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Heinlein calls it again
Posted by: Billy Hollis on Saturday, January 26, 2008

Via Instapundit, there is this from Pravda:
As 40 years have passed since Gagarin’s flight, new sensational details of this event were disclosed: Gagarin was not the first man to fly to space. Three Soviet pilots died in attempts to conquer space before Gagarin's famous space flight, Mikhail Rudenko, senior engineer-experimenter with Experimental Design Office 456 (located in Khimki, in the Moscow region) said on Thursday. According to Rudenko, spacecraft with pilots Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov at the controls were launched from the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome (in the Astrakhan region) in 1957, 1958 and 1959. "All three pilots died during the flights, and their names were never officially published," Rudenko said.
I'm not sure, but if I read the dates right, this has been in Pravda since the 40th anniversary of Gregarin's flight, which would be a few years back. But it's the first I've seen of it.

When I saw this, I immediately recalled a passage from Expanded Universe by Robert Heinlein about his trip to the Soviet Union during that same general time period (pages 415 and 416 in the original softcover edition):
About noon on Sunday, May 15, we were walking downhill through the park surrounding the castle that dominates Vilno. We encountered a group of six or eight Red Army cadets. Foreigners are a great curiosity in Vilno. Almost no tourists go there. So they stopped and we chattted, myself through our guide and my wife directly, in Russian.

Shortly one of the cadets asked us what we thought of their new manned rocket. We answered that we had had no news lately - what was it and when did it happen. He told us, with the other cadets listening and agreeing, that the rocket had gone up that very day and at that very moment a Russian astronaut was in orbit around the earth - and what did we think of that?

I congratulated them on this wondrous achievement but, privately, felt a dull sickness. THe Soviet Union has beaten us to the punch again. But later that day our guide looked us up and carefully corrected the story: The cadet had been mistaken, the rocket was not manned.

That evening we tried to purchased Pravda. No copies were available in Vilno. Later we heard from other Americans that Pravda was not available in other cities in the USSR that evening - this part is hearsay, of course. We tried also to listen to the Voice of America. It was jammed. We listened to some Soviet stations but heard no mention of the rocket.

This is the rocket the Soviets tried to recover and later admitted that they had had some trouble with the retrojets; they had fired while the rocket was in the wrong attitude.

So what is the answer? Did that rocket contain only a dummy, as the pravda now claims? Or is there a dead Russian revolving in space? - an Orwellian "unperson," once it was realized that he could not be recovered.

I am sure of this: At noon on May 15 a group of Red Army cadets were unanimously positive that the rocket was manned. That pravda did not change until later that afternoon.
There are discrepancies between the Soviet admissions and Heinlein's account. The Pravda report on the three dead astronauts claims that the flights were suborbital. Heinlein wrote his account in 1960, and the Soviet account places the last of the flights in 1959. So it's not certain that Heinlein caught them in their lie. However, given that the Soviets lied in the first place about the entire incident, I don't think that necessarily disqualifies Heinlein's account.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

However, given that the Soviets lied in the first place about the entire incident, I don’t think that necessarily disqualifies Heinlein’s account.

Yes, it does. Rudenko gives dates. Heinlein gives a completely different date. They are speaking about entirely different rumors.

Western investigators chased rumors like this for a long time, for example at, and give Rudenko’s claim zero credibility. See also (long URL, beware of wraparound):

Consider the possibility that when the Heinleins’ Intourist guide said the Red Army cadets were mistaken, she was correct. Even if she was speaking for a repressive, frequently-lying Communist regime.
Written By: Bill Higgins— Beam Jockey

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