GAGARIN WAS STILL THE FIRST
Rumours, gossip, innuendo, and hints can serve as the main "window into the world." For some all this is perceived as exotic, but for us, who lived in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s, these means served as the main source of information. From them we learned about things that were not mentioned in the official press. To be precise, we were forced to rely on these means, since there were no alternatives. The things that "Pravda" and "Izvestiya" were writing about only remotely resembled reality. The headlines of these newspapers trumpeted the unending victories of the socialist system, and only occasionally, the newspapers carried short messages in small script about our failures.
Time has passed, and many things have changed. The Soviet Union is gone, and many secrets that for years have captured the imagination of my fellow citizens have been revealed. It took us dozens of years, but we found out about the events, which took place right next to us, and about which we, at best, heard something.
Sometimes the rumours corresponded to reality, and later were confirmed. Sometimes, the rumors arrived in a greatly distorted form. In such cases, considerable effort was required to separate the truth from the layers of lies. Certainly, there were also rumours based on complete nonsense that emerged in someone's sick imagination.
In the 1960s I became intrigued with the subject of space exploration, and naturally, all this "additional" information didn't escape my attention, since the stingy lines from the "TASS Reports" were clearly insufficient to answer all emerging questions about the man's breakthrough into the Universe.
It was during that time that the first mentions began to emerge in the writings about abortive flights, accidents, and unrealized projects. The presence of these notes later helped to make sense of the information flood that was unleashed upon us during the Glasnost (openness) period.
By comparing the writings during that time period with publications that appeared during the 1990s, I can state that the majority of rumors were confirmed by documents except the most absurd that are briefly discussed at the end of this article.
Presently, there are many details known about the "Moon race" that developed in the past between the USSR and the U.S., and about numerous accidents with launch rockets, and about many other things that are senseless to list.
Only widely spread rumours about flights into space before Yurij Gagarin, and about unannounced-piloted flights still remain in the domain of legends today. Even presently there periodically appear testimonies of "witnesses". In the majority of cases they don't stand up to scrutiny, yet they still catch the attention of mass media.
Some time ago I attempted to systematize all the information about such "flights" and catalogue it in the chronological order by the time of "occurrence". A critical review of this information, and an attempt to evaluate the theoretical possibility of such flights would probably also be of some merit.
Thus, the first time period and the first wave of rumours about human flight into space began at the end of 1940s and the early 1950s. During these years the Soviet Union was conducting intensive work on creating ballistic missiles. In 1947 there were tests of captured German "FAU-2" rockets. In 1948 the first domestic "R-1" rocket flew into space, followed by the "R-2". In parallel to the military aspect of this work there was also work on scientific research that included installing equipment in the nose section of the rocket. During a number of flights a container with biological objects was installed on the rocket. The Americans, that performed similar work, were launching monkeys into space, while the Russians used dogs for that purpose. It should be noted that in the USSR and the USA the first rockets either completely or to a large degree were based on equipment designed and developed in Nazi Germany. There were also many German rocket experts working for the countries that won the war. Recently, publications appeared asserting that our country experimented not only on dogs, and that humans also became rocket pilots. There was even a name provided for one of the pilots, which "harnessed" a rocket. The name was Sergej Nikolaevich Anokhin. Moreover, there were references to statements he made shortly before his death. Unfortunately, none of his personal notes about this remain. One can only guess what he meant by the words "I flew on a rocket."
Let us try to evaluate the possibility for making such flights, and attempt to understand what caused such rumors. Theoretically, such a flight could have taken place. German developments towards the end of the war (a modified version of the FAU-2 rocket and the FAU-3 rocket) provided for the presence of a pilot's cabin on a rocket. This was done purely for military purposes. It was necessary to provide insurance for the then unsophisticated guidance system, and ensure destruction of a target However, such a cabin could have been used to house a test pilot. This, for example, could have been implemented in the Soviet Union. If one assumes that pilot's life support and rescue systems were derived from aircraft technology, then such system may have been sufficient for undertaking high altitude flights. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the sensations felt by a pilot during such a flight. However, during those years there were many seeking to perform a heroic deed, and it is quite possible, that it would not have been difficult to find volunteers for such a flight. The previously mentioned Sergej Anokhin could have been one of such people.
