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The Straight Dope



In the early 60s my parents subscribed to Reader's Digest. One story in there, just before JFK was assassinated, was about some Russian cosmonauts who were stranded in an expanding orbit around earth--they were slowly but surely pulling away from the earth and there was no means of retrieval. This was supposedly documented by some ham radio operators in the free world, who had picked up radio communications from the doomed cosmonauts. The general thrust of the article was, "Look what those evil commies have done now--they don't even care about their own." Assuming that the article was a crock, what was the incident that precipitated the story--or am I the only one who hasn't forgotten about those poor fellers? --chuckleberry, Calgary, Alberta

Maybe you didn't forget, Chuck, but you got the details a little cockeyed. Here's the deal: (1) The story didn't appear prior to the JFK assassination, but rather in the April 1965 issue--you can read a transcription at (2) While ham radio operators were peripherally involved, most of the alleged transmissions were picked up by two brothers in Italy who operated an extraordinary homemade space-listening post with a 40-foot octagonal dish antenna. (3) The brothers claimed to have heard signals from not one but three troubled Soviet spacecraft over a seven-month period. Their reports don't correspond to any known accidents suffered by the Soviet manned space program. But the Russians did cover up at least one cosmonaut death during the 60s and went to bizarre lengths to expunge other cosmonauts from official histories. So if a few folks insist the Russians still haven't come clean about their early space disasters (see above Web site), it's not like they're complete lunatics.

Back to the Italian brothers. According to Reader's Digest, Achille and Giovanni Battista Judica-Cordiglia and their team of 15 space enthusiasts heard three signs of distress from Russian rocketeers. On November 28, 1960, a spacecraft supposedly radioed three times, in Morse code and in English, "SOS to the entire world." A few days later the Russians admitted a failed launch on December 1 but said nothing about anyone on board. This was months before the flight of Yury Gagarin, who supposedly became the first human in orbit on April 12, 1961. In early February 1961 the brothers picked up the sound of a wildly beating heart and labored breathing--a dying cosmonaut? Finally, on May 17, 1961, two men and a woman were overheard saying, in Russian, "Conditions growing worse; why don't you answer?...we are going slower...the world will never know about us."

No question, there's a lot the Russians didn't tell us during the space race. In a chapter of his 1988 book Uncovering Soviet Disasters: Exploring the Limits of Glasnost entitled "Dead Cosmonauts," space engineer and historian James Oberg relates several episodes:

On March 23, 1961, three weeks before Gagarin's flight, cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko died horribly after a fire in an oxygen-rich pressure chamber used for training, which started when he carelessly tossed a cotton pad on a hot plate. Bondarenko's death was not acknowledged until 1986.

One cosmonaut was airbrushed out of a widely circulated 1961 photo of the original Soviet space team, not because he'd died in the line of duty but because he'd been cashiered. Again, not until 1986 was the truth revealed: the missing man was Grigoriy Nelyubov, who along with two other men had been bounced from the cosmonaut corps in late 1961 after fighting with some soldiers in a rail station. Embittered and alcoholic, he was killed in 1966 when he stepped in front of a train.

Several other cosmonauts in training were also painted out of photos in books and other materials circulating in the Soviet Union. Most had been dropped from the roster for medical, disciplinary, or academic reasons--the Soviets apparently wanted no suggestion that any cosmonaut was less than perfect.

Did the Soviets conceal the deaths of cosmonauts besides Bondarenko? By 1973 Oberg had investigated a dozen rumors of cosmonaut deaths dating back to 1957, including two incidents that seem to correspond with reports from the Italian brothers. All proved baseless. Another bogus story, which ironically originated with the Moscow correspondent for Britain's official communist newspaper, concerned Vladimir Ilyushin, son of a Soviet aircraft designer, who'd supposedly been injured in a space shot prior to Gagarin's flight. Oberg's conclusion: Ilyushin was hurt in a car accident, and that incident was conflated with Bondarenko's death. On the other hand, some acknowledged cosmonaut deaths were preventable, notably that of Vladimir Komarov, killed in 1967 when the chute on his Soyuz 1 spacecraft failed. A Russian engineer has acknowledged that the launch was ordered before the spacecraft had been fully debugged--probably for political reasons. For more, see Though the Russian space program clearly wasn't the carnival of slaughter some in the West portrayed it to be, cosmonauts nonetheless took some appalling risks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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