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Nine of our cosmonauts are missing

Here's a fascinating Fortean Times piece on two Italian radio fans who managed to tap into the Russian (and American) space communications networks back in the early 1960s. In between charting the triumphs of the space race, they also recorded the last words of several cosmonauts - names and faces that have been erased from history.

A rather amazing story:
Midnight, 19 May 1961. A crisp frost had descended on Turin’s city centre which was deserted and deathly silent. Well, almost. Two brothers, aged 20 and 23, raced through the grid-like streets (that would later be made famous by the film The Italian Job) in a tiny Fiat 600, which screamed in protest as they bounced across one cobbled piazza after another at top speed.

The Fiat was loaded with dozens of iron pipes and aluminium sheets which poked out of windows and were strapped to the roof. The car screeched to a halt outside the city’s tallest block of flats. Grabbing their assorted pipes, along with a large toolbox, the two brothers ran up the stairs to the rooftop. Moments later, the city’s silence was rudely broken once more as they set to work: a concerto of hammering, clattering, sawing and shouting.

Suddenly, an angry voice rang out; the man who lived on the floor below leant out of the window and screamed: “Will you stop that racket, I’m trying to sleep!”

One of the young men shouted back “Sorry sir; the Soviets have launched a satellite and we’re trying to intercept it!”
Well worth a read. And well worth a pause for a few moments to remember those nameless pioneers.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 29th, 2008 05:30 pm (UTC)
Simon, please tell me you haven't fallen for the Lost Cosmonauts Conspiracy?

It's been thoroughly investigated, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. Space historians can account for every launch, every prototype and test flight of Vostok, and indeed the actual fates of those cosmonauts who disappeared from the record (usually after flunking their training). Whether the Judica-Cordiglia brothers were hoaxers themselves, or were the victims of some sort of prank, may not be clear, but this story is firmly up there with Piltdown Man and the Cottingley Fairies.

We do now know about a lot of hidden Soviet space disasters. The Nedelin Catastrophe for example, or the death of Valentin Bondarenko in an accident that chillingly presaged the Apollo 1 fire. The thing most of them have in common is that there were rumours of them during the 1960s that were confirmed post-glasnost. You would have to believe that the Judica-Cordiglia brothers uniquely had their own special set of space disasters which are all still being covered up.
Jul. 29th, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
Hmn, that's not what I see here.

I've gone directly to Oberg's web page on the subject and looked at his PDF on the Judica-Cordiglias. For what it's worth, Oberg himself notes that there are still gaps in the Soviet space record, though mostly (underscoring 'mostly') those gaps refer to incidents and people on the ground. In the PDF I'm troubled to see Oberg refer at the beginning to a lack of support for the more sensational claims of the Judica-Cordiglias, and then at the end to see him disavow all their claims. 'All' seems excessive: The Zeus lab itself is completely verifiable, that they were capable of receiving broadcasts is completely verifiable, but the question is what they received.

I have to admit that I'm puzzled as to why people would make up stories about items of this sort, just as I'm puzzled when skeptics omit or distort information about material I myself have read. At this point I'd like to see the Judica-Cordiglias' book myself before passing judgment. Especially since the J-As have gone on to scientific success in other fields.

Edited at 2008-07-29 07:30 pm (UTC)
Jul. 29th, 2008 08:43 pm (UTC)
Firstly, although it's an obvious point, one has to be very wary of citing Wikipedia articles for support on controversial topics. (As an aside, on the Master's degree I've just done as a mature student, citing Wikipedia meant an almost automatic fail for any coursework.)

The main point is that whilst the J-A brothers' claims were somewhat credible at the time, over forty years on it is very hard to sustain them. To begin with, why would Russia try to keep silence over these alleged incidents when so many others have now been acknowledged? Furthermore, you would have to believe that the J-A brothers picked up missions that both Western intelligence agencies and other observers managed to miss. From today's perspective, the 'lost cosmonaut' story is an extraordinary claim, and as is often noted, extraordinary claims required extraordinary evidence.

As to what is happening with the J-A brothers, there are any number of explanations - sadly, including that they are, despite appearances to the contrary, not being altogether honest. It may be a hoax or publicity stunt that got out of hand; once such things are widely reported, it can become impossible for those responsible to back down with any dignity or credibility. And distinction as a scholar is no barrier to this, with even Sir Peter Scott probably having been involved in a fake photo of the Loch Ness Monster. A lot of what they recorded was almost certainly test transmission from unmanned prototypes; did this apparent success prompt them to embellish their achievements? We may never know. What we can say is that when the Soviet Union did lose cosmonauts in flight, they made no effort to hide the fact.

It's a myth. It's a very seductive myth, but from what we know now we can look back on it as just that.

Edited at 2008-07-29 08:44 pm (UTC)
Jul. 30th, 2008 01:20 am (UTC)
I didn't cite Wikipedia with the intention of using it as a major primary source, for the reasons you give, though the fact that something is listed in Wikipedia doesn't mean it's wrong. I cited Wikipedia to point out that there's controversy beyond the insistence of skeptics.

You're not reading me closely: I'm saying that I'm troubled about some inconsistencies of Oberg's. I do appreciate his specifics in other areas (describing the exact reasons he's unsatisfied with portions of the Judica-Cordiglia book's documentation, for example). But I still want to see the book for myself. I went to Oberg's website -- I haven't gone to the Lost Cosmonauts site yet -- and noted where he indicates that he thinks some cosmonauts' names are still hidden, though as previously stated, he thinks they were lost on Earth.

The phrase "we may never know" continues to recur, on all sides, as I read further in this topic. Okay, understandable. Then stop telling me that you really do know.

May I say that if I never hear the slogan "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" again I will die happy. It's passed beyond meaningfulness and gone into the land of rote statements and condescension. My response: Extraordinary scrutiny demands extraordinary honesty. These days I find far too many avowed skeptics parroting that slogan in a purely religious manner with insufficient data beyond their own opinion. The business about finding it hard to back down from a position -- that holds true for skeptics as well. I no longer take a debunking at face value.
Jul. 29th, 2008 05:35 pm (UTC)
My brother used to own an ex-military "sputnik special" R208 radio that covered the frequencies used by the early/mid-1960s USSR space stuff; though he spent lots of time listening on the supposed frequencies he never heard anything.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )