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Lost Cosmonauts, or Phantom Cosmonauts, is a conspiracy theory alleging that Soviet cosmonauts entered outer space, but without their existence having been acknowledged by either the Soviet or Russian space authorities.
Proponents of the Lost Cosmonauts theory concede that Yuri Gagarin was the first man to survive human spaceflight, but claim that the Soviet Union attempted to launch two or more manned space flights prior to Gagarin's, and that at least two cosmonauts died in the attempts. Another cosmonaut, Vladimir Ilyushin, is believed to have landed off-course and been held by the Chinese government. The Government of the Soviet Union supposedly suppressed this information, to prevent bad publicity during the height of the Cold War.
The evidence cited to support Lost Cosmonaut theories is generally not regarded as conclusive, and several cases have been confirmed as hoaxes. In the 1980s, American journalist James Oberg researched space-related disasters in the Soviet Union, but found no evidence of these Lost Cosmonauts. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, much previously restricted information is now available, including on Valentin Bondarenko, a would-be cosmonaut whose death during training on Earth was covered up by the Soviet government. Even with the availability of published Soviet archival material and memoirs of Russian space pioneers, no hard evidence has emerged to support the Lost Cosmonaut stories.
In December 1959, an alleged high-ranking Czech Communist leaked information about many purported unofficial space shots. Aleksei Ledovsky was mentioned as being launched inside a converted R-5A rocket. Three more names of alleged cosmonauts claimed to have perished under similar circumstances were Andrei Mitkov, Sergei Shiborin and Maria Gromova. Also in 1959, pioneering space theoretician Hermann Oberth claimed that a pilot had been killed on a sub-orbital ballistic flight from Kapustin Yar in early 1958. He provided no source for the story. In December 1959, the Italian news agency Continentale repeated the claims that a series of cosmonaut deaths on suborbital flights had been revealed by a high-ranking Czech communist. No other evidence of Soviet sub-orbital manned flights ever came to light.
A 1959 edition of Ogoniok published an article and photos of three high-altitude parachutists: Colonel Pyotr Dolgov, Ivan Kachur and Alexey Grachov. Official records state that Dolgov was killed on November 1, 1962, while carrying out a high-altitude parachute jump from a Volga balloon gondola. Dolgov jumped at an altitude of 28,640 meters (93,970 feet). The helmet visor of Dolgov's Sokol pressure suit hit part of the gondola as he exited, de-pressurizing the suit and killing him. Kachur is known to have disappeared around this time; his name has become linked to this equipment. Grachov is thought to have been involved, with Dolgov and Kachur, in testing the high-altitude equipment. Russian journalist Yaroslav Golovanov suggested that high-altitude testing was exaggerated into a story that those parachutists died on a space flight. In late 1959, Ogoniok carried pictures of a man identified as Comrade Gennady Zavadovsky testing high-altitude equipment (perhaps with Grachov and others). Zavadovsky would later appear on lists of dead cosmonauts, without a date of death or accident description.
Russian journalist Yaroslav Golovanov, who researched the lost cosmonaut claims in his book "Cosmonaut #1", found and interviewed the real Alexey Timofeyevich Belokonov, a retired high-altitude parachutist. In this interview, Belokonov revealed more about his colleagues Dolgov, Kachur, Mikhailov, Grachov, Zavodovsky and Ilyushin, and confirmed they never flew to space. According to Belokonov, in 1963, after New York Journal American published an article on lost cosmonauts, listing the parachutists among them, Soviet newspapers Izvestia and Krasnaya Zvezda published a refutation that included testimonies and photographs of actual Belokonov, Kachur, Grachov and Zavodovsky. Parachutists also wrote an angry letter to New York Journal American editor William Randolph Hearst, Jr., which he ignored.
In 1960, Robert A. Heinlein wrote in his article Pravda means 'Truth' (reprinted in Expanded Universe) that on May 15, 1960, while traveling in Vilnius, in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, he was told by Red Army cadets that the Soviet Union had launched a man into orbit that day, but that later the same day it was denied by officials. Heinlein speculated that Korabl-Sputnik 1 was an orbital launch, later said to be unmanned, and that the retro-rockets had fired at the wrong altitude, making recovery efforts unsuccessful.
