Lost cosmonauts?

Following a tip from Instapundit, I was shocked to read a disturbing revelation about the early history of space flight: Yuri Gagarin was not the first human to fly in space. This claim was apparently published at Pravda Online back in 2001, but I’ve never heard about it before today. The article is very brief, so I will quote the whole thing here:

As 40 years have passed since Gagarin’s flight, new sensational details of this event were disclosed: Gagarin was not the first man to fly to space. Three Soviet pilots died in attempts to conquer space before Gagarin’s famous space flight, Mikhail Rudenko, senior engineer-experimenter with Experimental Design Office 456 (located in Khimki, in the Moscow region) said on Thursday. According to Rudenko, spacecraft with pilots Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov at the controls were launched from the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome (in the Astrakhan region) in 1957, 1958 and 1959. “All three pilots died during the flights, and their names were never officially published,” Rudenko said. He explained that all these pilots took part in so-called sub- orbital flights, i.e., their goal was not to orbit around the earth, which Gagarin later did, but make a parabola-shaped flight. “The cosmonauts were to reach space heights in the highest point of such an orbit and then return to the Earth,” Rudenko said. According to his information, Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov were regular test pilots, who had not had any special training, Interfax reports. “Obviously, after such a serious of tragic launches, the project managers decided to cardinally change the program and approach the training of cosmonauts much more seriously in order to create a cosmonaut detachment,” Rudenko said.

My immediate reaction to this was “My God, Robert Heinlein was right!”
You probably have no idea what I’m talking about unless you’ve read an essay that Heinlein wrote after his visit to the USSR in 1960. The essay is titled “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'”, and it is reprinted (along with “Inside Intourist”, another essay on the same topic) in the Heinlein collection Expanded Universe.

The title “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'” refers to the Russian word pravda, which is literally translated as “truth”, but in the Soviet Union really meant “what the Communist Party says is true”. Because she and her husband wanted to learn the truth, not the pravda, about life in the USSR, Virginia Heinlein spent two years learning Russian. She took classes at the University of Colorado, hired a private conversation tutor, and listened to language instruction records until, in Robert’s words, “she could read Russian, write Russian, speak Russian, understand Russian — and think in Russian.”

As a result, the Heinleins knew that they would not be dependent on their tour guides (employees of Intourist, the official state travel agency) for information. They would know what people around them were really saying, not what the tour guides claimed they were saying. And if they managed to slip away from their keepers, they might be able to talk to ordinary citizens of the USSR and learn things about life in that country that the tour guides would never tell them. This was risky behavior in 1960, but Robert and Virginia wanted to know the facts about the Soviet Union, not a Potemkin village version.
In “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'”, Heinlein describes an incident that occurred while they were visiting Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania (which was then known by its Russian name, Vilno).

About noon on Sunday, May 15, we were walking downhill through the park surrounding the castle that dominates Vilno. We encountered a group of six or eight Red Army cadets. Foreigners are a great curiosity in Vilno. Almost no tourists go there. So they stopped and we chatted, myself through our guide and my wife directly, in Russian.

Shortly one of the cadets asked me what I thought of their new manned rocket. We answered that we had had no news lately — what was it and when did it happen? He told us, with the other cadets listening and agreeing, that the rocket had gone up that very day, and at that very moment a Russian astronaut was in orbit around the earth — and what did we think of that?

I congratulated them on this wondrous achievement but, privately, felt a dull sickness. The Soviet Union had beaten us to the punch again. But later that day our guide looked us up and carefully corrected the story: The cadet had been mistaken, the rocket was not manned.

That evening we tried to purchase Pravda. No copies were available in Vilno. Later we heard from other Americans that Pravda was not available in other cities in the USSR that evening — this part is hearsay, of course. We tried also to listen to the Voice of America. It was jammed. We listened to some Soviet stations but heard no mention of the rocket.

This is the rocket the Soviets tried to recover and later admitted that they had had some trouble with the retrojets; they had fired while the rocket was in the wrong attitude.

So what is the answer? Did that rocket contain only a dummy, as the pravda now claims? Or is there a dead Russian revolving in space? — an Orwellian “unperson,” once it was realized that he could not be recovered.
I am sure of this: At noon on May 15 a group of Red Army cadets were unanimously positive that the rocket was manned. That pravda did not change until later that afternoon.

You can see why I reacted to the 2001 Pravda Online article by thinking that Heinlein’s anecdote had been confirmed. But it’s not that simple. For one thing, the dates don’t match. The Heinleins met those Red Army cadets on May 15, 1960. That’s almost a year before Gagarin’s flight, but too late to be any of the suborbital launches described by Pravda Online (which allegedly took place in 1957, 1958, and 1959). And the cadets described an orbital flight.

I have trouble believing the Pravda Online story, especially the claim of a manned launch in 1957. The USSR didn’t even launch Sputnik I until October of that year, and that was a metal sphere a mere 28 inches in diameter. It did weigh as much as a man (183 pounds), but not nearly as much as a spacecraft capable of carrying a man, keeping him alive, and returning him safely to Earth. The Soviets simply didn’t have the ability to loft anything that massive into space, even on a suborbital trajectory, in 1957.

And who is this Mikhail Rudenko that Pravda Online cites as a source? The 2001 article says he is (or was) “senior engineer-experimenter with Experimental Design Office”. I’ve never heard of him or the Experimental Design Office before. How does he know about these alleged flights? Does he have any government documents or other evidence to back up his story, or are we just supposed to take his word for it? If these launches really took place, many other people must have been involved. I’d like to see some of them corroborate Rudenko’s claim.

It turns out that Pravda Online has no actual connection to the newspaper that Robert Heinlein couldn’t find in Vilnius. The original Pravda was closed in 1991 by President Yeltsin, and Pravda Online is an unrelated Web site run by some former Pravda staff members. Judging by the other content at that site, it’s the equivalent of a supermarket tabloid in the U.S. And as far as I can tell, the information in the 2001 article hasn’t been published anywhere else. That doesn’t inspire very much confidence.

The whole topic of whether the USSR had unsuccessful manned space flights before Gagarin’s (and hushed them up) is a swamp of legends, hoaxes, and outright lies. Wikipedia has an article on the subject that lists about two dozen “lost cosmonauts”, including the three listed in the Pravda Online article and Heinlein’s 1960 account. Most of the lost-cosmonaut claims are rumors with little or no supporting evidence.

Who knows if any of it is true? I can easily believe that the Soviet space program had early failures, some of them fatal, that were never publicized. But any specific claims of that sort will have to be documented better that the ones we’ve seen so far.

One thought on “Lost cosmonauts?

  1. I really appreciated your entry on this topic. A friend of mine had shocked me the other night with the announcement of the information in the 2001 Pravda Online article, claiming that the source was “newly declassified Soviet papers”. Now, I have been very interested in Space Race memoirs, articles, etc. for years, have read Oberg, and I was instantly skeptical; the next day, I researched the story on the Internet and found no source of any sort except the Pravda Online article from 2001. Every mention of this sensational news quotes that story directly, and I find no corroboration at all. Your post, with the delightful (and new to me) quote from Heinlein, was a pleasure to read.
    I also haven’t found a response to the Pravda Online article from Oberg – maybe he didn’t consider it worth a response.
    – MMcKenzie

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