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The Lost Cosmonauts of the Soviet Union

August 31, 2017

One of the more disturbing stories to come out the Cold War, and certainly the most horrific – if indeed true – to emerge from the space race, is that of the “lost” (and by lost, I mean dead) Russian cosmonauts.

It has been alleged by a number of credible sources that the Soviets launched not one but several failed attempts at manned space flight before Yuri Gagarin survived his 1961 mission to become the first Russian in space. The Soviet Union denied these reports when they first began to surface and Russia continues to deny them today.

While I have no idea if these stories are actually true, in my experience of the Soviet Bloc, they are highly plausible. It’s hard to forget that the Soviet Union committed many worse crimes against its own citizens – so much so that the alleged horrors done to their MIA cosmonauts seem almost quaint.

Space travel is dangerous. There is no doubt about that. The United States has had its share of casualties in our harrowing quest to voyage beyond the relative safety of our planet and into the universe at large. Devastating tragedies like the Challenger explosion come to mind. Then there are the nail-biting, snatched-from-the-jaws-of-death missions like 1970’s Apollo 13, when NASA came together in what has been called its finest hour. With little more than passion, commitment and ingenuity, NASA engineers brought a spaceship full of stranded astronauts back from the Moon and from what looked like certain death.

A truly breathtaking and inspirational feat that struck at the core of who we were and clarified for us Americans just what we were risking, and what we were willing to do in order to bring our star-explorers home safe and sound. Shaken from this narrowly averted tragedy and buoyed by our mastery over the Soviets, the U.S. put manned missions largely on hold until recently.

space race mission control

Mission Control, Apollo 13

While both the Red and the Red, White and Blue space programs were dangerous and audacious, there were several distinctions between the Soviet space program and the one executed by the U.S. during the Cold War space race. The first and most important contrast was that American astronauts competed like mad for the job. They most definitely wanted to blast off into space – risk and all.

In the Soviet Union, cosmonauts were chosen. Did they feel honored and thrilled to be plucked from their lives and hand-picked for such an adventure? We’ll never know, and they certainly would not have felt at liberty – without serious repercussions like being sent to a gulag – to divulge any misgivings on their part.

If you’ve read THE HUNGARIAN , my new historical thriller which centers around Cold War spies and the 1950s space race, you may remember quirky, Russian double-agent Fedot informing Lily that President Eisenhower had placed significant restrictions on our American team of scientists. This was truth, not a fiction of my imagination. Not only were our physicists, engineers and the like asked to develop flawless technology, but Eisenhower would not allow them to use any military launchers for United States satellites for fear of looking like a warmonger. As a result, our scientists had to develop non-military launchers that were just as effective as the military ones. No easy task, and one that cost us. The Soviet Union placed no such restrictions on their scientists and designers, giving them a distinct timeline advantage.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 exposed the single-minded recklessness and carelessness with which the Soviets pursued a crusade to crush enemies and expand their power. Nuclear energy and space travel were executed with the same vicious resolution as their illogical and mostly failed Five-Year Plans regarding agriculture and economic development. If the statistical comparisons between Soviet/Russian fatal airline crashes and those of Western carriers are any indication of how the Soviet Space Program was conducted, then the words myopic, hostile, sloppy and inhumane come to mind.  As late as 2011, Russia snagged the title as the most dangerous country to fly from, according to The Wall Street Journal. A rash of fatal accidents there prompted investigations into its airline industry, which found “ineffective regulation, inefficiently small airlines and poorly trained pilots not following modern safety procedures,” according to The Journal.

While airline safety and space travel precautions may or may not have mirrored one another in Mother Russia at the height of the space race, it’s hard not to draw a comparison. Especially since what we do know for sure is that the Soviet Union, throughout its relatively brief reign, were open about valuing the State over the individual. It was one of the few things they were actually open about. As a result, millions of innocents died of starvation, or were worked to death in labor camps, or were simply victims of grotesque forms of criminal negligence.

Chernobyl comes to mind. It’s hard to fathom that the Soviet government did not warn the locals of the nuclear disaster that had occurred in their backyard. Not until it was too late and the whole world had already discovered their dirty little nuclear secret.

chernobyl kindergarten 2

Chernobyl Kindergarten

The only heroes in Chernobyl were the brave nuclear power plant workers who died in order to try and avoid even greater collateral damage from the meltdown. According to Knowledge Nuts,  “During the well-documented Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a pool of water used for emergencies in case of a break in the cooling pumps or steam pipes became flooded with a highly radioactive liquid that was in danger of blowing up. The size and specific conditions meant it could have caused virtually the whole of Europe to be enveloped in radiation. Three divers equipped with wetsuits and a faulty lamp dove in to allow the water to drain, with full knowledge they’d die as a result.”

The three engineers were Valeri Bezpalov, Alexie Ananenko and Boris Baranov. They  were buried in lead coffins that were soldered shut. We should always remember these men as having given their lives in order to save perhaps hundreds of thousands. They made their choice freely and without the help or scrutiny of their government, who continued to deny the disaster.

If the stories of the lost cosmonauts are true, they deserve to be remembered as well. In absence of their names, let’s simply pray for their souls.

space race first woman

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