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May 6, 2021

Ep. 34: The Lost Cosmonauts

Turin, Italy. 1960.
Two enterprising young brothers have rigged up their own radio equipment to listen in on the Soviet Russian unmanned rocket launches during the Cold War Space Race. But they pick up something they never expected...something the...

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Turin, Italy. 1960.

Two enterprising young brothers have rigged up their own radio equipment to listen in on the Soviet Russian unmanned rocket launches during the Cold War Space Race. But they pick up something they never expected...something the Soviets never thought would be uncovered. A voice, in Russian, begging for help as their space craft goes up in flames. And the voice...is coming from space.

Did the Soviet Union cover up the deaths of multiple cosmonauts during their race to beat America to getting a man into orbit? Did the Judica-Cordiglia brothers manage to record these secret tragedies from their rinky-dink radio shack in Italy? And is there any proof that, perhaps, there are dead Soviet cosmonauts up in space to this day...floating into infinity?

Join us for this truly chilling bit of history conspiracy!
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This week we’re going to be talking about the Lost Cosmonauts, the subject of a conspiracy theory alleging that some Soviet cosmonauts went to outer space - including several before the first documented manned spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961 - but their existence has never been publicly documented by Soviet or Russian space authorities, mostly because their missions ended in failure and death. This is a fascinating story with a lot of twists and turns, and it really captured my imagination when I first heard about it about 10 years ago.

Let’s start with the origins of the story. It really begins with the Space Race, which took root in the mid-20th century. At this time, America was in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and both were competing to achieve superior spaceflight capability. This fight for superiority originated in the missile-based nuclear arms race between the countries that kicked into gear post-World War II, with the technological advantage of successful spaceflight being seen as necessary to national security. More than that, it became a fight for superiority in general, with outer space being the great unknown, and whoever figured out safe travel there becoming the first to conquer a new frontier. 

Laika, the first living Earth-born creature in orbit, was launched aboard Sputnik 2 from the Soviet Union in November 1957. Though she made it into orbit successfully, she passed away between 5 and 7 hours into the flight, and was not able to be recovered successfully. This story makes me sick to my stomach and feel like sobbing, so I’ll just end it with a quote by senior Soviet Scientist Oleg Gazenko in 1998: "The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog..." Perhaps they’ve grown since then, but at the time, it seems that death was just another, accepted side effect of trying to be the first into orbit.

The United States began in earnest with Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the US that began in 1958. Project Mercury’s goal was to put a man into earth orbit and return him safely, and hopefully do so before the Soviet Union managed to. A select group of astronauts, the Mercury 7, were selected to fly the spacecraft for the program, and became the first astronauts in American history. As we were starting our space program, we began to try and figure out what the Soviets had going on in theirs- not unlike how it went with America and Germany racing to create the first nuclear bomb during World War II. The best encouragement for scientific and technological breakthroughs have always been competition or necessity, and this was seen as both. The Soviets, of course, were extremely secretive and cagey about their space program, as they were with just about everything else. There wasn’t much public discussion of the program on the Soviet end, but a vague idea began to emerge: the Soviet space program was rumored to be focused on 3 World War II veterans named Belokonev, Kachur, and Grachev, with a 4th unnamed participant being rumored to have been killed in a training accident. The Russian astronauts - called cosmonauts - seemed to be beginning their training as well. Further “proof” came in a 1959 article titled “Flights to High Altitudes” in the Russian weekly photo magazine Ogoniok, which showed doctors, technicians, and subjects testing life support equipment. The 3 subjects shown were Belokonev, Kachur, and Grachev - and the lack of a 4th seemed to solidify the existence of a lost fourth cosmonaut. 

Around this time, there was an information leak by a high-ranking Czech Communist about alleged aspects of the Soviet space program. In the leak, a cosmonaut named Alexei Ledovsky was mentioned as being launched inside a converted R-5A rocket. Clearly, as the Russians didn’t boast about their successful spaceflight, he either didn’t make it up or didn’t make it home. Three more names of alleged cosmonauts claimed to have perished under similar circumstances were Andrei Mitkov, Sergei Shiborin and Maria Gromova. In December 1959, the Italian news agency Continentale repeated these claims and the 4 names, with no other evidence of Soviet sub-orbital crewed flights ever coming to light.

