Alexander Zheleznyakov, translated by Mikhail Vorobyov, edited by Jeff Dugdale.
GAGARIN WAS STILL THE FIRST. PART TWO
About a year has passed since I wrote the article ”Gagarin was still the first” in Orbit no 51, trying to systematize and analyze rumours and gossip about flights into space which allegedly happened during the Soviet era but have been ignored in official history. Frankly, I had no idea I would have to touch upon that theme again, but “man proposes, God disposes…” .
That article had been written for Orbit at the request of its editor and it was first published there. To my surprise that publication provoked a keen interest in its readers. It was firstly re-published in Spaceflight magazine, then in Russian language newspapers of Canada and Israel having been translated back into Russian and, at last, was published in my country though considerably reduced.
After all that I’ve received many letters which made me take up the pen again. The volume of new information which added to what I had already known turned out to be very large. Most of all I was staggered having discovered many new facts which had never been mentioned or discussed anywhere. Readers reported about “what they had witnessed themselves” or “what they authentically found out from those involved in events which had happened”.
I’ve swept aside most of the information collected as quite groundless, but I tried to analyze those messages associated to real events and want to call readers’ attention to what I have learned.
One more remark – I had no idea that this occupation would fascinate me so much as I faced an entire “layer of folk creative works” .
All the information organically connected with the theme of last year’s publication and collected over the last several months is given below. I have tried to take a critical view of the possibility of the events rumoured and to express doubt as necessary – or do not comment on the information. Thus...
Manned flights before Space Age
There were many references to cosmonauts Alexey Ledovsky, Terentij Shiborin and Andrei Mitkov who supposedly perished in late 1950s attempting to make a space flight Those mythical men vied for the title “cosmonaut ¹0” as they had allegedly been in space before Yuri Gagarin.
I had also mentioned their names alleging there hadn’t really been such flights but that was reasoning without any documentary proof or otherwise.
Alas – throughout the last year I couldn’t prove those flights had been unreal. Nevertheless doubts about the official version denying possibility of such flights have crept even into my mind. Why has that happened and what’s the substance of my doubts ?
Firstly it hasn’t been proved yet there was not a flight by Ledovsky or Shiborin or Mitkov. The publication of their real biographies would cancel many questions. It’s quite possible that they bore no relation to space but I have never doubted there had been military pilots with such surnames in the Soviet Air Force.
At times I’m staggered and annoyed by the absolute infantilism of the Russian Space branch’s chiefs who pass over that theme in silence. They have opportunities to prove Yuri Gagarin’s priority in space and so dismiss the doubts but they consider it unnecessary to prove anything to anybody out of their self-importance.. That’s why I have to do their work collecting the information in bits and pieces. What if I can’t do that?
Secondly, one of the arguments I used to prove the impossibility of manned sub-orbital flights in the Soviet Union was that a huge number of people would have to have been involved in those events. It seemed to me at least one of those people would tell something about those flights if it really had happened during the “glasnost” period in our country the last decade or so.
But as one correspondent reasonably objected to me: ”Yes, thousands of people were involved in that but they had to keep silence for over 30 years and only few of them are alive now.” This is a very worthy remark.
Thirdly, those letters brought to me new rumours and gossip which indirectly assume the possibility of pre-Gagarin flights into space.
Let me tell you about it in detail.
Most interesting amongst new areas of my knowledge were rumours about the existence of a group of pilot-cosmonauts to test rocketry in the Soviet Union in “pre-space Age” period. That wasn’t a cosmonauts group like that located in Star City near Moscow we used to know, rather a group of military pilots selected by fitness who took refresher courses periodically. They lived and served like other pilots of the Soviet Air Force but at any time could been recalled to execute “urgent tasks of the Soviet government”. Many actions, from sending military advisors group to an Asian or African country right up to participating as military servants in secret experiments fell under that definition then.
Ledovsky, Shiborin and Mitkov had been in that group according to the version I heard. If that’s true we have begun to realise why their names were to be connected with the failure of rocket launches.
