On March 25 1961, in the countryside not far from Perm, an ancient city in the heart of Soviet Russia, an ejector seat parachuted from a space capsule. A recovery crew, aided by local villagers, eventually located the craft’s snowbound crash site and its passenger. Who was this mysterious space traveler? No human being had yet flown in space. Could it come from another world? Or even worse, perhaps it came from the decadent West? The previous summer, an American U-2 spy plane had been shot down and its pilot, Gary Powers, paraded before the world media. What if this mysterious visitor was a spy?
The loud noise that heralded the craft’s reentry sounded like an anti-aircraft rocket. The officials warned the curious away, stating it was just a dummy. When rescuers finally reached the ejector seat, they rushed to the lifeless figure in a strange flight suit. And there he sat — Ivan Ivanovich (the Russian equivalent of John Doe). Affixed to Ivan was a sign with a single word: MAKET (model). Ivan was a dummy. A cinematographer employed to record the flight recalled the frustration of the volunteer rescuers when they discovered they’d expended all that effort for a dummy. Ivan wasn’t welcomed to Earth with a salute or a bouquet of flowers as later cosmonauts would be, instead he received a punch to the face.
Ivan Ivanovich flew aboard Korabl Sputnik 5, part of a test program designed to pave the way for the Soviet Union’s Vostok program, the crewed effort they hoped would beat the Americans by launching the first human being into space. This was the second flight of a flight test dummy. The first, using Ivan’s identical twin, had taken place earlier that month on March 9.
The Soviet program was renowned for its secrecy. Information about flights was carefully controlled. On the one hand, this meant the Soviets were able to use this cloak of mystery to appear one step ahead of the game; it’s easier to say you’re on track if you don’t set a public deadline. On the other hand, it created a climate where rumor and speculation flourished. In this atmosphere of limited information, intense anticipation over the prospect of human spaceflight, and Cold War fears, a rumor took root: The Soviets had covered up deaths in space —the Lost Cosmonaut Conspiracy.
The rumors began in the late 1950s, but grew in volume during the Korabl-Sputnik program. They drew on garbled retellings of the recovery of Korabl-Sputnik capsules, and the engrained depictions in the US of the Soviets as secretive and untrustworthy. With each retelling they became more astounding. Cosmonauts had been killed on impact, driven mad in space, doomed forever to circle the Earth when their capsules refused to re-enter. In May 1960, the tenacious anti-communist senator Henry Jackson alleged that the official designation of the Korabl-Sputniks as unmanned were an elaborate cover-up for a series of disastrous failed crewed missions. The Soviets revealed little about their future plans. Korabl-Sputnik was part of a colossal, intensive effort to prepare for the first manned Vostok flight, but to many observers, Soviet secrecy and denials merely proved they had something to hide.
Amateur radio enthusiasts got in on the act; the Judica-Cordiglia brothers from Italy achieved considerable notoriety with their repeated stories of intercepting Lost Cosmonaut transmissions. They managed to parlay their fame into a game-show performance where they won a trip to the US to visit NASA facilities.
On April 12 1961, several weeks after Ivan’s flight, a grinning 27-year-old Soviet Air Force officer, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human space traveler aboard the spacecraft Vostok 1. America had barely recovered from the shock of Gagarin’s flight when Gherman Titov, sometimes known as the poet of space, became cosmonaut number two in August of that year. If anything, the cacophony of confusion and recrimination that followed these flights intensified the Lost Cosmonaut rumors. It was only when President John F. Kennedy confirmed that the flights had actually taken place that many Americans reluctantly acknowledged Titov and Gagarin as genuine space pioneers and not elaborate publicity ruses.
Nevertheless, the barrage of propaganda that accompanied each new Soviet space spectacular, and the nigh-impenetrable shroud of secrecy about how those flights were accomplished, meant the Lost Cosmonauts continued to pop up like unexpected phantoms on a ghost train ride throughout the heated space race years of the 1960s. The Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson depicted himself waging a one-man war against Kremlin secrecy, penning numerous columns about supposed Soviet space disasters. Reports became increasingly elaborate: mixed-gender crews of doomed Soviets were apparently heard lamenting, “Remember us to the Motherland! We are lost! We are lost!” as they realized rescue was impossible and their spacecraft had become their tombs.
So potent was the Lost Cosmonaut Conspiracy that it impacted on the reporting of genuine Soviet space disasters such as the death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov when his Soyuz 1 spacecraft’s parachute malfunctioned during reentry in 1967, and the deaths of the Soyuz 11 crew in 1971 during another reentry accident. The left-wing magazine Ramparts, which thrived in the mistrust of the Watergate era, quoted a supposed ex-NSA eavesdropper who’d apparently overheard Komarov exchange a tearful farewell with his wife and an angry denunciation of the Soviet system to Mission Control and the Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. Littered with far-fetched and dubious details, this account nevertheless shows how influential the Lost Cosmonauts were.
The Soviets were aware of the rumors their secrecy encouraged, and they knew their rivals were prepared to think the worst of them. Ivan’s flight was needed to test the microphone and transmission system for future cosmonauts. But to use a recorded human voice risked fanning the flames of the Lost Cosmonaut stories. One technician suggested using a record of singing. Singing in space? The designers countered, the Western eavesdroppers would assume the cosmonaut had gone mad. A compromise was settled on, a recording of a choir. Even the gullible Capitalists wouldn’t assume the ship could fit a choir in it, and a recording of a recipe for borscht would also be used. So Ivan Ivanovich flew around the world alternately singing and declaiming a recipe for beetroot soup.
The Lost Cosmonaut rumors have been persuasively debunked as far back as the mid-1960s. It is now known that the Soviets did cover up disasters and accidents within the space program, but there is no evidence to suggest they ever covered up any deaths in orbit. In 1960, a launch pad explosion of an unmanned rocket killed the important Soviet Air Force official Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, and approximately 120 other personnel. Additionally, a cosmonaut trainee Valentin Bondarenko died in a horrific fire in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of an isolation test chamber. The growing openness of “Glasnost” in the USSR in the 1980s exposed these disasters to both a Soviet people who were hungry for the truth, and to curious American experts. The impact of Glasnost in rewriting Soviet history was so great that in 1988 Soviet high school history exams were cancelled because revelations about the past had rendered their textbooks useless. However, amidst the torrent of startling revelations about the chaos and infighting of the Soviet space program that lurked behind its pristine public façade, there was no evidence to corroborate the Lost Cosmonauts theory.
While Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova were feted and celebrated as heroes, Ivan was locked away for decades in a secret museum, inaccessible to the public. The billionaire businessman, philanthropist, and presidential candidate Ross Perot purchased a large amount of Soviet space memorabilia at auction in the 1990s. It was with that collection that Ivan made his way to his current home at the Smithsonian, out of the shadows and, finally, face to face with the public — a reminder of the extreme distrust that flourished between the USSR and the West during the Cold War.