This page no longer updated from 31 October 2001. Latest version can be found at PHANTOMS OF SPACE - Part 2

by James Oberg


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.

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