Thus, theoretically such a flight was possible, and the rumours about it have actual basis. Moreover, it is known that during those years one of the pioneers of rocket technology Mikhail Tikhonravov proposed the "VR-190" rocket design intended for human flight to the upper layers of the atmosphere. To be precise, that design envisioned placing two people in the rocket nose cone.
Anokhin like no one else is well suited for the role of a person willing to take part in risky experiments. An examination of his biography makes such an assumption possible. It still contains a lot of blank spots. Here are just a few examples. In the mid-1930s Anokhin became acquainted with Sergej Korolev. Both men were fervent lovers of plane gliding, and their encounter was quite predictable. Their cooperation continued up to the time of Korolev's death in 1966, including during the 1940s, when Anokhin worked as a test pilot. Despite the absence of any documents confirming that Anokhin worked on rocket projects, his participation in such projects is quite possible.
Furthermore, according to Anokhin's official biography, during a test flight conducted on May 17, 1945 (the specifics of that flight are not known), he suffered severe injuries, specifically, losing one of his eyes. Despite this injury Anokhin continued to serve as a test pilot for new equipment, indeed a very rare occurrence. For example, later he served as a test pilot for the "MIG-19" interceptor aircraft during a catapult launch and during its flatter flight, when the aircraft completely disintegrates. In 1966, when he was already 56 years old, Anokhin was signed as a member of the cosmonaut team of the Korolev Design Bureau, a feat that merits a separate discussion.
Why did this happen? Was it because Anokhin already had flight "experience" aboard rockets, and this experience could prove to be beneficial for implementation of new space projects, such as, for example, during the development of an air-space plane? It follows from the above that it was theoretically possible for Anokhin in 1947 (first rocket tests in the USSR) or in 1952 (start of rocket launches with biological objects aboard) to fly on a rocket.
However, it is hard to believe that such flights actually occurred. Why do I say that?
First, sufficient time has passed for such information to remain secret. Second, there was no necessity for such flights from both the military and the scientific points of view. Third, Sergej Anokhin lived a long and distinguished life, and consequently remained alive after flying aboard the rockets. In this regard, it is difficult to believe that the Soviet propaganda machine would not use the fact for such a flight as another proof "of a glorious victory of the Soviet system over the decaying West."
Thus, it is very, very difficult to believe in all of this. I would judge Anokhin's statements about his flight aboard a rocket as a hint of his participation in testing jet aircraft. It is possible that his words were a general phrase, and not a reference to anything extraordinary.
The second wave of rumours belongs to the end of 1950s. During this period there were tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles "R-7", and also launches from the Kapustin Yar (Astrakhan region) rocket test field of the "R-2" and the "R-5" geo-physical rockets with scientific equipment and biological objects onboard. These launches served as a pretext to speculations that the experiments included humans in addition to dogs and other small animals. Periodically, information appears in the press about cosmonauts that died during this time period while performing sub-orbital flights. Most often there are stories about the death of Aleksej Ledovskij in 1957, Terentij Shiborin in 1958, and Andrej Mitkov in 1959. Some sources mention 1958 as Mitkov's time of death.
This makes it possible to tie the presumed times of their deaths with the dates of real Soviet rocket accidents.
The emergence of rumours about Ledovskij's death are probably tied to the unsuccessful experiment conducted on May 24, 1957, that resulted in the death of the dogs Ryzhaya and Dzhojna. This occurred due to high altitude decompression of the container carrying the biological objects.
The rumors about Shiborin's death can be tied to the launch of the "R-5" rocket on February 21, 1958. The nose cone of the rocket launched from the Kapustin Yar test field carried the dogs Pal'ma and Pushok. The dogs died due to cabin decompression.
Finally, the third launch that resulted in an accident was conducted on October 31, 1958. The rocket nose cone held a container with the dogs Zhul'ka and Knopka. Upon its descent to Earth the container's parachute didn't open, and the dogs died. It is probable that information about the death of pilot Mitkov is rooted in this accident.
