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The Lost Cosmonauts or Phantom Cosmonauts are subjects of a conspiracy theory alleging that Soviet cosmonauts went to outer space before Yuri Gagarin, but their existence has never been publicly acknowledged by either the Soviet or Russian space authorities. Proponents of the Lost Cosmonauts theory argue that the Soviet Union attempted to launch two or more human spaceflights before Gagarin's, and that at least two cosmonauts died in those attempts. Another cosmonaut, Vladimir Ilyushin, is believed to have landed off course and been held by the Chinese government. The Government of the Soviet Union supposedly suppressed this information, to prevent bad publicity during the height of the Cold War.
The evidence cited to support Lost Cosmonaut theories is generally regarded as inconclusive, and several cases have been confirmed as hoaxes. In the 1980s, American journalist James Oberg researched space-related disasters in the Soviet Union, but found no evidence of these Lost Cosmonauts. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, much previously restricted information has been made available, including information on Valentin Bondarenko, a would-be cosmonaut, whose death during training on Earth was covered up by the Soviet government. Even with the availability of published Soviet archival material and memoirs of Russian space pioneers, no evidence has emerged to support the Lost Cosmonaut theories.
Purported Czech information leak
In December 1959, an alleged high-ranking Czech Communist leaked information about many purported unofficial space shots. Alexei Ledovsky was mentioned as being launched inside a converted R-5A rocket. Three more names of alleged cosmonauts claimed to have perished under similar circumstances were Andrei Mitkov, Sergei Shiborin and Maria Gromova. Also in 1959, pioneering space theoretician Hermann Oberth claimed that a pilot had been killed on a sub-orbital ballistic flight from Kapustin Yar in early 1958. He provided no source for the story. In December 1959, the Italian news agency Continentale repeated the claims that a series of cosmonaut deaths on suborbital flights had been revealed by a high-ranking Czech communist. Continentale identified the cosmonauts as Alexei Ledowsky, Serenty Schriborin, Andreij Mitkow, and Mirija Gromov. No other evidence of Soviet sub-orbital crewed flights ever came to light.
High-altitude equipment tests
A 1959 edition of Ogoniok published an article and photos of three high-altitude parachutists: Colonel Pyotr Dolgov, Ivan Kachur, and Alexey Grachov. Official records state that Dolgov was killed on November 1, 1962, while carrying out a high-altitude parachute jump from a Volga balloon gondola. Dolgov jumped at an altitude of 28,640 metres (93,960 ft). The helmet visor of Dolgov's Sokol space suit hit part of the gondola as he exited, depressurizing the suit and killing him. Kachur is known to have disappeared around this time; his name has become linked to this equipment. Grachov is thought to have been involved, with Dolgov and Kachur, in testing the high-altitude equipment. Russian journalist Yaroslav Golovanov suggested that high-altitude testing was exaggerated into a story that those parachutists died on a space flight. In late 1959, Ogoniok carried pictures of a man identified as Gennady Zavadovsky testing high-altitude equipment (perhaps with Grachov and others). Zavadovsky would later appear on lists of dead cosmonauts, without a date of death or accident description.
Golovanov, who researched the lost cosmonaut claims in his book, "Cosmonaut #1", found and interviewed the real Alexey Timofeyevich Belokonov, a retired high-altitude parachutist. In this interview, Belokonov revealed more about his colleagues Dolgov, Kachur, Mikhailov, Grachov, Zavodovsky and Ilyushin, and confirmed they never flew to space. According to Belokonov, in 1963, after New York Journal American published an article on lost cosmonauts, listing the parachutists among them, Soviet newspapers Izvestia and Krasnaya Zvezda published a refutation that included testimonies and photographs of the actual parachutists Belokonov, Kachur, Grachov and Zavodovsky. The parachutists also wrote an angry letter to New York Journal American editor William Randolph Hearst, Jr., which he ignored.
