|astronautix.com||PHANTOMS OF SPACE - Part 1|
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.
Continued…go to Part 2