During the 1950s there were several successful rocket launches with dogs aboard. These short high altitude geophysical launches took place on May 16, 1957; August 25 and August 31, 1957; September 6, 1957; August 2, 3, and 27, 1958; and July 8 and July 10, 1959. The rumours also tied these launches with cosmonaut high altitude flights. However, since these flights were successful the significance of these rumours then and now is not very great. These flights are also not very often linked to an attempt to send a human into space.
Information about such flights, as well as about the death of Ledovskij, Shiborin, and Mitkov, was refuted by all involved with the rocket programme. Since there were no documents published concerning this issue, I will attempt, just like in the case of Anokhin, to analyze the possibility for such flights.
Yes, technically such a flight was possible. The rocket's payload capacity during that time allowed placing of a pilot's cabin with an elementary life support system into the nose cone. However, clearly there was no need to conduct such flights. Of course, it would be intriguing to be the first to reach the space heights. Yet, one needs to pay their dues to Soviet designers, who were to some degree risk takers (in the positive sense of this word), but not madmen. Korolev himself thought that "a jump into space" is only a half-measure, which carried no scientific advantages, nor political glory.
What would such a flight accomplish? Moreover, it was much more effective to launch into orbit a simple piece of metal, than to go through all the problems of launching a person for several minutes to an altitude of up to 500 kilometres.
It is likely that the information from the second rumor period should be perceived as the legends and myths of the Soviet space programme.
The third wave of rumours relates to the period when the mankind was on the threshold of people entering space, and the time when the first space flights have already occurred. The flights of the first spaceships-satellites (technical samples of the "Vostok" spaceship) gave birth to many rumours.
Here is the list of most repeated statements commonly used by all involved with this topic.
An unknown cosmonaut (sometimes referred by the name Zajtsev) remained in the Universe in May 1960, when his spaceship changed the flight trajectory and disappeared into the open space. In reality, there was a flight by the first spaceship-satellite, when a malfunction in the orientation system instead of sending the ship on a descent trajectory to Earth directed it to fly in the opposite direction. However, that spaceship was pilotless, the fact currently not disputed by any expert.
In September 1960, another cosmonaut (Petr Dolgov) died when his delivery rocket exploded upon launch. In reality, not a single accident happened in September, which could be associated with this rumor. Most likely there was a mistake in date and the emergence of rumors could be associated with one of the accidents that happened in October. They could be associated either with the accidental launches of automatic stations towards Mars (October 10 and October 14, 1960), or with the explosion of the "R-16" ballistic rocket, which caused the death of Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin and dozens of rocket experts.
On February 4, 1961, spaceship with cosmonauts Kachur and Grachev was launched into orbit. Its flight was not successful. On this date there was the first ever attempt to launch a spaceship towards Venus. Due to an accident with the third rocket stage the ship remained in a near-Earth orbit. It became officially known as the "heavy satellite." Its dimensions could have been easily mistaken for a piloted spaceship, especially, given the fact that people's thoughts were already pregnant with the idea of a manned space flight.
In early April 1961, pilot Vladimir Il'yushin, the son of the famous aircraft designer Sergej Il'yushin, supposedly flew around the Earth three times on the "Rossiya" spaceship, but was injured during the landing. Most likely, this rumor was caused by a launch of the "R-9" military rocket on April 9. However, this launch has no bearing on space exploration.
Later, the Soviet press wrote extensively about this rumor, since Vladimir Il'yushin was injured in a car accident (not even in an airplane accident, since he was a famous test pilot). It was easy to prove this fact.
In mid-May 1961, weak "SOS" signals were received in Europe, apparently, from a spaceship with two cosmonauts aboard. I was not able to associate this rumor with any real event. I assume that in this case radio amateurs received a signal reflected from the upper layers of the ionosphere. It is highly likely that someone was indeed asking for help. However, that call came from Earth rather than space.
