While the Cold War has long since ended, the effects of Soviet secrecy and mass paranoia bred rumors and conspiracy theories that are still going strong in the 21st century. Since the '60s, there has been speculation that Yuri Gagarin was not the first man in space. As per such theories, previous cosmonauts were killed, captured, or lost on their missions. While this may sound like a fringe conspiracy theory, the legend of the lost cosmonauts has more weight to it than standard tinfoil hat speculation. Given the USSR had a longstanding history of covering up deaths and disasters, it's not completely out of the realm of possibility the Soviet Union covered up botched space missions.
Several accounts of deaths and disasters, including the death of one cosmonaut during training, have been confirmed by the USSR. These incidents were kept under wraps, in some cases for almost 20 year periods. This, in addition to mysterious recordings and testimonies from authors and scientists, grants some credence to these theories. While there's no tangible proof, and many write the stories off as anti-Soviet fear mongering, believers await the day when concrete evidence of the lost cosmonauts will emerge.
Was An Honored Soviet General Really The First Man In Space?
Vladimir Ilyushin was a test pilot and general for the Soviet army. Many proponents of the Lost Cosmonaut theory believe he was the first man to survive a space mission. The conspiracy began when Ilyushin, a respected public figure, was mysteriously absent from festivities and ceremonies after the Gagarin flight. The USSR claimed he was recovering from a car accident, and had been sent to China for treatment.
This story is fishy for several reasons. The USSR had decent healthcare, and it made little sense to send a respected public figure overseas for treatment. News had been circulating that Ilyushin was training to become a cosmonaut. A few newspapers even published pictures of him in cosmonaut gear. However, the USSR denied Ilyushin was ever in cosmonaut training.
This has led to speculation Ilyushin was the sent into space, but his ship crashed upon re-entry somewhere near China. He was then taken prisoner for a number of years or months. Nothing has been confirmed either way, but it remains a prevalent theory for believers in the Lost Cosmonauts.
The U.S.S.R Didn't Acknowledge One Cosmonaut's Death For Nearly Twenty Years
The secretive nature of the USSR played a major role in fueling speculation about dead cosmonauts. It's verified the Soviet Union covered up at least one cosmonaut death. On March 23, 1961,Valentin Bondarenko was killed during a 15-day experiment in a low-pressure chamber that was 50% oxygen. The death occurred on Earth.
After finishing for the day, Bondarenko washed his hands with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball. When he threw the cotton ball aside, it fell onto an electric hot plate and started a fire. Bondarenko caught fire while trying to smother the flames with the sleeve of his coveralls. It took an hour to open the chamber door due to the pressure difference. Bondarenko was severely burnt. He died sixteen hours later.
The USSR didn't acknowledge the death until the '80s, going so far as to airbrushed Bondarenko’s face out official photos. If the USSR readily covered up this grisly accident, is it possible information regarding cosmonauts lost in space was also buried?
A German Rocket Scientist Claimed To Have Knowledge Of Secret Soviet Missions
In 1959, German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth was working with the United States government. He claimed he knew for a fact that a cosmonaut had been killed in 1957 or '58, and suspected another death occurred in 1959. While his reports remain unverified and he provided little detail and no sources to back up his claims, it's unclear why a respected scientist would lie. It's possible Oberth had the facts wrong, but not entirely unreasonable to believe he had some inside information unreleased to the general public.
Intense Soviet Secrecy Fueled The Rumors
During the space race, the USSR was committed to secrecy. Missions and tests were rarely widely publicized. Even the names of those involved with the design of spacecrafts were treated as state secrets. This extreme environment of secrecy fanned the flames of conspiracy, leading many to suspect more sinister secrets were being kept by the Soviets.