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Lost cosmonauts, or phantom cosmonauts, is a conspiracy theory/urban legend alleging that Soviet cosmonauts entered outer space, but without their existence having been acknowledged by either the Soviet or Russian space authorities. Several articles and books have been published on the subject, and recordings ostensibly of dying Soviet cosmonauts have been released.
Before Yuri Gagarin
Proponents of the Lost Cosmonauts theory generally concede that Yuri Gagarin was the first man to survive human spaceflight on 12 April 1961, but claim that the Soviet Union attempted to launch two or more manned space flights prior to Gagarin's, and that at least two cosmonauts died in the attempts. While it is true that three Soviet cosmonauts died during re-entry (in 1971), their bodies were recovered from the craft. Another cosmonaut, Vladimir Ilyushin, is said to have landed off-course and been held by the Chinese government. The Soviets supposedly suppressed this information, to prevent bad publicity during the height of the Cold War. In the documentary The Cosmonaut Cover-up, Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, said the story is true. However, the preponderance of evidence shows he was never a cosmonaut, though he was a test pilot.
Allegations date back to an article by Robert Heinlein in 1960 which reported a Soviet manned rocket launch on 15 May 1960 that had gone wrong: once in orbit the retrojets failed to fire correctly leaving it stuck in space. Heinlein said that even though it was widely known at the time of launch that the rocket was manned, the Soviets had subsequently denied this and claimed it contained only a dummy. Of course, Vostok capsules carried 10 days' supplies and were placed in orbits that would naturally decay within 10 days even if retrorockets failed, so libertarianism wasn't the only area where Heinlein didn't know what he was talking about.
Achille and Giovanni Battista Judica-Cordiglia, two Italian ham radio enthusiasts (more like ham-fisted perhaps), claimed to have monitored a series of broadcasts of Soviet space missions going dramatically wrong, and released a series of recordings in the 1960s. The first was from May 1960, the last April 1964. One of the most famous was a November 1963 recording of a female cosmonaut crying out "I am hot", supposedly trapped inside a rocket burning up during re-entry. The authenticity of the recordings was challenged, with critics pointing to ungrammatical Russian and a failure to follow correct Soviet communication protocols as well as the Soviet Union's lack at the time of a capsule capable of carrying two people. It remains an open question whether they were pranked, deliberate (and shameless) hoaxsters, or higher on dope than the Soviets were in space.
Starman by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony tells the true story of a friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin. There was a plan to dock two Soviet spaceships in orbit, on the 50th anniversary of the October revolution in 1967, and despite Gagarin's objections the mission was not postponed. Komarov accepted the mission telling the ground control officials he knew he was going to die and that if he refused to fly, then the backup pilot, Yuri Gagarin, would die in his place. Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin called on a video phone to tell him he was a hero. Once the Soyuz began to orbit Earth the mechanical failures began: the antennas didn't open properly, power was compromised, and navigation proved difficult. According to Doran and Bizony, his last words were recorded as him cursing mission control for sending him off to his death on a premature spaceship. 
But did that happen? Vladimir Komarov died following re-entry, officially due to parachute failure on landing. Doran and Bizony's accounts have been criticised by other space historians. The official transcripts do not match their claims, although it is possible they were doctored. Historian Asif Siddiqi has been highly critical of the book, pointing out numerous errors.
Some sources claim that just before the historic Apollo 11 flight to the moon, the Soviets undertook an adventurous attempt to beat the Americans. Despite the unsuccessful first test launch of the new Soviet N1 rocket on January 20, 1969, it is alleged that a decision was made to send a manned Soyuz 7K-L3 craft to the moon using an N1. This attempt is alleged to have occurred on July 3, 1969, when it ended in an explosion destroying the launch pad and killing the cosmonauts on board. This launch, however (designated N1-5L), was an unmanned test of lunar hardware.
Technically the Soviets did manage to land a probe on the Moon a couple hours before the American landing; it was unmanned and it crash-landed, resulting in them being quiet about the mission.
Unflown cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko died in March 1961 in a fire during an experiment in a low-pressure chamber on earth, near Moscow. This was covered up for many years, being officially acknowledged only in the 1980s. In a rather morbid way, he made history, as the first astronaut to die in either program. It is often believed that, had this incident not been covered up, the Apollo 1 fire could have been avoided.
Russian writer Victor Pelevin's novel Omon Ra tells a satirical story of how the Soviets' robot missions to the Moon were actually manned, with brave teenage cosmonauts hidden inside who died at the missions' end.
The 2005 Russian mockumentary First on the Moon depicts a 1930s Moon mission which was later suppressed and covered up.
- "Ilyushin". Encyclopedia Astronautica.
- "Pravda" means "Truth", Robert A Heinlein, The American Mercury, October 1960, pp. 51-62
- Everything Worth Believing About The Lost Cosmonauts Theory, The Toast, 17 June 2014
- See the Wikipedia article on Judica-Cordiglia brothers.
- Robert Krulwich (March 18th 2011). "Cosmonaut Crashed Into Earth 'Crying In Rage'". http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/05/02/134597833/cosmonaut-crashed-into-earth-crying-in-rage.
- A Cosmonaut's Fiery Death Retold, Robert Krulwich NPR.org
- What really happened to cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who died crashing to Earth in 1967?, io9, 12 April 2011
- See the Wikipedia article on First on the Moon.