Also I’ve heard about a woman Maria or Mira Gromova who was supposedly in that group too but perished in a rocket airplane disaster in June 1959. They often say that with reference to an unknown statesman of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party who told about some unsuccessful sub-orbital flights in the Soviet Union when visiting Italy in December 1959. According to him that woman pilot had fallen victim to one of those rocket disasters.
This is really doubtful since all groups of test pilots formed then for testing new techniques as well as the first cosmonaut group formed in 1960 included no woman for reasons of physiology. No exception for anyone had been made let alone for a secret sub-unit like our supposed pilot-cosmonaut group.
Other famous Soviet pilots like Kokkinaki brothers, Vladimir Ilushin and others were also mentioned as members of that group. I wrote about V.Ilushin in the first part of my article so there’s no need to repeat. As to other ones I am bound to say their belonging to a pilot-cosmonaut group was very unlikely as their names would have been too well known by that time, besides they were probably too old to “saddle the rocket”. If such a group had been created in fact only young pilots of excellent health and prepared to “hold their tongues” would have been admitted there.
Now about the purpose of such a pilot-cosmonaut group’s creation – the most important thing in that story. I’ve heard about two versions of it. The first suggestion is that it was making scientific and technical experiments, and a second that they were working on military aspects of applying rocketry. In accordance with the latter one, all the pilots had to provide on board guidance for a nuclear missile during flight. Automatic aiming systems were too imperfect to deliver the rocket’s fatal cargo to its target without human’s participation then.
This has something in common with rumours about experimental rocketry in the Fascist Germany where they also wanted to place pilots on board rockets to ensure hitting the American cities. Some sources allege that Otto Skortseni “the Chief Reich saboteur” even formed the group of kamikaze-pilots for executing such missions. It’s quite possible that such ideas coming from Germany caused the analogous rumours in the Soviet Union.
One more argument of my correspondents casting some doubts on the official version is the nature of the upper module of geophysical B-2A and B-5B civilian analogues of military P-2 and P-5 missiles. There hasn’t been published anything yet to tell us about the construction of those rockets upper modules and about experiments made by means of them. Everything is usually given in general outline with no details. Some things are described in detail but the content of most of those “scientific gear containers” is still kept a secret.
Meanwhile questions appear when we compare the only known parameters of the Soviet B-2A, B-5B and of American “Mercury” spacecraft on which Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom performed sub-orbital flights. “Mercury” weighed 1300kg for what turned out to be enough to “jump” beyond the Earth atmosphere (it climbed 185-190km at maximum). B-2A payload’s weight to be hoisted to 212km was 2200kg and the B-5B one to be raised to over 500km was 1300 kg. So in the mid 1950s rockets had been flown in the Soviet Union with parameters analogous to those launched in USA in 1961. I don’t know if the others would do but I’d use such an opportunity then.
Yes, we have to agree the world isn’t an easy thing and we can’t believe in everything unconditionally. But the questions remain and only exact answering of them may shatter the rumours, gossip, suppositions and assumptions.
Let’s move from the 1950s and pass to another area where there is further information to impart.
Flights into space in the early 1960s
When speculating about “flights” of the first half of 1960s in my first article I enumerated some of the names that rumour connected with the Soviet space programme, such as Zaitsev, Dolgov, Kachur, Grachev, Belokonev and Ilushin.
What new information have I obtained about those people who allegedly sacrificed themselves to conquer the Universe and about the events took place in early 1960s?
Firstly, the important addition to my research was listening to the records made by the Italian radio amateurs criticized by me. It sounded not too convincing frankly speaking and of course one may suppose anything having listened to those records especially if you have a good imagination. The most doubtful was the record of woman’s voice supposedly connected with the “flight and death” of the second cosmonaut-woman on 18th November 1963. I felt at once that all that was said to have happened was improbable, so I asked for a psychologist friend to listen to that record. He concluded categorically the people don’t in the way suggested on the tape in an extreme situation and that the record was most likely a hoax. It felt like those Italians had been “set up” for some special reason.
To all appearances the “sting” didn’t work and there was no need to “expose” anyone.