In 1960, science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein wrote in his article Pravda means 'Truth' (reprinted in Expanded Universe) that on May 15, 1960, while traveling in Vilnius, in the Soviet Lithuania, he was told by Red Army cadets that the Soviet Union had launched a human into orbit that day, but later the same day, it was denied by officials. Heinlein speculated that Korabl-Sputnik 1 was an orbital launch, later said to be uncrewed, and that the retro-rockets had fired in the wrong attitude, making recovery efforts unsuccessful.
According to Gagarin's biography, these rumours were likely started as a result of two Vostok missions equipped with dummies (Ivan Ivanovich) and human voice tape recordings (to test if the radio worked) that were made just prior to Gagarin's flight.
In a U.S. press conference on February 23, 1962, colonel Barney Oldfield revealed that an uncrewed space capsule had indeed been orbiting the Earth since 1960, as it had become jammed into its booster rocket. According to the NASA NSSDC Master Catalog, Korabl Sputnik 1, designated at the time 1KP or Vostok 1P, did launch on May 15, 1960 (one year before Gagarin). It was a prototype of the later Zenit and Vostok launch vehicles. The onboard TDU (Braking Engine Unit) had ordered the retrorockets to fire to recover, but due to a malfunction of the attitude control system, the spacecraft was oriented upside-down, and the firing put the craft into a higher orbit. The re-entry capsule lacked a heat shield as there were no plans to recover it. Engineers had planned to use the vessel's telemetry data to determine if the guidance system had functioned correctly, so recovery was unnecessary.
The Torre Bert recordings
The Judica-Cordiglia brothers are two former amateur radio operators who made audio recordings at Torre Bert that allegedly support the conspiracy theory that the Soviet space program covered up cosmonaut deaths in the 1960s. The pair claimed to have recorded audio of several secret Soviet space missions that ended in calamity and mystery. This has generated public interest for more than 50 years, despite a considerable number of detailed rebuttals of the brothers' claims.
Vladimir Ilyushin, son of Soviet airplane designer Sergey Ilyushin, was a Soviet pilot and is purported to have been a cosmonaut, alleged by some to have actually been the first man in space on 7 April 1961, an honor generally attributed to Yuri Gagarin on 12 April 1961.
Two days before Gagarin's launch, Dennis Ogden wrote in the Western Communist newspaper the Daily Worker that the Soviet Union's announcement that Ilyushin had been involved in a serious car crash was really a cover story for an 7 April 1961 orbital spaceflight gone wrong. A similar story was told by French broadcaster Eduard Bobrovsky, but his version had the launch occurring in March, resulting in Ilyushin slipping into a coma. NORAD tracking stations, however, had no record of any such launch. Later that year, U.S. News & World Report transmitted the rumor by claiming that Gagarin had never flown, and was merely a stand-in for the sickened Ilyushin. The 1999 film The Cosmonaut Cover-Up takes the position that Ilyushin was the first man in space and discusses the alleged cover-up in detail. They claim, "(a)ccording to recently declassified documents, Ilyushin was placed in a capsule named Rossiya, and the secret flight took place in the early hours of the morning, on Friday April 7th 1961". After a guidance malfunction, the cosmonaut is reported to have made an unguided crash landing in China, too critically injured to announce the mission a complete success. The 2009 film Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy also takes the same position and further discusses US efforts to continue the allegation, even citing national security not to release information under the Freedom of Information Act. The data sought was from the CIA tracking station at Tern Island that supposedly covered and recorded Iluyshin's failed mission.
The Soviet Union lost the crewed Moon-landing phase of the space race to the United States. However, 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 20 January 1969, it is alleged that a decision was made to send a crewed Soyuz 7K-L3 craft to the Moon using an N1. This attempt is alleged to have occurred on 3 July 1969, when it ended in an explosion, destroying the launch pad and killing the cosmonauts on board. Official sources state that the L3 was not ready for crewed missions. Its lunar lander, the LK, had been tested a few times but its orbiter, the 7K-LOK, had not been successfully tested by the closing of the Moon-landing program at the end of 1974. The closing of the program was officially denied and maintained top secret until 1990 when the government allowed them to be published under the policy of glasnost.