According to Gagarin's biography these rumours were likely started as a result of two Vostok missions, equipped with dummies (Ivan Ivanovich) and human voice tape recordings, to check if the radio worked, that were made just prior to Gagarin's flight.
In a U.S. press conference on February 23, 1962, Col. Barney Oldfield revealed that a space cabin had indeed been orbiting the earth since 1960, as it had become jammed into its booster rocket. According to the NASA NSSDC Master Catalog, Korabl Sputnik 1, designated at the time 1KP or Vostok 1P, did launch on May 15, 1960 (one year before Gagarin). It was a prototype of the later Zenit and Vostok manned launchers. The onboard TDU had ordered the retrorockets to fire, but due to a malfunction of the attitude control system, the spacecraft was oriented upside-down, and the firing put the craft into a higher orbit. The re-entry capsule lacked a heatshield as there were no plans to recover it. Engineers had planned to use the vessel's telemetry data to determine if the guidance system had functioned correctly, so recovery was unnecessary.
The Judica-Cordiglia brothers are two former amateur radio operators who made audio recordings at Torre Bert that allegedly support the conspiracy theory that the Soviet space program covered up cosmonaut deaths in the 1960s. The pair claimed to have acquired recordings of several secret Soviet space missions that ended in tragedy and mystery. This has generated public interest for more than 50 years, despite there being a large amount of detailed rebuttals to the brothers' claims.
Vladimir Ilyushin, son of Soviet airplane designer Sergey Ilyushin, was a Soviet pilot and is purported to have been a cosmonaut, alleged by some to have actually been the first man in space on April 7, 1961—an honor generally attributed to Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.
The theories surrounding this alleged orbital flight are that a failure aboard the spacecraft caused controllers to bring the descending capsule down several orbits earlier than intended, resulting in its landing in the People's Republic of China. The pilot was then held by Chinese authorities for a year before being returned to the Soviet Union. The international embarrassment that would have resulted from such an incident is cited as the Soviets' reason for not publicizing this flight—they reportedly focused their publicizing efforts on the subsequent successful flight of Yuri Gagarin instead.
However, there are reasons to disbelieve this allegation. Although both were Communist governments, relations between the Soviet Union and China were strained. The propaganda value of a Soviet pilot captured flying over Chinese territory would have given little reason for Chinese authorities to cooperate in a cover-up. Also, "bringing the capsule down several orbits earlier than intended" does not make sense, considering that the Vostok 1 mission involved a single orbit.
This theory originated on April 10, 1961, with Dennis Ogden, the Moscow correspondent of the British Communist newspaper Daily Worker, and was actually based on Ilyushin's medical treatment and care in China. According to many Soviet sources, and to the article in Komsomolskaya Pravda dated July 11, 2005, Ilyushin was a famous test pilot but he was never involved in the space program. On June 5, 1960, his legs were seriously injured in a car accident. Ilyushin underwent medical treatment for a year in Moscow, then was sent to Hangzhou, China, for rehabilitation under specialists in Traditional Chinese medicine. This explanation was also confirmed by the Soviet defector Leonid Vladimirov, an engineer who had personal contacts with Ilyushin in 1960, in his 1973 book The Russian Space Bluff, published in Frankfurt (Russian translation of the book).
The theory gained some credibility in 1999 due to a documentary on the subject titled The Cosmonaut Cover-up. Interviewed in English, Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, said that it[clarification needed] was true and that Vladimir Ilyushin was actually held in China for over a year as a "guest" of the People's Republic of China. He was later returned to the Soviet Union, but by then the Gagarin legend was in place and the bizarre incident was covered up. The main reason for concealment was to not let the West see the schism between China and the USSR.
Vladimir Ilyushin never confirmed this theory, dying in 2010.
The Soviet Union lost the manned moon-landing phase of the Moon race to the United States. However, some sources claim that just before the historic Apollo 11 flight to the moon, the Soviets undertook an adventurous attempt to beat the Americans. Despite the unsuccessful first test launch of the new Soviet N1 rocket on January 20, 1969, it is alleged that a decision was made to send a manned Soyuz 7K-L3 craft to the moon using an N1. This attempt is alleged to have occurred on July 3, 1969, when it ended in explosion destroying the launch pad and killing cosmonauts on board. Official sources state that the L3 was not ready for manned missions. Its moon-landing module, the LK, had been tested a few times but its orbiter, the 7K-LOK, had not been successfully tested by the closing of the moon-landing program at the end of 1974. The closing of the program was officially denied and maintained top secret until 1989.
