Alleged Sub-Orbital and Other Space Tragedies; Apr. 4, 2001; News (English): "Gagarin Was Not The First Cosmonaut" 

Launchspace, Oct./Nov. 1998, Cover Story: "A Tribute to our Fallen Heroes", Encyclopedia Astronautica: "Gagarin" 

Uncovering Soviet Disasters; 1988 Random House, New York: "Chapter 10: Dead Cosmonauts"

Gagarin rode up on a Vostok launch vehicle

An item published on the Pravda, English-language website appears to reveal a startling glimpse into the true history of the secretive Soviet manned-space program. It contains an interview with a senior experimental engineer named Mikhail Rudenko: his "new sensational" revelation is that Yuri Gagarin was not the first man to fly into space (1961). Test pilots, with no special cosmonaut training, had been launched from the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome, into sub-orbital trajectories, each year from 1957-1959, according to Rudenko. Their names never made it into the history books, none of them lived to tell about it, and the Cold War Soviets weren't keen on admitting mistakes. Rudenko said: "All three pilots died during the flights, and their names were never officially published." The Pravda article gives no specific reasons for the failures.

Rudenko names the pilots as Ledovskikh, Shaborin, and Mitkov. "Obviously, after such a serious [sic, likely: series] of tragic launches, the project managers decided to cardinally change the program and approach the training of cosmonauts much more seriously in order to create a cosmonaut detachment," Rudenko said.

Rudenko's last statement hints that failures were due to the lack of suitable training. Perhaps some information in regards to this can be garnered from the record of the launch of the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin, first official man in space. According to the Encyclopedia Astronautica, Gagarin was more passenger than pilot, for the bulk of his single-orbit flight. This was to the extent that his controls were locked-out and could only be freed if he broke open an envelope and used a key to unlock them -- not very accommodating for in-flight emergencies. Was this an example of extreme confidence in Soviet systems engineering or lack of confidence, from prior unacknowledged manned flights, in pilot ability to recover from or avoid inducing flight errors?

To this day, the Russians land on hard ground, using a combination of parachutes and braking rockets. They've long perfected the tricky sequence of events to get this done right -- but at what cost in the past? Well, there was one critical, manual operation Gagarin was required to accomplish at the end of his flight. Again, from the Encyclopedia Astronautica: "Gagarin ejected after reentry and descended under his own parachute, as was planned. However for many years the Soviet Union denied this, because the flight would not have been recognized for various FAI world records unless the pilot had accompanied his craft to a landing." Yes, Gagarin was ordered to flee his capsule before it hit the ground! One can conclude that, the Soviet propaganda value of putting a man in space outweighed the practicality of perfecting a reliable landing system. If Gagarin had orbited the Earth, but not bailed out in time, would the Soviets have continued to work down the line of cosmonauts, launching them until one made it alive, and so declared that survivor as the first man in space?

The above speculation, concerning the circumstances of Gagarin's flight, is admittedly as sensational as it is suspect. The short Pravda article doesn't explain where Rudenko got his information or when. Is Rudenko telling the truth? Could he be spreading a hoax? Some research reveals that his "new " information is not that new.

but, Gagarin's capsule landed empty. -- RKK Energia

At its peak, the Soviet Union spanned so much east-west land area that a sub-orbital flight could easily be done within its boundaries. Before the advent of spy satellites, for imaging and communications eavesdropping, what happened inside the Soviet Union was behind an impenetrable "Iron Curtain." But transmissions from space are harder to hide and could have been monitored by American and other powers. In fact, there are rumors of intercepted radio transmissions, from cosmonauts dying in space, by Western tracking stations and ham-radio operators, extending back to the beginning of the Space Race. Are Rudenko's three cosmonauts listed among the rumors?

Russian space expert James Oberg appears to name Rudenko's doomed cosmonauts in his 1988 book Uncovering Soviet Disasters. The name spelling may differ, but Oberg lists three cosmonauts that died on suborbital launches from Kapustin Yar: Ledovsky (Rudenko's "Ledovskikh") in 1957, Shiborin (Rudenko's "Shaborin") in 1958, and Mitkov in 1959. Oberg's names are from a longer list of rumored cosmonauts he compiled back in 1973 -- twenty-eight years before Rudenko's public admission.

Laika was the first, officially, left up there to die -- TASS

Likewise, Launchspace magazine published on article, in 1998, listing seven alleged Soviet manned flights that were never acknowledged by the Russians. The article claims that NASA had this list, compiled from Western ground stations and ham-radio operators, in 1963. This list contains the names of some of the cosmonauts and the length of time their transmissions were monitored by Western ground stations. Many of the flights were monitored for 30-minutes, consistent with sub-orbital flights. The first flight on the list dates to February of 1959, when Air Force officer Serentry Shiborin was launched from Kasputin Yar and monitored for 28-minutes. Except for the later year, this appears to be the same information that Oberg published.