This claim correlates with the late hoax about the unsuccessful Moon-shot flight of Andrei Mikoyan. However, in reality, the second launch, like the first, was a test of the booster and was therefore uncrewed. Even if cosmonauts had been on board, they would have been rescued by its launch escape system, which carried the dummy payload to safety 2 km (1.2 mi) from the pad. One mission in the Soyuz program, Soyuz T-10-1, did see the spacecraft and cosmonauts rescued safely from a failed booster rocket by its launch escape system; it was the only documented case of such a system in use with a crewed spacecraft, until the 11 October 2018 Soyuz launch mishap.
There are also rumors, which appeared later in Omon Ra, a novel by Russian fiction writer Pelevin, that the Soviet automatic sample-return craft Luna and remote-controlled automatic Moon rover Lunokhod, were, due to failures in automation, crewed by cosmonauts who had agreed to take part in suicide missions. However, there is not enough space in either the Luna or Lunokhod for a single cosmonaut, even excluding any life support systems. There had been a plan to develop modified Lunokhods with additional controls for use as a transport in crewed Moon-landing missions but this plan ended with the Soviet crewed lunar programs.
A number of claims have been confirmed as hoaxes:
Officially Soyuz 2 was an uncrewed spacecraft that was the docking target for Soyuz 3. However, Mike Arena, an American journalist, allegedly found in 1993 that an 'Ivan Istochnikov' and his dog 'Kloka', who were manning Soyuz 2, disappeared on October 26, 1968, with signs of having been hit by a meteorite. They had been "erased" from history by the Soviet authorities, who could not tolerate such a failure.
The entire story was found to be a hoax perpetrated by Joan Fontcuberta as a 'modern art exercise' that included falsified mission artifacts, various digitally manipulated images, and immensely detailed feature-length biographies that turned out to be riddled with hundreds of historical as well as technical errors. The exhibit was shown in Madrid in 1997 and the National Museum of Catalan Art in 1998. Brown University later purchased several articles, and put them on display themselves.
The name "Ivan Istochnikov" is a Russian translation of Joan Fontcuberta's name; in specific, "Joan" and "Ivan" both translate to "John" and "Fontcuberta" and "Istochnikov" both mean "source"/"of the source" (Istochnikov) and "hidden fountain."
On June 11, 2006, Cuarto Milenio, a mysteries program led by Iker Jiménez on the Spanish TV channel Cuatro, presented the story as possibly true. There is an entry in the Spanish skeptical blog Magonia  by the journalist Luis Alfonso Gámez. An excerpt from Cuarto Milenio is included.
Andrei Mikoyan was reportedly killed together with a second crew member in an attempt to reach the Moon ahead of the Americans in early 1969. Due to system malfunction, they failed to get into lunar orbit and shot past the Moon.
This story, which circulated in 2000, may have been based on the plot of an episode of the television series The Cape. The episode "Buried in Peace" first aired on October 28, 1996. In it, a Space Shuttle crew on a mission to repair a communications satellite encounters a derelict Soviet spacecraft with a dead crew—the result of a secret attempt to beat the United States to the Moon in the 1960s. Tom Nowicki played Major Andrei Mikoyan, a Russian member of the Space Shuttle crew in the story.
In popular culture
- The May 1987 issue #121 (page 74-79) of Dragon Magazine features "Operation: Zodiac", an article by Merle M. Rasmussen, creator of the Top Secret role-playing game, Jackie Rasmussen & Roger E. Moore, a follow on to "Operation: Zenith" which appeared in issue 120, this includes the scenario "Code Name: Cancer", wherein a space shuttle crew is sent to rendezvous with a Soviet Cosmos satellite launched in 1963, they discover that the satellite was in fact a modified Vostok designed to deliver a nuclear payload; the cosmonaut aboard died when his life support system was exhausted following a launch into a higher than planned orbit.
- The July 1987 issue #123 (page 82-6) of Dragon Magazine features the article "Operation: Zondraker, Part 2", also by Rasmussen, which includes the scenario "Code Name: Starfall", wherein a team of agents explores the site of the failed Luna 15 lander, discovering that it was a crewed mission, with two cosmonauts; one died instantly in the crash (identified as Nikolai L. Kuzmin), while the other, unidentified, cosmonaut died later as his oxygen supply ran out.