Secondly, a group of names was connected with flights into space mentioned in some letters to me: Zavadovsky, Mikhailov, Kostin, Tsvetov, Nefedov and Kirushin, some of whom had been “buried” when those supposed 1961-1962 flights ended tragically. It turned out to be easier to find out the truth about those people than about some other speculations. If the first two named remain “phantom-cosmonauts”, we can say for sure that the four others were rocketry testers, who worked on the ground - not in space -so they “have been buried” mistakenly. In 1997 Viktor K. Kostin, Vladimir E. Tsvetov, Sergey A. Nefedov and Eugeni A. Kirushin were awarded the title “Hero of Russia” for their contributions to space exploration. Other former testers were awarded with The Order of Courage. Here I give the names of some of those who like cosmonauts deserve to be mentioned in the history of cosmonautics: Emil Ryabov, Abram Genin, German Manovtsev, Mikhail Kuzmin, Robert Galle, Elena Sorokina. They paved the way to the Earth orbit and we can’t say their work was easier than being a cosmonaut.
Thirdly, I want to tell you in detail about Peter Dolgov who supposedly perished in September 1960 when according to rumour his space flight failed. Peter I. Dolgov was also a rocketry tester – a parachute tester and he was the first in the Soviet Union to put space suit on to test it via high-altitude parachute jumping. His final parachute jump ended tragically.
On the 1st October 1962 (two years later than rumours say) Dolgov left the deck of “Volga” balloon at a height of 25,600 metres together with another tester Eugeni V.Andreev. Both them were equipped with space-suits and it had been proposed their parachute system would come into force after they reached a height of 1,600 metres. Andreev was successful but Dolgov wasn’t. As he left the balloon’s car the breaking wind forced him violently against the side of the capsule causing depressurization of his space-suit and causing instantaneous death. The parachute system was indeed activated automatically and Dolgov reached the ground but he had died some time before. That’s the reality not rumour or gossip.
Fourthly, I’ve heard about a supposed plan to send a married couple to orbit. My correspondents gave the names of the couple as Ludmila and Nikolay (or Anatoly) Tokovy. Most readers will readily guess what experiment they would have to carry out in space – but that supposition was so absurd in my opinion that it requires no explanation. They couldn’t discuss such delicate matters seriously in the Soviet Union of mid-1960s when that “unique” space flight was said to have happened. Firstly the technique wasn’t so perfect as it’s nowadays (though we don’t plan such experiment even now). Secondly it would be illogical to divert attention to such bizarre experiment when the Moon race was still on.
And the last thing the correspondents told me about that period of space exploration was a kind of corrective information about the flight of the first woman into space. One of Bajkonur veterans (though I doubt his credentials) alleged that “Vostok-6” was launched on 15th but not on 16th June 1963. He explained the 24-hour silence/delay as there wasn’t confidence that Tereshkova’s flight would be a success. They supposedly informed the world “about another achievement of Soviet cosmonautics”, only when it had become clear there wouldn’t appear a problem. All that would be possibly from a purely technical standpoint but I see no reason for that. However it’s not so important if the first woman was launched to conquer the Universe on 15th or on 16th June.
Let me pass to the second half of the 1960s, again in the light of rumour and gossip that exists about the Soviet space programme.
Yuri Gagarin’s death
The gossip reported below belongs to the “most absurd” category I’ve heard, not least because its “execution” would had been very difficult. It appeared owing to the riddles surrounding the disaster of the flight of an UTI MiG-15 aircraft which happened on 27th March 1968 near village Novoselovo in the Kirzhach district of Vladimir region and which caused the death of Yuri Gagarin. Some of the questions connected with that tragedy haven’t been answered yet therefore suppositions of “how it was in fact” appear. If we look through the recent Russian newspapers, we come across various descriptions of that event – from simple pilot error to interference from a UFO. But I’ve never seen published the version I’m going to tell you about.
In accordance with one of my sources’ supposition Yuri Gagarin perished 18 days earlier than the officially announced date accomplishing a space flight and not in air crash. On the one hand that hypothesis contains a lot of unreal and far-fetched things but on the other hand it’s a fascinating rumour. In addition I can say I’ve never heard that version before but I don’t claim I know all the variety of “the Soviet era folk creative works”.