In any case, a February 1959 flight was about a year-and-a-half after the Soviet Sputnik 2 carried the dog Laika into orbit. Is it far-fetched to believe that an aggressive Soviet manned-space program would try to launch a human at this early date? Does not the shear number of dead cosmonaut rumors lead one to believe that at least some are true and this is so? In the end, Oberg doesn't believe this: "After considering their sources and their details in the hindsight of subsequent space activities. I concluded that all such stories dealing with alleged flight fatalities were baseless."

For the record, here is a summary of the remaining flights on the Launchspace rumor list: 

  • Oct.11, 1960: Col. Piotr Ivanovitch, a cosmonaut, is monitored for 30-minutes. 
  • Nov. 28, 1960: An unknown cosmonaut was heard sending frantic voice SOS signals. 
  • Feb. 2, 1961: An unknown cosmonaut's breathing and heart signals were monitored for almost 30-minutes. 
  • Apr. 7, 1961: Signals from cosmonaut Vassilievitch Dowodovsky stopped shortly after liftoff. Five days later, on Apr 12, cosmonaut Maj. Yuri Gargarin orbited Earth and was officially acknowledged as the first human in space. 
  • May. 17, 1961: Two persons in a capsule, one possibly female, monitored for 2-minutes. 
  • Oct .14, 1961: Two persons, one a female, were monitored for 7-hours, apparently on the way to the Moon.

And here are summarized the balance of the rumor entries Oberg lists in his book: 

  • May 1960: An unknown cosmonaut is stranded in space. 
  • Sept. 1960: A cosmonaut, possibly named Pyotr Dolgov, is blown up on the launchpad. 
  • Feb. 4, 1961: Heartbeats were monitored for a time from a Soviet satellite. (Similar to the Feb. 2, 1961 Launchspace entry.) 
  • April 1961: Vladimir Ilyushin circled the earth three times but was badly injured on his return. 
  • Mid-May 1961: Two cosmonauts heard issuing faint calls for help. 
  • Oct. 14, 1961: A solar flare causes a multi-man Soviet spacecraft to go off course and never return. (Likely the same rumor as the Launchspace list for the same date.) 
  • Nov. 1962: Signals from a doomed mission detected. The victim may be a cosmonaut named Belokonev. 
  • Nov. 19, 1963: Attempts to launch the second woman into space fails. 
  • April 1964: One or more cosmonauts die on a mission. 
  • 1967: After three Americans die in the Apollo 1 fire, U.S. intelligence sources report five failed Soviet flights and six fatal ground incidents.

In regards to the 1961 multi-cosmonaut items: the Soviets did not officially launch any multi-person capsules until 1964. Would they have put together a two-person capsule for a quick swing-round of the Moon, in October 1961, for the propaganda value? We know they'd hit the Moon with their Luna 2 probe, two years earlier, in September 1959. But it is very surprising that the U.S. would beat them to the Moon if they were attempting manned Moon flights in 1961.

Was Gagarin just the first to live? 

So, are all the flights on these lists rumors, or are some true? Rudenko's claim has the ring of truth in it because the Soviets were notorious for rewriting history and airbrushing people out of official photographs, if they didn't want the world to know they existed. Published articles and books (notably by James Oberg) have documented this deception. In one example, a "class photo," of a group of space test pilots, was modified over the years as the members died in accidents.

Russia, as part of the Soviet Union, spent decades amassing secrets and may take many more decades to reveal them all. On the other hand, since many of the rumored flights were attributed to monitoring by Western intelligence agencies, and our post-Cold War openness hasn't confirmed any of these rumored flights, It is easy to agree with Oberg that these are all hoaxes.

Salmon Rings, Anyone?; Jun 8, 2001; Sci/Tech: "Colour clue in Saturn's rings"

Saturn by Hubble -- STScI/Aura

Saturn is a planet instantly recognizable by all -- because of its rings. Made mostly of ice and rock, with a smattering of other compounds, the mystery of the rings is their origin. Speculation was that a moon was pulled apart, or fail to form, in the gravity well of the big planet. To resolve the origin question, over 100 Hubble Space Telescope images of the planet, made between 1996 and 2000, were analyzed.

The results of the analysis tell us that ring color changes with viewing angle, a phenomena that is caused by an aggregate of small particles. Changing light angle causes particles to cast more or less shadows onto the system. This makes the rings appear redder, as the shadows deepen. Subtle salmon shading in the rings are from small amounts of organic molecules in the particles. The color data also indicates the presence of at least two unknown materials mixed into the ice and rock rings.