- A 1989 installment of Philip Bond's "Wired World", published in the UK comics anthology Deadline magazine, features a cosmonaut who crash-lands in a London park where the main characters are picnicking.
- Victor Pelevin's anti-Soviet 1992 novel Omon Ra is based on depictions of Soviet space flights as a planned homicide. Some of these "flights" are also not really flights, but fakes for the sake of Soviet propaganda.
- On page 7 of the September 21, 1993 issue of the US tabloid "Sun", Mike Jones authored an article titled "LOST IN SPACE" describing several cosmonaut deaths in space according to government spokesman Igor Ivanov: In 1988 (5 years earlier) Cosmonaut Nikolai Gogolansky died in his failed space suit during an EVA in which his mooring line failed, which sparked 8 unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the body, nearly causing Vasily Bordonsky to perish also due to a mooring line break, while an unnamed NASA spokesman states US Shuttle mission astronauts have noticed Gogolansky's body during several missions with no attempt to recover it due to risks and cost; Two cosmonauts died during a 1968 launch; Another cosmonaut died when their capsule "exploded on impact as it was returning to Earth"; Three cosmonauts were killed in 1981 when their spacesuits were pierced by space debris during space walks; and Four cosmonauts died due to a faulty air lock in 1984, prompting a second docking mission two months later to recover the dead.
- The 2002 movie K-19: The Widowmaker features a scene in which the ships' executive officer recites an anecdote regarding the rumors of a cosmonaut who went to space before Yuri Gagarin, but due to the missions disastrous luck, the mission was covered up and the cosmonaut was made to disappear as if he never existed at all.
- The 2004 video game Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater has a boss known as The Fury who was a cosmonaut sent into space before Gagarin, and whose shuttle was engulfed in flames upon re-entry. He survived with severe burns and a newly-found sense of pyromania; his boss fight consequently involves the use of fire.
- The 2005 mockumentary First on the Moon describes the preparations and training for a Soviet moonshot in 1938, as well as the following cover-up.
- The 2007 Jed Mercurio novel Ascent features a cosmonaut who makes a successful - albeit suicidal - moon landing ahead of the Apollo landings.
- In 2010 the Canadian band Wolf Parade released a song titled "Yulia", which lead singer Dan Boeckner confirmed in an interview as recounting a lost cosmonaut.
- The 2011 science fiction / horror film Apollo 18, which depicts a secret lunar mission by NASA in 1974, depicts astronauts discovering a Soviet cosmonaut who was killed by spider-like aliens hidden on the Moon along with a LK landing module.
- The 2013 Spanish science fiction feature film The Cosmonaut is inspired by accounts of lost cosmonauts.
- A 2013 Doctor Who comic book by IDW Publishing features the story "Space Oddity", which depicts a secret two-man mission in 1965. The Vashta Nerada kill one of the cosmonauts, but the Eleventh Doctor rescues the other, Alexei Leonov, who then blackmails Soviet authorities into ending off-the-books space missions.
- In 2013 the synthwave artist Simulakrum Lab  released a vinyl and CD album containing two songs inspired by lost cosmonauts, titled: "Lost Cosmonauts" (a radio transmission fiction) and "Far Worlds" sung by Liz Enthusiasm.
- The 2014 science fiction / horror novel The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher, set in a distant space station in the 30th century, is inspired in part by accounts of the lost cosmonauts.
- Michael Cassutt's book Red Moon features a cosmonaut named Shiborin who flew on two space flights; one of the early Lost Cosmonaut stories was of an ill-fated suborbital mission in 1958 prior to Gagarin's flight supposedly crewed by a Serenti Shiborin.
- List of spaceflight-related accidents and incidents
- Moon landing conspiracy theories, similar theories surrounding the American lunar programme under NASA.
- Soviet crewed lunar programs; the USSR's plans to send a mission to the Moon.