So it’s alleged Yuri Gagarin perished exactly on his 34th birthday, 9th March 1968. I told you in my first article that “L1” ¹6L spacecraft had been launched before that date aiming to circle the Moon and then return to Earth. The spacecraft was named “Zond-4” officially.
As to that version that spaceship was not unmanned as TASS reported…
“Its crew were Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Seregin. The problems appeared some minutes after the launch. It became clear on reaching the orbit it was impossible neither to execute flight’s schedule nor to return the cosmonauts on Earth safely.
It was decided to suppress the cosmonauts’ presence on board the spaceship in accordance with practice to suppress the failures which then occurred in the Soviet Union. They flew in nearly complete radio-silence mode talking with Earth by ultra-short wave transmitters only. Seven days after the launch, the spacecraft entered the dense layers of atmosphere and burnt up over The Bay of Guinea. Both cosmonauts perished.
It was impossible to hide the death of the first cosmonaut from the world so they organized an air crash with “MiG UTI-15”. The aircraft was piloted by two test-pilots who ejected just before the crash.”
What do the promoters of this version support their words with? As a rule they use “The first cosmonaut of the planet” book issued in 1981 for the 20th anniversary of the first flight of a man into space for it. Many pages of that book describe the last days of Yuri Gagarin’s life in detail. They use exactly that period attempting to prove their hypothesis is true.
Let’s see what they say about it using the book’s quotations:
“On 2nd March 1968 Gagarin arrived at Baikonur to attend the ‘Zond-4’ launch”.
The version’s supporters allege that the cosmonaut arrived at the cosmodrome some days earlier for launch preparations and that date was given to explain his presence on the launch site. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that’s true.
“2nd-10th March Gagarin was at the cosmodrome to analyze the data being relayed from the satellite. He worked on his “Psychology and Space” book in his free time”.
The sceptics doubt Gagarin’s presence at the cosmodrome was necessary. If he really kept up with “Zond-4” flight but wasn’t on board it, it would be more logical for him to be in Evpatoria (where the Soviet FCC was situated then). It’s possible to agree with that and to trust their explanations – if we go with the hypothesis.
“On 8th March Gagarin called to Zvezdny to greet Valentina Tereshkova on International Women’s Day.”
The sceptics answer: “Why didn’t he do that on her birthday –6th March?” Well, let’s assume that too.
“On 10th March he returned to Zvezdny”.
Why not earlier? – just a rhetorical question. But the sceptics convinced in their argument allege that the week which passed after the “Zond-4” launch was required to select and prepare the Gagarin’s double to appear in the presence of others until an official report about Yuri Gagarin’s death.
The fact was Gagarin twice met the people not related to cosmonautics (let alone his colleagues from the cosmonauts group) during the 11th-26th March period if we read that book attentively. It would have been possible for him to avoid those meetings. If so why they “did” they all occur ?
As you can see that version is well put together and it might have been accepted as the truth on examining some assumptions - if there were not some snags to it.
Firstly, the period between the “real” and the “organized” deaths of Gagarin provides us with doubts – it would be rather a long time but the problem would have to be solved very quickly. It would have been easier to organize an accident at the cosmodrome if necessary.
Secondly, just imagine the scale of the “screening operation” required to convince all the world that it was true. Imagine the expenses and actions co-ordination. What a skilled organizer he would have to be to organize all that? Very unlikely such a man could be found.
Thirdly, imagine the number of the people who would have to be involved, not a dozen but hundreds, thousands, and even more. And how do we explain that not one of them has said anything about that for 34 years?
That version of Yuri Gagarin’s death is scarcely credible though I give it some respect it in this article. The possibility of that being true is close to zero, but that scant possibility exists not because of our assumption of the possibility of such events but because there are many inconsistencies and unexplained facts remaining about the Gagarin’s death which do require analyzing and interpretation !
Rumours about manned space flights within the framework of the Soviet Moon programme.
