During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was hot. Both sides built and tested rockets as quickly as they could, trying to be the first to launch an artificial satellite into orbit, often with explosive results.
Both sides had their successes, and both sides had their failures. People around the world watched and listened. Some, most notably amateur radio operators, listened more closely than others.
And of these, a pair of young brothers from Italy, Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, reigned supreme. Their library of audio recordings of nearly every flight from the space race is by far the most comprehensive private collection known.
But the real reason it’s notable is that includes a number of recordings of alleged events that didn’t make it into the history books: doomed Soviet cosmonauts captured in their final moments of life, on flights that the Soviets said never happened.
During the cold war, the Soviet Union was a knot of state secrets. More than anything else, the cold war was a war of propaganda, each side trying to show the world that they were the smartest, the fastest, the highest, and the best.
In this context, it’s not surprising at all that the true progress of their space program would be closely guarded and only the best news released to the world. With their state-controlled media, the Soviets had the ability to accomplish coverups of failures to a degree that would never have been possible in the United States.
Achille and Giovanni were creative and scientific geniuses in the truest sense, both in their twenties. When the Soviets announced the successful launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957 and published the radio frequency for everyone to hear, the brothers scavenged what radio equipment they could and tuned it in. Here is the actual recording they made of Sputnik I:
From that one recording, their self-taught education proceeded like a rocket. They learned how to detect the Doppler effect in signals from orbit, and how to calculate an object’s speed and altitude from that. They filled logbooks with conversion tables and Soviet frequencies. And so, when the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 only a month after Sputnik 1, they were well prepared. And this time, the brothers discovered something new: a heartbeat.
It was the heartbeat of Laika, a small dog. Sadly for Laika, Sputnik 2 was a one-way trip; there was no provision for re-entry or recovery. Three months later, the United States launched its first satellite, Explorer I, and like the Soviets, published the frequency of the signal.
Achille and Giovanni captured it, and then their lives as local media celebrities began. They were the darlings of the local papers and radio stations. They took over a nearby concrete bunker left over from World War II, made improvements to their equipment, and built larger antennas. They called their little radio observatory Torre Bert, and anytime anything launched into space from anywhere, Torre Bert was filled with friends, reporters, local scientists, and anyone who wanted a good time.
The Torre Bert experiment took a more serious turn on November 28, 1960. A West German observatory announced that it was receiving a strange signal on a Soviet space frequency.
The brothers tuned in, and heard hand-keyed Morse code repeating the international distress signal, S-O-S, over and over again. Their Doppler calculations showed almost no relative speed, which they interpreted to mean that the distressed spacecraft was on a course directly away from the Earth.
The signal grew weaker and was never heard from again. Apparently, the brothers had just recorded evidence that a manned Soviet spacecraft somehow got off course and left Earth’s orbit, permanently.
About two months later in February 1961, variously reported as the 2nd or the 4th of the month, they picked up another transmission from space, which experts interpreted at the time as the dying breaths of an unconscious man.
November 1963, the brothers said they recorded the voice of a female cosmonaut re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in a malfunctioning spacecraft; in the recording she is heard to have cried out, “I am hot” as it burnt up.
In total the Judica-Cordiglia brothers released nine recordings over a period of four years. The details were as follows:
May 1960, a manned spacecraft reports it is going off course. November 28, 1960, a faint SOS Morse Code signal is sent from another troubled spacecraft leaving Earth’s orbit. February 1961, a cosmonaut is audibly recorded suffocating to death.
April 1961, a capsule is recorded orbiting the Earth three times before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere just days before Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight.
May 1961, an orbiting spacecraft makes an appeal for help after going out of control. October 1961, a cosmonaut loses control of his spacecraft which veers off into deep space. November 1962, a space capsule misjudges re-entry bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere and out into space.
November 1963, a female cosmonaut dies during re-entry. April 1964, another cosmonaut is killed when their capsule burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.