On October 14, 1961, a two-seat spaceship deviated from the assigned orbit and disappeared in space. Italian amateur radio operators heard a "SOS", and tied this to the death of cosmonaut Belokonev. There were no space launches on that day. However, there was a launch of the "R-9" ballistic missile.
In November 1962, Italian amateur radio operators again detected signals from a dying spaceship (why only the Italians have such luck?). Most likely, the confusion was caused by the unsuccessful launch of a Soviet automatic inter-planetary station in the direction of Mars. Due to the failure of the final booster stage the rocket was not able to gain altitude and remain in the near-Earth orbit. It is possible, that just like in May, there were also signal reflections from the ionosphere.
On November 18, 1963, the flight of a second woman into space met with a tragic end.
At least one cosmonaut died in April 1964, according to Italian amateur radio operators, which received distress signals.
I would like to add to this list a number of other announcements that I recorded during these years. Unfortunately, they don't contain a single name, and only assert alleged occurrences. The following events, in addition to those mentioned above, the human rumor mill produced about the manned space program.
June 15, 1960. Launch of geophysical rocket "R-2" with dogs Otvazhnaya and Malek. The flight was successful. A pilot was also present aboard the rocket.
July 18, 1960. An attempt to launch the "Vostok" rocket with a spaceship-satellite carrying two dogs. The rocket exploded shortly after leaving the launch pad killing two dogs. According to rumours, a cosmonaut scheduled to fly into space aboard that rocket also died.
August 19, 1960. Pictures of dogs Belka and Strelka, which were the first dogs to return from space, cover the front pages of all major international newspapers. According to rumors, there was also a human aboard, who landed the spaceship.
September 16, 1960. Another launch of geo-physical rocket "R-2" with dogs Pal'ma and Malek. An unknown Soviet cosmonaut allegedly performed the successful flight.
December 2, 1960. A flight by the third spaceship-satellite with dogs Pchelka and Mushka. The dogs died upon returning to Earth. They were killed by the emergency detonation system, which mistakenly calculated that the spaceship was about to land outside the Soviet Union.
December 22, 1960. An attempt to launch another spaceship-satellite resulted in failure. The descent capsule with dogs successfully landed in Siberia. Once again the rumor mill alleged that a man was present in a small capsule with small dogs.
By the way, the last two rumors should be linked to the October 11, 1960, decree by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the USSR Council of Ministers about a planned manned space flight in December 1960. There were indeed such a decree and plans. Unfortunately, they were not realized. The October accidents (two Mars stations and the October 24 tragedy) postponed the timetable for the first manned flight. However, the rumors about alleged attempts to place man in space remained.
March 9, 1961. A flight by the fourth spaceship-satellite with dog Chernushka. Moreover, there was also a realistic test dummy aboard the spaceship, with matching weight and size of a human. During landing, a test was conducted to examine the possibility of catapulting the cosmonaut from a descending capsule.
March 25, 1961. A flight by the fifth spaceship-satellite with dog Zvezdochka. Just like during a preceding flight, the existence of a test dummy gave birth to rumors about an unsuccessful manned flight.
The famous Soviet test pilot Mark Gallaj, one of the leaders of the first cosmonaut training team, later wrote that it was not hard to see how such rumors got started. "Imagine a situation, when you see someone wearing a space suit parachuting to Earth. He is lying on the ground without any signs of life. Then, military people come, load 'the body' into a car, and drive away without providing any explanations. Anyone observing this scene, later will begin talking about a death of a cosmonaut, and it would be hard to prove otherwise." This is a pretty good description about the nature of rumours.
During 1962-1964 there were rumors about space flights by several Soviet cosmonauts aboard the "Vostok" type spaceships. Most likely these rumours were caused by the government decision to build ten "Vostok" type spaceship (in reality such quantity was never produced), and potential flight plan that envisioned flights by "Vostok-7" - "Vostok-15" spaceships. Pilots were assigned to these space flights ahead of time. Another possible source of myths and legends could have been the spaceships whose development was conducted in parallel to the development of the "Vostok". Specifically, I refer to the "Sever" spaceship, a prototype for the future "Soyuz" spacecraft. The "Sever's" design has never progressed beyond the preliminary design stage. However, the word of its development provided fuel for the popular rumour mill.
