Why you should care
Because this Cold War conspiracy theory — however out of this world it may sound — says a lot about us.
Through the white noise, whistles and warbles, the raspy, labored breathing reaches out. A woman’s voice sputters in and out as though distorted by many miles. “Listen! Come in!” she gasps. “Talk to me!” Seconds later, a terrified scream: “I’m hot! I can see a flame!”
The transmission breaks up and gives way to static. In that silence, a horrifying possibility comes into focus: Perhaps this is the voice of a person dying where no one in the world can help her. Could these be the last words of a woman left to die in space?
That’s what many people thought in the early 1960s, when two Italian brothers, Giovanni and Achille Judica-Cordiglia, revealed this recording. Based in an old rural bunker rigged with radio equipment and supposedly dedicated to uncovering an earth-shattering lie, the siblings spent years creating one of history’s most unnerving conspiracy theories.
Secret space missions, whether or not they were successful, “didn’t just mean people lost in space … [they] exacerbated fears of nuclear war.”
As the space race raged, the Judica-Cordiglia brothers claimed to have evidence that one of its key players, the Soviet Union, had sent several people into orbit before Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 flight. The recordings, they insisted to journalists, revealed the dark side of the international rush to the final frontier: unsuccessful and secret launches in which would-be manned space flights did not come home.
The Judica-Cordiglia recordings, dating from 1960 to 1964, were made as the USSR launched Sputnik and Gagarin, and as the U.S. responded with John Glenn. They’re still chilling to hear, and vary in quality and content, but fans of Apollo 13 and Gravity will recognize familiar themes: heavy breathing, patchy Russian dialogue through static, lost contact as a spacecraft drifts out of range and distant screams about overheating. At times, they sound eerily like the agonizing last words of Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet cosmonaut who was killed when his faulty spaceship burned up on re-entry.
The USSR vehemently denied they’d ever covered up a space launch, and no subsequent evidence suggests otherwise. Modern analysis of the recordings shows clear inconsistencies in the Judica-Cordiglia brothers’ stories: Some of the “Russian” voices have suspiciously Italian accents, and none of the “transmissions” use correct Soviet Air Forces protocols or language. But this mystery of the “lost cosmonauts” — aka Russian astronauts — was splashed across front pages in its day and still survives among stubborn conspiracy theorists.
But is there more to our morbid curiosity? After all, one of our best-loved space stories, told via song, is about a lost space traveler: “Ground Control to Major Tom,” anyone? David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” still gets a whole generation humming and, fittingly, was the first song recorded in space.
Lost-in-space stories haven’t lost their cinematic appeal since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nicolás Alcalá, writer and director of the 2013 independent film The Cosmonaut, which is inspired by a more recent lost cosmonaut hoax, muses about the lasting draw of this story. “Knowing that you are quarter of a million kilometers away from home and not being able to get back … it’s scary. And poetic. And decadently beautiful,” he says, noting how it relates to an individual’s fear of loneliness and detachment.
In the 1960s, the idea of a “lost cosmonaut” spoke to more acute fears. Despite the optimism of space exploration tales like Star Trek, the reality of space travel — from sending a dog into orbit to a man on the moon — hit the public fast and hard, and raised more life-changing questions than it did answers. Even NASA was afraid of the possibilities of space. American astronauts prepped for space flight were told they might experience “space madness” — literally losing their minds in isolation above Earth.
To the wider public, space represented chaos in an era of nuclear tension and uncertainty. A person lost in space was a poignant metaphor for individuals’ anxieties about the future — and in the Judica-Cordiglia recordings, it became a terrifyingly present possibility.
For the West, especially, “lost cosmonauts” had a sinister side as well. The technological changes during the new “age of new exploration,” 1960s historian George May explains, meant that space, as the final frontier, “created new anxieties and conspiracies around the Russian space mission.” Secret space missions, whether or not they were successful, he says, “didn’t just mean people lost in space”; the notion of secret Soviet launches “exacerbated fears of nuclear war.”
These anxieties translated into a larger fear — and awe — of space that has carried us to the present. Our world may seem smaller and less complicated since the days of Sixties conspiracies and recorded hoaxes. But our conception of space continues to grow by the day.