5 Secrets About the Soviet Space Program

The Lost Cosmonauts
Italian brothers claim to have made recordings of Russian cosmonauts perishing in space, although the Soviets never acknowledged the existence — of the recordings or the astronauts. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The story goes like this: In the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union covered up the deaths of several cosmonauts killed during failed attempts to launch them into Earth's orbit. These alleged accidents preceded the flight of Yuri Gagarin, who is recognized as the first person to journey into space on April 12, 1961. What makes these accounts particularly enticing, however, is a series of recordings made by amateur radio operators Achille and Giovanni Battista Judica-Cordiglia. From their post in northern Italy, the brothers claimed to have captured the cosmonauts' last moments alive as they orbited the planet on their death mission. The cries for help were the stuff of Hollywood action movies.

Before you get too excited, it's important to note that the claims about the astronauts' deaths were thoroughly investigated by U.S. journalist James Oberg, and he found no evidence to support them. But the shroud of secrecy that surrounded the Soviet space program makes them seem enticingly possible. After all, the Soviets did cover up astronaut deaths — notably that of Valentin Bondarenko in 1961. During pre-flight training Bondarenko accidently set himself on fire, an incident the country did not acknowledge until 1986. So did Soviet cosmonauts die in the quest to become the first humans in space? If so, it's a really well-kept secret [source: Adams].