In 1960, sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein wrote in an article that, when traveling in Vilnius, Soviet Lithuania, in May of that year, he was told by Red Army cadets that the USSR had launched a human into orbit that day, but that this assertion was denied later that same day by Soviet officials. The Voice of Moscow had reported the launch of a sputnik rocket with no mention of a passenger, and later said to have had retro-rockets fire in the wrong way, making recovery efforts unsuccessful. Was this a failed manned spaceflight, hurriedly covered up when things broke bad? According to Yuri Gagarin’s own biography, these rumors likely started due to some of these rocket missions being equipped with dummies and human voice tape recordings to test if the radio worked, but then, why would these cadets believe there were really men up there?


These shady beginnings bring us to the most intriguing and bizarre part of this story - the Torre-Bert recordings. Achille and Giovanni Battista Judica-Cordiglia, enterprising brothers in their 20s, set up an experimental radio listening station just outside Turin, Italy in the late 1950s. The listening station was housed inside an abandoned German bunker at a site named Torre Bert, and they had been buying and repairing broken radio receivers from World War II being sold as surplus. When Sputnik’s launch was announced in October 1957, the brothers figured they’d try and tune in, for the hell of it. But they were shocked when they actually got something, weak but unmistakable: a beeping sound coming from space. "My god, it was unbelievable," recalled Giovanni for Vice, "We were the first people in all of Europe to listen to the signal of Sputnik 1."

After that, the brothers were hooked. They’d constantly tinker with radio equipment, installing homemade antennas on their parents’ apartment roof. During each launch the brothers listened in, additionally recording transmissions from Sputnik 2 and Explorer 1. But then, on November 28th 1960, they caught something else.

They were tuned to one of the Soviet frequencies, though there hadn’t been a launch announcement. It was kind of habit for them at this point. This time, instead of just beeping, as they'd heard during the other satellite launches, they intercepted an SOS call in morse code, which is three dots, three dashes, three dots. This call was being transmitted from a craft that was apparently moving away from Earth. Giovanni explained, "It was going very, very fast, 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." Clearly this couldn’t be another dog, like Laika, because dogs don’t know morse code. Is that a Bailey School Kids book? Anyway, they felt that this time, the spacecraft was manned...and it was emitting a frantic distress call as it hurtled into deep space. One source even reported that the call included the words "SOS TO THE WHOLE WORLD”, in Morse code.

By early 1961, the Torre Bert listening post was operational and the brothers began monitoring spacecraft flying overhead. They reportedly built a handmade movable tracking dish to follow craft across the sky, as they moved with incredible speed. They also claim to have devised methods of filtering noise from their recordings of spacecraft signals, determining whether a transmission came from the craft or ground control, calculating the craft's orbital path, and locating the radio frequencies used by Soviet tracking stations. In February 1961, they again picked up sounds of distress from an undocumented spaceflight, in a recording that contains the sound of heavy breathing and the rapid heartbeat of a seemingly dying cosmonaut. In fact, a leading cardiologist in the area by the name of Professor Dogliotti confirmed that the heartbeats sound like those of a dying person.

[Clip - heartbeat/breathing]

Yuri Gagarin made is historic journey into space on April 12 1961, orbiting the Earth for a couple hours until successfully re-entering, becoming the first documented human to orbit the Earth. But the Soviets didn’t stop there...and neither did the Judica-Cordiglia brothers’ disturbing radio transmissions.

A particularly haunting message was intercepted by the brothers on May 17, 1961, barely a month after Gagarin’s record-making flight, and just days after American astronaut Alan Sheperd managed to become the first United States astronaut to orbit the earth. The message stated, "Conditions growing worse, why don't you answer? We are going slower…the world will never know about us." The brothers at this point staunchly believed that the Soviets were launching people into space, losing them to technological malfunction, and covering up the accidents so as not to reveal their failure. Another recording, made in November 1962, seemed to document a space capsule misjudging re-entry and bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere and back into space.

The most famous of the recordings, and pretty much the most disturbing, came in November 1963. A lot of places list this as the May 1961 recording, but I’m going to stick with it being from 1963 just for ease - just keep it mind it may have been earlier, I really don’t know how to verify this date. Now, this would’ve been the first woman in space. You can hear the distress in her voice, even though I can’t understand it, as I don’t know Russian. I’ll read the translated transcript, and play a clip afterward. The transcript goes as follows:


[Clip - 1:40-2:07]

So yeah, incredibly upsetting, and deeply disturbing. The last recording I’ve read about is in April of 1964, when another cosmonaut is killed as his capsule bruns up in Earth’s atmosphere, clearly an issue for the Soviets getting their cosmonauts back safely. 

Since the original events in the 1960s, there has been a lot of critical analysis of the Torre Bert recordings, and a lot of people do cast doubt on their provenance. There are a few issues frequently brought up by those skeptical of the brothers’ recordings:
Audio transcripts show that none of the cosmonauts, supposedly trained Soviet Air Force pilots, followed standard communication protocols to the Air Force like identifying themselves when speaking 
The recordings contain disjointed sentences and grammatical errors, though the Soviet space program generally used only highly trained, well educated Russian native speakers
Some of the scientific stuff doesn’t match up to what was at least the original intention of the Vostok space program, which was to get Soviet cosmonauts to low Earth orbit - they wouldn’t reach the escape velocity necessary to leave Earth’s orbit, though perhaps there was some sort of error or miscalculation
I’ve seen some testimony on places like Reddit that the Russian seems to be spoken with an Italian accent, but obviously I don’t know how to verify that myself - not knowing Russian - and have to take it with a grain of “could be a troll” salt

However, the brothers still have their believers. Neither has ever wavered in their belief of what they captured in their recordings, with Giovanni attesting to this day that they did hear lost Russian cosmonauts. In an interview with Vice just last year, the author attests that “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...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.” So he at least convinced one modern-day journalist of his honesty. The Torre-Bert recordings lie firmly in the “maybe” pile of the lost cosmonaut history, despite other stories like those surrounding fictional cosmonauts Ivan Istochnikov and Andrei Mikoyan being confirmed to be hoaxes. I will say that the story presented by the brothers was thought to be so against their pro-Soviet propaganda machine that Radio Moscow issued a communique about the Torre-Bert recogrdings in April 1965:

“In March of the present year the Milan daily “Corriere della Sera” published an article about “soviet cosmonauts who perished in space”.
The article is based upon statements made by the Judica Cordiglia brothers, who allegedly received signals and recorded conversations in space by a number of soviet cosmonauts who did not return from their flights… two years ago the same nonsense could be found in the pages of the “Washington Post”…a few organs of the burgeois press, in an attempt to give their cosmic lies an appearance of truthfulness, mention data provided by the american information services. These services would have provided in confidence to the journalists information about these dead cosmonauts. However, such data do not reflect the truth. And with this statement we could close the whole matter.
But we want to add a few words about the Judica Cordiglia brothers.
This is not the first time that they get involved in the reception of these signals…No one can doubt the safety of our space vehicles anymore.”

The Torre-Bert recordings are not the end of the possible proof for the lost cosmonaut theory. Some believe Major General Vladimir Sergeyevich Illyushin, Soviet general and test pilot, was really the first man in space. The 1999 film The Cosmonaut Coverup alleges that Illyushin beat Gagarin into orbit, but a guidance malfunction forced the pilot to crash land in China, where - though surviving - it was decided that the critical injuries suffered upon landing were too serious to report the mission as a complete success. By the time of his emergency landing, news had leaked out among foreign communist correspondents in Moscow that a manned spaceflight was either on-going or imminent - so just one day after Ilyushin’s failed mission, a hurried decision was made in Moscow to launch the back-up pilot, Yuri Gagarin. Data sought by the filmmakers of 2009’s Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy from the Tern Island CIA tracking station supposedly recorded Illyushin’s failed mission, but was not released to the documentarians. 

Eventually, though the United States lost the fight to get into orbit first, they did win the battle to the Moon, with the historic Apollo 11 flight landing in July 1969. Some claim, though, that the Soviets undertook a last-minute attempt to beat the Americans to the moon landing, which allegedly occurred on July 3rd 1969, ending in an explosion that destroyed the launch pad and killed the cosmonauts on board. 

While the alleged facts behind these possible failed attempts are sketchy, there is one thing that is for certain: the Soviet Union DID “erase” many people from history, down to literally airbrushing them out of official photos. A series of photographs, called the 1961 Sochi photos, of the cosmonaut team officially released in the 1970s proves the photo doctoring, as Soviet news managers lost track of which versions of photos had already been published, and re-released them after alteration. Some of these group shots included men that had not yet flown - at least, not publicly. Under Gorbachev’s glasnost, or dissemination of information, in the final years of the Soviet regime, the names and fates of these men who had been censored from history was finally revealed. The erased men generally had either misbehaved and been expelled, or even developed disqualifying medical conditions. One man, Grigory Grigoryevich Nelyuboff, fell into disgrace after his expulsion and committed suicide in 1966. Another photograph originally showed a group of 22 people, including 16 cosmonauts, family members, trainers and so on. Up to 6 cosmonauts were removed from the image. Another picture judged to be from the mid-sixties includes a deleted Voskhod back-up cosmonaut, whom I wasn’t able to find the name of. Considering they really did engage in historical censorship, does it seem too far fetched to believe that the Soviet Union DID cover up their failures during the Space Race? One night in March 1961, a severely burned man was brought to a Dr. Vladimir Golyakhovsky under the name Sergeyev Ivanov. The doctor wasn’t given much information, just asked to attempt to treat him. Later it was discovered that the man was Valentin Bondarenko, a cosmonaut trainee who died that night after being caught in an oxygen fire. His death was quickly hushed up.