Material distribution and reddish color are unlike those of Saturn's small icy moons, but icy objects at the edge of the Solar System are known to have reddish hues. Therefore, the analysis points to the ring material as originating in the outer reaches of our Solar System.

A big break in our understanding of the rings may happen after the Cassini spacecraft reaches Saturn in 2004.

Planet Venus -- suneV tenalP; Jun 13, 2001; News: "Back flip: The mystery of why Venus spins 'backwards' may have been solved" Science Update; Jun 14, 2001; Space: "Celestial backspin inevitable"

Venus is unusual among the rocky, inner planets of our Solar System: it is the only one shrouded in a thick veil of clouds, requiring radar to map its surface, and the only one that rotates "backwards" or retrograde. When seen from "above" the plane of the Solar System, the side that includes Earth's north pole, Venus rotates clockwise, and all the other inner planets rotate counterclockwise.

We've only known about Venus' retrograde rotation since radar studies done in the 1960's. Prior to that, observation of Venusian cloud motion drew rotation estimates that ranged from days to over a month -- all assumed to be in the same direction as the other inner planets. When the 243-day retrograde rotation was revealed, some scientists proposed that the planet formed with a rotation in the "normal" direction, and a spin axes greatly tilted toward the plane of the Solar System. Gravitational effects, perhaps from the Earth, then flipped the planet over. Now "upside-down," the planet's spin direction would appear backwards.

False color Venus - NASA

In a paper published in the journal Nature, Alexandre Correla and Jacques Laskar, of the Astronomie et Systemes Dynamiques, Paris, studied the problem using computers. Analyzing forces on the planet, such as friction between the planet's core and mantle, atmospheric heating, and gravitational forces, led them to conclude that Venus can have four possible rotation states. Two of them were forward rotating and two retrograde. It turned out that the forward rotating states were less stable than the retrograde states. Venus naturally, over time, assumes a retrograde spin, given almost any initial parameters.

It seems the unique atmosphere of the planet may cause the unique rotation of the planet. The heavy atmosphere may have slowed the initial "forward" rotation to a halt. Forces then would have caused the planet to spin backwards, very slowly.

Posse to Pluto?

NASA; Jun 6, 2001; Press Release: "NASA Selects Two Investigators for Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission Feasibility Studies"

The book on Pluto/Charon

Two science teams will receive $450,000 each to conduct three-month concept studies of the Pluto-Kuiper Belt (PKB) mission, to study Pluto and objects in the Kuiper Belt of asteroids. The two teams were chosen from five proposals submitted to NASA, in April 2001. The edge-of-the-Solar-System mission will carry imaging cameras, a radio science investigation, and other experiments to map and learn the composition of Pluto and its moon Charon. Teams will now work closely with the Office of Space Science, at NASA Headquarters, to finalize designs for their respective spacecraft proposals. After three months, a winner may be selected or both proposals rejected on technical grounds. Even if a winning proposal is selected, the project faces political hurdles to get off the drawing board and into space. (See NewsNotes 05.15.01: "Possible Pluto Probe -- AGAIN!?"; 05.01.01: "'Planetary' Woes Build for Pluto"; and 01.01.01: "Pluto Probe Proposals Propositioned".)

Because their proposals are for a complete mission, which includes a launch vehicle, spacecraft bus, and instrument payload, team participants come from a range of spacecraft and space flight backgrounds.

One of the proposals is from a team called Pluto and Outer Solar System Explorer (POSSE). Headed by Principal Investigator Dr. Larry Esposito, at University of Colorado, Boulder, the team includes participants from NASA/JPL, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Malin Space Science Systems, Ball Aerospace Corp., and the University of California, Berkeley.

The other team is called New Horizons: Shedding Light on Frontier Worlds. Southwest Research Institute's Dr. S. Alan Stern is Principal Investigator of a team, with personnel from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Ball Aerospace Corp., Stanford University, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and NASA/JPL.

The future of the Pluto mission is currently in a fiscal limbo. Cancelled last year (then known as the Pluto-Kuiper Express -- PKE), due to rising costs, resurrected and redesigned from scratch in the form of the current proposals, and then lost again when PKB wasn't made part of the administrations FY 2002 budget. Each sour turn in the saga raised a chorus of protests from the scientific community. Congress then requested that NASA keep the proposal process going, until it could consider the FY 2002 budget.

Launch would be in 2004-2006, with arrival at Pluto by 2020. "The PKB mission represents a possible opportunity to visit the only planet not yet explored by spacecraft," said Dr. Colleen Hartman, Pluto Program Director in NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. Pluto is believed to be composed of pristine material left over after the formation of the Solar System. This material has never experienced high temperatures or solar radiation and contains valuable clues as to the formation of the Solar System.