Besides the rumours about “manned flight on board Zond-4” many other ones concerning the Soviet Moon programme existed in my country. Let me observe that many Soviet citizens guessed about the existence of the Moon programme analogous to the American “Apollo” one in their country 30 years ago when the Moon race was in full swing. They discussed it a lot and all I heard about the technical aspects of the programme during those years has been confirmed. The difference of opinions on how many engines there were on the “N-1” Moon booster couldn’t be considered a vital mistake. Even the “ Moon cosmonauts’ ” last names had been rumoured and it turned out to be the truth. Gagarin, Nikolaev, Popovich and Bykovsky had been mentioned for example : all of them had been included amongst the twenty cosmonauts the Moon crews were to be formed from.
But all I heard in the 1960s was just a fraction of the “space” rumours circulating in the Soviet Union as I’ve now discovered. The people said “our cosmonauts have been on the Moon” or “our cosmonauts will just fly to the Moon”. The possible reason for such rumour appearing was that the Soviet people didn’t want to accept that the Soviets hadn’t been the first in the Moon race. If to remember the history of space exploration the Soviet Union could boast of so many “firsts”: the first artificial satellite, the first man/woman in space, the first spacewalk, the first Moon and Venus interplanetary stations. We couldn’t accept that someone had left us behind so those rumours became the “way out for power of dissatisfied mind of the Soviet people”.
Let me pass from the lyrical digression to what in particular was rumoured about the Soviet-American Moon race in the Soviet Union.
On 22nd April 1968 “Proton-K” ¹23-201 booster with Moon vehicle”L1”¹7L was launched from Bajkonur. The launch was a failure and, as to the gossip, two cosmonauts on its board perished then.
If we simply analyse that specific rumour and compare it to previous one concerning supposed death of Yuri Gagarin’s in a “Zond-4” disaster, the disparities appear to make us doubt if those two rumours were true. There was only a month a half between the 2nd March and 22nd April launches and it was very unlikely the Soviet government would have insisted on a second potentially fatal space launch, if the first one had occurred. How cruel and reckless one would have to have been to allow such a things. One may refer to the “inhumane” methods of the KGB and the Communist Party for the time being but then must look for other arguments to support one’s words with.
That’s why we may strike one of those launches off “suspicious” ones list.
Some days after another Moon vehicle “Zond-6” had been launched (10th Nov.1968) the rumours started to circulate that two cosmonauts were on board. Moreover the name of one of them – Pavel Popovich – was given. It’s a surprise to say that the information appeared thanks to NASA staff. The “Zond-6” schedule envisaged working from many systems including vehicle- Earth communication lines. Cosmonauts Pavel Popovich and Vitaly Sevastianov had been in Evpatoria communication centre and talked to FCC in Kaliningrad (now Korolev) of Moscow region using “Zond-6” as re-translation unit.
That exchange of communications had been recorded by the Americans, who thought at once that the Russians had flown to the Moon. All became clear soon but reporters found out about what had happened and, in some unknown way (maybe by broadcast of Western Russian language stations?) the information reached the Soviet Union.
It was clear that the Moon race came into a decisive stage after “Apollo-8” with 3 astronauts on board had circled the Moon on Dec.1968. That’s why the rumours about the Soviet attempts to leave the Americans behind in any way appeared.
The closer that the rumoured “Apollo-11” launch date was guessed about in the Soviet Union, the more frequent appeared the rumours of attempting to put the Soviet cosmonaut on the Moon.
The gossips alleged the following Soviet spacecraft to be launched manned: automatic station of “E-8-5” type aimed delivery of the Moon soil to Earth and perished in “Proton-K” booster disaster on 14th June 1969; ”N-1” booster launched for the second time on 3d July 1969; “Luna-15” automatic station launched 13th July 1969 (3 days earlier than “Apollo-11” was).
The Soviet people couldn’t resign themselves to their loss even when Armstrong and Aldrin made the first steps on the Moon. On those days the Moscovites rumoured that “the American Lunar Lander had been considerably damaged when landing and couldn’t launch by itself, but Soviet cosmonaut Porphyry Ebenov, who reached the Moon some days earlier, rescued the astronauts.”
