Hope everyone had fun on Yuri's Night! A worthy celebration, to be sure, and one that I hope continues to grow. Over the years, a scattered few have asked me if I "believe" or "know for sure" that Yuri Gagarin was the first cosmonaut to orbit the Earth? Because there are whisperings that he was merely the first to survive.
I wasn't born until 8 1/2 years after Yuri's journey, so, of course I don't "believe" or "know for sure." I wasn't there. My parents hadn't MET. But, two Italian brothers, Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, have for many years insisted that Yuri's was the third orbital trip. Two others perished (or were severely injured -- stories vary) before him, but were covered up by the U.S.S.R. at a time when only success was acceptable to print in Pravda. How do the brothers know? They listened.
Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia... listening
Then, they allegedly traveled to NASA to negotiate for information. Unsurprisingly, like most conspiracy theories, the story of the brothers and their equipment is carefully crafted to sound more technical than it probably was, only vaguely glosses over how they knew when and where to listen to Soviet objects in the sky, links to many corroborative sources who share their beliefs, and plays more upon the psychology of assumptions than proven information.
Did the Soviets sometimes go to bizarre lengths to be secretive, even painting people out of photos when they proved not to be "PERFECT" cadets? Absolutely. Did they admit many years after-the-fact that deaths had occurred? Yes. In fact, when David Scott took the "Fallen Astronauts" memorial to the moon on the Apollo 15 mission, the commemorative plaque was missing two Soviets, who had perished in the 1960s. Their deaths were not confirmed until 1986.
Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia in 2011
These are compelling reasons for believing there are still secrets to be had. Much like moon-hoaxers, believers in the "phantom cosmonauts" theory aver, with elaborate explanations, that as many as 20 early cosmonauts, including a mysterious woman known only as "Ludmilla" were casualties, and only privately honored through small memorials in a secret room in Moscow.
We skeptics often fall back on how "extraordinary claims rely on extraordinary evidence" -- but short of the Russian Federation released the records on the two proposed cosmonauts in question, there is no evidence to be had. Were the Soviets capable of such a cover-up? Undoubtedly. The J-C brothers continue to insist their recordings constitute proof.
Is it feasible another 27 years would pass with no whistle-blowers, no records, and no proof? Did they kill Yuri Gagarin in a mysterious jet crash to quiet him because his conscience had begun to bother him about not truly being first? Unlikely.
Vladimir Ilyushin had a fairly well-documented life, and survives to this day. Short of a deathbed confessions that he was the first or second cosmonaut into orbit, but Yuri took the acclaim because his landing was more worthy of the proud Soviet state in 1961, we are -- as in most cases of conspiratorial thinking -- better off with the official record.
Even with a regime whose lies have been proven? Even with a regime whos lies have been proven. If anything, the many documented hoaxes over the years, and the massive crash of the Soviet propaganda machine in 1991 proved that even well-orchestrated falsehoods and cover-ups never last very long.
Aaaahhh, but maybe that's what THEY WANT you to think...