Another death recounted in the book Starman by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony discusses Vladimir Komarov, a cosmonaut who knew he was about to die by crashing full speed into Earth, his body turning molten on impact. The death was revealed by KGB officer Venyamin Ivanovich Russayev with previous reporting by Yaroslav Golovanov in Pravda. NPR reported, “Once the Soyuz began to orbit the Earth, the failures began. Antennas didn't open properly. Power was compromised. Navigation proved difficult. The next day's launch had to be canceled. And worse, Komarov's chances for a safe return to Earth were dwindling fast...Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin called on a video phone to tell him he was a hero. Komarov's wife was also on the call to talk about what to say to their children.” You can find the recording of when Komarov’s capsule began to fail, but as this is a verified real recording of a man going to his death, and not the possibly hoaxed Torre-Bert recordings...well, I don’t feel great about playing it here. But if you want to find it, it’s out there. In the end, some translators can hear him say, "Heat is rising in the capsule." He also uses the word "killed". As the capsule began its descent and parachutes failed to open, U.S. listening posts in Turkey picked up the sound of him crying in rage, "cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship."
Sean, do you think there was a lost cosmonaut cover-up? And what do you think about the Torre Bert recordings?

The persistent mystery of the possible Lost Cosmonauts has fueled creative minds for decades, with the conspiracy theory being the basis for several novels, films like Apollo 18, and even songs like Wolf Parade’s “Yulia”, which was confirmed to be about a lost cosmonaut, with lyrics like “Point up to the dark above you, as they edit me from history / I’m 20 million miles from my comfortable home, and space is very cold, Yulia.” Here’s a little clip to take us into our short break.

[YULIA - 3:09-3:34 fade out]



Apropos for our discussion today, it’s FEAR OF THE FINAL FRONTIER!

Whip out your 2021 Bingo cards, kids - if you had “falling space debris might crash land into a populated area, killing a bunch of people”, check it off now!

The 46,000-pound Chinese rocket Long March-5B recently launched the first module for the country's new space station into orbit. After the core separated from the rest of the rocket, it should have followed a predetermined flight path into the ocean, but it made it into orbit instead, currently orbiting the planet every 90 minutes at about 17,324 miles per hour. And now, it’s starting to tumble, and slowly lose altitude. 

The fast speed of the core makes it impossible to predict where or when it will land, but it’s expected to make landfall in a few days. "U.S. Space Command is aware of and tracking the location of the Chinese Long March 5B in space, but its exact entry point into the Earth's atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry, which is expected around May 8," Lt. Col. Angela Webb, U.S. Space Command Public Affairs, told CBS News.

The 10-story-tall debris has the potential to land in the US, Mexico, Central America, South America, India, China, Australia...basically, anywhere. Don’t lose sleep just yet - it’ll most likely land in the ocean, as it makes up over 70% of the planet. But, since it is falling uncontrollably, there is a risk it will land in a metropolitan area. As it’s one of the largest space objects to ever re-enter uncontrolled, we have no way of knowing what kind of damage that would cause.

Currently, the US Space Command is tracking the trajectory, with Defense Department spokesperson Mike Howard saying in a statement cited by CNN that he expects the Chinese Long March 5B rocket's appearance "around May 8." Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics and current Twitter space debris soothsayer @planet4589, recently posted that "I don't think people should take precautions. The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small -- not negligible, it could happen -- but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal threat basis. There are much bigger things to worry about."

So, sleep well, listeners, and hopefully we can all breathe a sigh of relief about this next week.



That’s it for this episode of Ain’t It Scary with Sean and Carrie! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @aintitscary, and check out our website at aintitscary.com. You can support the show by supporting our sponsors, and becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/aintitscary. And please, subscribe to the show and throw us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts...we’ll be forever grateful.

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See you next Thursday! 

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