Across the silence of space came heartbeats, Morse-code… and screams of terror.
A lonely heartbeat up in space. Far below, two men listened. They heard the heartbeat as it quickened, then slowed. And they kept listening as it stopped. Forever.
It was 3 November 1957. The heartbeat was Laika’s – the Soviet space dog.
She was in orbit 982kms (over 600miles) above the earth, locked into the Sputnik space capsule that would become her coffin.
Back on earth, using high tech equipment, two radio enthusiasts heard the last thuds of Laika’s heart as they echoed through the vast emptiness of space.
Those enthusiasts were brothers Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia.
For years, they’d been fascinated by space and the race between Russia and the USA to conquer it.
Each country wanted to show the world how powerful it was by launching missions into space, being the first to make a mark on that infinite wilderness of stars.
In Turin, Italy, the brothers tuned into the radio frequencies of Russia’s space programme.
They listened to rocket launches, marking the dates and times in log books.
Then, they’d heard the ill-fated Laika’s heartbeat.
Laika was a stray dog, plucked from the streets of Moscow and launched into space as part of an experiment.
Russian space authorities had wanted to prove that a living creature could survive take-off.
They had no plans to bring the dog back to Earth.
For the next three years, they carried on listening in to the space race.
They heard rockets launching, capsules in orbit, satellites exiting Earth’s atmosphere and the barks of many other space dogs.
Then, on 28 November 1960, they heard something else.
It was Morse code.
Someone was in space, and was trying to contact Earth.
The signal was getting weaker, but the brothers plotted its co-ordinates. Wherever the code was coming from , it was moving away from Earth. As if it had fallen out of orbit…
Two months later, in February 1961, the brothers picked up heavy breathing on their radios.
And another heartbeat that stopped abruptly.
Soon afterwards, they heard a woman’s voice speaking in Russian.
She had apparently newly exited the Earth’s atmosphere.
‘Talk to me,’ she was saying. ‘Our transmission begins now. I feel hot…’
Then suddenly, there was terror in her voice.
‘I can see a flame,’ she cried. ‘Am I going to crash? Yes! I feel hot, I will re-enter…’
Then came terrible screams and the roar of intense fire.
To the brothers it seemed obvious that people were being sent into space from the Soviet Union on experimental missions.
Only, a few days later, a news announcement from the Soviet government…
Yuri Gagarin had become the first man to journey into space.
He’d won the space race for Russia and become a hero.
But the brothers believed they had evidence Soviet cosmonauts had been sent into space before Yuri Gagarin.
And that they’d died up there.
It seemed Yuri Gagarin was simply the first man who’d survived human space flight.
Although Russia has always denied it, previous failed space missions were covered up.
But the theory has its sceptics.
How was an amateur radio able to pick up signals from so far away in space when tracking stations in the UK, USA, France and Germany had missed them?
Then, there was the woman cosmonaut who’d ‘burned alive’.
The Russian she spoke had been poor. Yet, all Russian cosmonauts were well-educated and literate.
So was her recording a hoax? Or had her frantic state caused her to make many mistakes?
Sixty years on, the truth is still a closely guarded secret, but the recordings made by the Judica-Cordiglia brothers can be heard online.
Those screams, that fading Morse code…
We may never know the identities of those who died in the first doomed attempts to win the space race.
But their remains will float amongst the stars forever…
What happened to Yuri Gagarin?
After his success, Yuri Gagarin never went into space again. