 flight, and rumors of his death spread and mutated through the USSR).
The stories of secret Russian space deaths received one more double-shot lease on life in early 1967. The tragic Apollo fire which took the lives of three American astronauts caused the subject of deaths of Russian astronauts to be brought back into the limelight. People were looking for a reason for not feeling so bad about the American failure, since maybe the Russians were a lot worse. People were also reacting to the Soviet self-righteousness which alleged that the tragedy was the result of American haste, capitalistic greed, industrial incompetence, and scientific blindness. A week after the Apollo fire, the so-called "Allen-Scott report" was unveiled. In it, the columnists Robert Allen and Paul Scott described a "secret CIA report" prepared for the White House in 1966 which supposedly described five fatal Russian spaceflights and six fatal ground accidents. The Nedelin report was resurrected almost word-for-word from the "Penkovsky" report. Consideration was supposedly being given by the President to declassifying these reports, and the "...purpose would be to demonstrate that the US space program is still by far the safest." Their source was not a copy of the report but a communication from "a member of Congress, now retired." Three months later the Russians scored another feat: the first man killed on a space mission. Komarov was launched on Soyuz-1 and died on the return to earth. Many Americans felt sorrow for the man and a twinge of satisfaction at the comeuppance given the Soviet Union, especially considering the smug and boastful Russian comments on the Apollo tragedy which were still fresh in everyone's mind. Questions were again raised about possible earlier Soviet space fatalities. With the passage of time, this body of reports has not died out as the Russians obviously hoped, nor has it been confirmed by declassification of hypothetical CIA reports or by revelations from Russian defectors as many Western observers hoped. The most recent high ranking Russian defector, a science writer who was very close to the Russian program (and who certainly cannot be accused of trying to cover up anything), writes in his book The Russian Space Bluff that "...I am today inclined to think that there was no 'pre-Gagarin' manned spaceflight". (Leonid Vladimirov-Finkelstein) Yet the stories do not fade away. They cropped up in a story by Nino LoBello in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1970; they came up in the Western book reviews of the official Soviet version of their space program, Riabchikov's Russians in Space, published in 1971. The Judica-Cordiglia brothers are still at work, now in their late 30's, still listening to the signals from space, all according to a weekly newspaper story in March 1971. In June 1971 Ramparts magazine interviewed an alleged ex-NSA man who mentioned a two-man rocket explosion in 1966.
The 1971 deaths of the three Salyut crewmen did not result in a flurry of new stories about their alleged predecessors/predeceasers. Perhaps by now there are enough real dead Russian spacemen. Gagarin died in a plane crash in 1967 while preparing for a new spaceflight. Belyayev died of medical reasons in 1970. It is beyond the realm of possibility that in an occupation so hazardous, and with men so daring, there could not have been other deaths, in plane crashes, car wrecks, whatever, of men whose turn to fly had not, and now would never, come.
Photographs of such men from earlier cosmonaut classes have now been identified. It is possible that ultimately these stories will never die but will become part of the secret lore of the early days of piloted flight: the hot air balloon ascensions, the stories of the dirigibles, the first trans-Atlantic flights, the rocket planes, and now space ships, and the special breed of men who flew them-to glory and to death. Such stories form their own self-sustaining and self-fulfilling mythos. All a mythology needs is a belief that feels true, sustained by minor details that need never have really happened.