The list of rumours provided above is not exclusive. It is quite likely that there were other rumors circulating around which didn't catch my attention.
Now let me express a few words about the possibility for performing unannounced piloted flights during that period. I consider as absurd rumours about piloted flights during the 1960. Indeed, the "Vostok" spaceship prototype existed at that time. However, it was ready for a manned space flight only by November of that year. All previous flights were aimed at testing and improving various systems of the spaceship. Hypothetically, from a purely technical standpoint such manned flights could have been performed. However, one should discount right away the possibility for launching more than one person into space at a time. The "Vostok" spaceship was designed to carry only one person. Moreover, it would have been very strange to send a crew into space, prior to sending just a single person.
It is also difficult to imagine that some ships would have sent distress signals from space. If such secret flights had been indeed performed, it would be logical to assume that the Soviet pilots would have died in silence. Well, this is how we were brought up, this was the reality during those years.
It is difficult to accept that there was a second flight into space by a woman. Valentina Tereshkova's well-being during her flight aboard the "Vostok-6" was not very good. Korolev was very upset by the results of this experiment. He reacted quite clearly concerning all the talks about future space flights by women: "There is no way I would let a broad to fly into space again:" By the way, in the Soviet Union the second flight by a women-cosmonaut took place 19 years after the first.
Finally, during the end of the 1940s there were thousands of people working on rocket design and development, and it would have been quite possible to preserve secrets during that time. However, during the 1950s and the 1960s there were tens of thousands, and maybe even hundreds of thousands people working in that field. It is difficult to imagine that not a single authoritative expert didn't open his mouth and spoke about these secrets. Of course, I am ignoring some of the clearly absurd assertions by the "insiders." The facts reveal that such people were just as removed from the space program as the people who found out information about the program from the official announcements and numerous rumours circulating around the Soviet Union.
Here is one more category of rumors born in someone's inflamed mind, and which are difficult to believe. At first I didn't want to write about them realizing their clear absurdity. However, later I decided to list them nevertheless, without providing any commentary.
During the 1960s there were rumors, and during the 1990s there were even publications in various Russian print sources, about cosmonaut-KGB officers, who performed space flights without any hope of returning to Earth. It was asserted that many photo-reconnaissance satellites of the "Zenit-2" type and their modifications were piloted by representatives from special services. It was asserted that the first Soviet "Lunokhod" vehicle was not automatic, but a piloted one, and that the body of a pilot-kamikaze is still laying on the Moon next to the "Moon tractor." Also, there was talk that a cosmonaut was onboard the Soviet reusable "Buran" spaceship that made only one flight, and that he landed the spaceship in Bajkonur. And so forth, and so on.
Allegedly, this was done in order not to lower the Soviet Union's prestige in case of failure. One can only say that such allegations don't stand up to criticism. Failed space launches happened quite regularly in the Soviet Union, and it is difficult to assume that the presence of cosmonauts-kamikaze would made the accidents and catastrophe picture more pleasant, even if such cosmonauts worked for the KGB. In order for the cosmonaut to accomplish his mission there was a need for the presence of even a rudimentary life-support system. Otherwise, the cosmonaut would die prior to start of his mission. Technically, it was difficult to implement such a system. Furthermore, it would have been easier to just avoid any project with the guarantee rate of less than 100 percent, than to entangle oneself with all this "extracurricular" activity.
I believe that the latter category of rumours was created by laymen, who otherwise could not explain why the rockets were able to fly. No matter how absurd these rumors were, they are still a part of the space exploration history.
Nevertheless, Yuri Gagarin will forever remain as the first cosmonaut of the planet Earth, even if it will be later discovered that someone else touched the space several years prior to the flight of the "Vostok." Such is the human nature to long remember all the good, and to quickly forget all the bad.
Gagarin's flight is that good that forever will be engrained in memory.
("ORBIT", Journal of the Astro Space Stamp Society, Issue ¹ 51, October 2001;
"Spaceflight", Vol 44, ¹ 2, February 2002).