365daysDate: May 20, 2009

Title: The Missing Cosmonauts


Podcaster: Brian Dunning

Organization: Skeptoid Podcast

Description: In 1961, young Italian amateur radio enthusiasts Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia recorded transmissions they say are from Soviet cosmonauts dying in space, on missions covered up by the Soviets. Is their story plausible?

Bio: Brian Dunning is the host and producer of the podcast Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena (skeptoid.com), applying critical thinking to paranormal and pseudoscientific subjects promoted by the mass media. Skeptoid has a weekly audience of 70,000 listeners. Brian is also the author of two books based on the podcast, Skeptoid and Skeptoid II. A Silicon Valley computer scientist by trade, Brian now uses new media to promote critical thinking. He has appeared on numerous radio shows and television documentaries.


During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was hot. Both sides built and tested rockets as quickly as they could, trying to be the first to launch an artificial satellite into orbit, often with explosive results. People around the world watched and listened. Some amateur radio operators listened more closely than others. And of these, a pair of young brothers from Italy, Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, reigned supreme. Their enormous library includes a number of recordings of alleged events that didn’t make it into the history books: doomed Soviet cosmonauts captured in their final moments of life, on flights that the Soviets said never happened.

Achille and Giovanni were creative and scientific geniuses in the truest sense, both in their twenties. When the Soviets announced the successful launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957 and published the radio frequency for everyone to hear, the brothers scavenged what radio equipment they could and tuned it in. Here is the actual recording they made of Sputnik I:


From that one recording, their self-taught education proceeded like a rocket. They learned how to detect the Doppler effect in signals from orbit, and how to calculate an object’s speed and altitude from that. They filled logbooks with conversion tables and Soviet frequencies. And so, when the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 only a month after Sputnik 1, they were well prepared, and recorded the heartbeat of Laika, a small dog.

Achille and Giovanni’s experiment took a more serious turn on November 28, 1960. A West German observatory announced that it was receiving a strange signal on a Soviet space frequency. The brothers tuned in, and heard hand-keyed Morse code repeating the international distress signal, S-O-S, over and over again. Their Doppler calculations showed almost no relative speed, which they interpreted to mean that the distressed spacecraft was on a course directly away from the Earth. The signal grew weaker and was never heard from again. Apparently, the brothers had just recorded evidence that a manned Soviet spacecraft somehow got off course and left Earth’s orbit, permanently.

About two months later in February 1961, they picked up another transmission from space, which experts interpreted at the time as the dying breaths of an unconscious man:


But the most dramatic of the brothers’ recordings came about five weeks later in May of 1961. A woman’s voice in Russian, translated as “Isn’t this dangerous? Talk to me! I feel hot. I can see a flame. Am I going to crash? Yes. I will re-enter…”:


When I first heard about the Judica-Cordiglia recordings, I was definitely intrigued. It simply appears plausible. We know that the Soviets covered up their failures. We know that their launch record in those days was absolutely abysmal, far worse than the United States. If Yuri Gagarin made it into space, it almost seems like a foregone conclusion that at least a couple of other guys must have previously died in the attempt. So I compared the timelines of what the Judica-Cordiglia brothers recorded to the timeline of the Soviet space program, and I did find some problems.

The main inconsistency is that during the times of the Morse code and the astronaut’s alleged breathing sounds, the Soviets were still launching dogs and mannequins. A few days after the Morse code S-O-S recording, Sputnik 6 carrying two dogs was deliberately self-destructed upon a failed re-entry, and three weeks after that, two dogs were launched and safely recovered even though the third stage of their Vostok booster failed and the craft did not achieve orbit.

While it’s true that the Soviets did have a proven capability to escape the Earth by the time of the Morse code S-O-S, the Vostok 8K72 booster only had the ability to lift 500 kilograms to escape velocity, way too small for a manned capsule. Even for several years afterward, the Soviets had no rocket capable of lifting a manned capsule beyond Earth’s gravity.

In the two months following the brothers’ recording of the breathing, the Soviets made two successful low Earth orbit flights, each carrying a small dog and a mannequin. These are the type of test flights made when you’re not yet ready to launch a man.

Following the Soviets’ success at launching Gagarin in April 1961, the Judica-Cordiglia sequence of events suggests that their next feat was to launch a woman, thus the May 1961 recording. However, the Soviets’ next launch wasn’t until August, and it was another man, Gherman Titov, who flew for a full day in orbit. Valentina Tereshkova, credited as the first woman cosmonaut, didn’t fly until more than two years after Gagarin, in June of 1963.

Of course these inconsistencies don’t prove anything, they just show that if you accept the Judica-Cordiglia assertions as fact, they show an illogical backwards progression by the Soviets that’s contradictory with the character of the space race. The Soviets never took backward steps.

A more compelling reason to be skeptical of the Judica-Cordiglia brothers’ interpretation of their recordings is the lack of corroborating evidence from the numerous, far more sophisticated radio tracking stations that existed. These were the days of the Distant Early Warning Line and the birth of the North American Air Defense Command, and the Americans, British, Canadians, Germans and French all had equipment that far exceeded the brothers’ humble capabilities, with things like tracking dishes that the brothers lacked; and moreover, the western propaganda machine would have loved nothing better than to publicize Soviet failures. The best explanation for why such announcements were never made is that no such failures were ever observed.

Achille and Giovanni’s story is too often told without critique or inquiry into the plausibility of their most extraordinary claims. There are simply too many other possible explanations for their recordings to comprise useful evidence of lost cosmonauts. I maintain an open mind on the subject. What do you think?

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by [brief dramatic pause] Anonymous on behalf of The Onion Router Project. The Onion Router Project provides free, open source software securing privacy on the Internet for all of Earth’s inhabitants. Find out more at torproject.org


***Transcript coming soon.***

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365 Days of Astronomy
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