They couldn’t give a transparent explanation how cosmonaut Ebenov had got the Moon. But anyone familiar with the Russian unprintable vocabulary understood the nature and “authenticity” of that rumour having read the cosmonaut’s surname (as it meant Fuck-man in English). Also “Ivanov” was given as his last name was mentioned but that would be as absurd as the Ebenov one.
Another rumour appeared in the early 70s telling us about a spaceship with two cosmonauts on board launched in the Soviet Union aiming to reach the Moon but which exploded after the booster stage had been activated. I can only suppose they meant one of two launches of automatic stations “E-8-5” type on 23d September and on 22nd October 1969 which couldn’t leave Earth orbit for the Moon. Eventually that legend was used for “Buried in Peace” episode of the American TV series “The Cape”. I want to point out that the rumour became the basis for film’s subject and not the other way around, since it appeared twenty years earlier than the film.
One more rumoured Soviet “manned flight to the Moon” was delivery of “Lunokhod-1” - to the Moon’s surface. Various versions of that event exist . As to one of them a dwarf was placed into the Lunokhod to drive it. He supposedly died on 4th October 1971, 11 months after the landing. That would be impossible even from the theoretical standpoint so there’s no point in analyzing that information.
Other versions also envisaged a driver’s presence inside Lunokhod but alleged that such a man lived for some days, perhaps even up to a month. Some people allege (and they’re sincerely deluded) that a dead cosmonaut’s body lies near Lunokhod because the cosmonaut shot himself when realized there would be no chance to return back to Earth.
I may be mistaken supposing that the Soviet TV-programme which told us about “Lunokhod-1” drivers caused those rumours, though it was mentioned that the “crew” was on Earth and drove Lunokhod through remote control. Somebody heard only the first phrase and the rumour about “the cosmonauts left on the Moon to the mercy of fate” started circulating over the Soviet land.
There was one more possible reason for such rumours appearing. The Lunokhod drivers passed medical tests at the Institute of medical-biological problems (IMBP – the main centre of space medicine in the USSR). They must meet strict health requirements there so the strongly perverted information about that spread over the world.
Let me remind you of the names of those people who drove the Lunokhod from Earth to do justice to them and to negate the rumours about the death of the Soviet cosmonaut on the Moon still exist among some people.
Two crews had been formed. They were: Nikolai Eremenko/ Igor Fedorov (commander), Gabdukhai Latypov/ Vyacheslav Dovgan (driver), Konstantin Davidovsky/ Vikenty Samal (navigator), Leonid Mosenzov/ Albert Kozhevnikov (board engineer), Valery Sapranov/ Nikolai Kozlitin (narrow-pointed aerial operator). Vasily Chubukin was a reserve driver /operator for both crews.
Let me round off my story about the Soviet Moon programme with this data.
The 70s and 80s
The Moon race finished, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and foreign cosmonauts’ flights within the framework of “Intercosmos” programme resulted in the Soviet space programme becoming more public and the rumours about “unannounced” manned flights began to dry up.
Only twice did such rumours circulate in 1970sand 1980s. The first one “placed” a cosmonaut on board Buran when its first and the only spaceflight and the second one alleged that three but not two cosmonauts as had been announced to officially arrive at the“MIR” station on one occasion, but the schedule for that unknown cosmonaut was so secret that the officials decided to pass it over in silence.
Let me draw my story to an end by commenting on some aspects of the “Soviet urban folklore” we’ve been hearing in our country for about 40 years. The information became more accessible and “white spots” were eliminated from our history so allowing the rumours about secret manned space flights to stop appearing in Russia. That happened because of absence of reasons for them, and of course the interest in space exploration waned among our people.
And Finally !. When collecting the materials for this article I discovered that there had been existing rumours about unannounced space flights not only in the Soviet Union. There’s a lot to say about supposed flights on rockets in the German Third Reich. There are such rumours even in the USA which differed from my country with its space programmes being open to the public. But I’ll tell you about that another time !
("ORBIT", Journal of the Astro Space Stamp Society, Issue ¹ 54, June 2002;
"Spaceflight", Vol 44, ¹ 11, November 2002, pp. 471-475).