This claim correlates with the late hoax about unsuccessful moon-shot flight of Andrei Mikoyan. However, in reality, the second launch, like the first, was a test of the booster and was therefore unmanned. Even if cosmonauts had been on board, they would have been rescued by its launch escape system, which carried the dummy payload to safety 2 km from the pad. One mission in the Soyuz program, Soyuz T-10-1, did see the spacecraft and cosmonauts rescued safely from a failed booster rocket by its launch escape system; it is the only documented case of such a system in use with a manned spacecraft.
There are also rumors, which appeared later in Omon Ra, a novel by Russian fiction writer Pelevin, that the Soviet automatic sample-return craft, Luna, and remote-controlled automatic moon rover, Lunokhod, were, due to failures in automation, manned by cosmonauts who had agreed to take part in suicide missions. However, there is not enough space in either the Luna or Lunokhod for even one cosmonaut, even excluding life support system space. There had been a plan to develop modified Lunokhods with additional controls for use as a transport in manned moon-landing missions but this plan ended with the moon-landing program.
Among the Lunas, a June 14, 1969, test failed to launch, and a July 13, 1969, test, Luna 15, launched but failed to land on the moon. Among the rovers, there was a failed launch on February 19, 1969, and two unsuccessful launches on November 10, 1970, and January 8, 1973.
A number of claims have been confirmed as hoaxes:
Officially Soyuz 2 was an unmanned spacecraft that was the docking target for Soyuz 3. However, Mike Arena, an American journalist, allegedly found in 1993 that an 'Ivan Istochnikov' and his dog 'Kloka' were manning Soyuz 2, and disappeared on October 26, 1968, with signs of having been hit by a meteorite. They had been "erased" from history by the Soviet authorities, who could not tolerate such a failure.
The entire story was found to be a hoax perpetrated by Joan Fontcuberta as a 'modern art exercise' that included falsified mission artifacts, various digitally manipulated images, and immensely detailed feature-length biographies that turned out to be riddled with hundreds of historical as well as technical errors. The exhibit was shown in Madrid in 1997 and the National Museum of Catalan Art in 1998. Brown University later purchased several articles, and put them on display themselves.
Mexico's Luna Cornea magazine however, failed to notice this, and ran issue number 14 (January/April 1998) with photos, and a story explaining the tragic and as-yet-untold truth.
The name Ivan Istochnikov is a Russian translation of Joan Fontcuberta's name; translated to English from Russian reads "John of the Source".
NASA radio monitoring service intercepted conversations between Pavel Popovich and Vitali Sevastyanov and a control center. The conversations appeared to originate from a Soviet Zond 6 spacecraft that was launched on November 10, 1968, and successfully flew for 7 days around the Moon. This was at a time of intense competition during the moon flyby phase of the Moon race between the USSR and the U.S. The Soviet L1/Zond spacecraft was almost ready for manned missions, although testing was not yet complete, and it was not unimaginable that the USSR might undertake a manned flyby using the L1/Zond spacecraft in order to beat the Americans.
It was soon clear, however, that these were test transmissions between two ground control centers with the Zond 6 intercepting and relaying the transmissions.
After the successful U.S. Apollo 8 manned flight around the Moon, the Soviet manned flyby missions lost political urgency. The first manned flight of L1/Zond spacecraft with Alexey Leonov and Valery Bykovsky planned for the end of 1968 was canceled and Zond spacecraft made only a few unmanned, automatic flights after that.
Andrei Mikoyan was reportedly killed together with a second crew member in an attempt to reach the Moon ahead of the Americans in early 1969. Due to system malfunction, they failed to get into lunar orbit and shot past the Moon.
This story undoubtedly influenced the plot of an episode of the television series The Cape. The episode "Buried in Peace" first aired on October 28, 1996. In it, a shuttle crew on a mission to repair a communications satellite encounters a derelict Soviet spacecraft with a dead crew—the result of a secret attempt to send a manned mission to the moon 30 years earlier, before the United States. Tom Nowicki played Major Andrei Mikoyan in the story.
This story correlates with another claim about the unsuccessful second manned test flight of the N1 rocket.