- See Oberg's Uncovering Soviet Disasters (1988) ISBN 0-394-56095-7, 156–76
- The first Soviet cosmonaut team: their lives, legacy, and historical impact, p. 226. Colin Burgess, Rex Hall. Springer. ISBN 978-0-387-84823-5 (2009)
- "Oberth Believes Astronauts Lost", Gadsden Times - Associated Press, December 10, 1959
- Yaroslav Golovanov Cosmonaut #1, Izvestia, 1986.
- Heinlein, Robert A. "The Future Revisited". Firearmsrights.Com. Archived from the original on 22 May 2009. Retrieved 20 December 2014.
- Bizony, Piers (1998). Starman: Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. Bloomsbury. ISBN 0-7475-3688-0.
- "Soviets May Have Corpse in Orbit". Santa Cruz Sentinel. 106 (46). 23 February 1962. p. 20 col. 7 – via California Digital Newspaper Collection.
- "Sputnik 4". National Space Science Data Center. NASA. Retrieved 12 August 2009.
- Asif Siddiqi, "Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge", 2000, p. 251
- "Lost in Space". Fortean Times. July 2008. Archived from the original on 4 December 2012. Retrieved 8 June 2013.
- "Lost Cosmonaut Rumors". aerospaceweb. Retrieved 8 June 2013.
- "Ilyushin". Retrieved 12 April 2019.
- Hall, Rex (2001). The Rocket Men: Vostok & Voskhod, the First Soviet Manned Spaceflights (illustrated ed.). Springer. p. 145. ISBN 1-85233-391-X. Retrieved 23 February 2009.
- "Внук бывшего председателя Совнаркома СССР, человека № 2 после Сталина Вячеслава Молотова политолог Вячеслав НИКОНОВ: «Дед признавал, что в 37-м дров наломали, но все связанное с ГУЛАГом было для него небольшим эпизодом на фоне строек пятилетки. Кроме того, он считал, что многие репрессированы заслуженно»". bulvar.com.ua. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
- The Cosmonaut Cover-Up – via www.imdb.com
- Siddiqi, Asif (2003). The Soviet Space Race with Apollo. University Press of Florida. pp. 688–91. ISBN 0-8130-2628-8.
- Ivan Istochnikov: El cosmonauta fantasma, El Mundo Magazine, May 25, 1997. Following the links, we find the announcement of the Fontcuberta exposition.
- Sputnik Foundation. Notice the "PURE FICTION" text in red text over a red background.
- Istochnikov Archived 2008-05-15 at the Wayback Machine at the Encyclopedia Astronautica.
- Gamez, Luis Alfonso. The fabricated cosmonaut and the nonexistent prophecy.[permanent dead link] Skeptical Inquirer, 2006 September–October. Retrieved 1 July 2008.
- English Catalan Dictionary. Retrieved 1 July 2008.
- Online Etymology Dictionary: Ivan. Retrieved 1 July 2008.
- Cuarto Milenio, page of the 11 June 2006 program Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine at the Cuatro site.
- El cosmonauta fantasma, Luis Alfonso Gámez.
- Wade, Mark (2017). "Phantom Cosmonaut: Mikoyan, Andrei". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Retrieved 7 January 2018.
- "Matson on Music | Interview: Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner explains "Yulia" from "Expo 86" | Seattle Times Newspaper". Seattletimes.com. 19 July 2010. Retrieved 18 June 2014.
- "Simulakrum Lab". Discogs. Retrieved 1 July 2017.
- Encyclopedia Astronautica: Phantom cosmonauts
- James Oberg (1988). Uncovering Soviet Disasters: Exploring the Limits of Glasnost, Random House, ISBN 0-394-56095-7
- Yaroslav Golovanov Cosmonaut #1, Izvestia, 1986.
- Pavel Toufar, 2002/2003, Kruty vesmir, Akcent, ISBN 80-7268-245-8, 58–258
- Pavel Toufar, 2001, Vzestup a pad Jurije Gagarina, Regia, ISBN 80-86367-11-8
- Alexander Zheleznyakov, Gagarin was still the first (same in Russian)
- Komsomolskaya pravda newspaper (in Russian)
- A.Pervushin "Terrible secret" of soviet space (in Russian)
- Uchitelskaya gazeta (in Russian)
- Ren-TV story (in Russian)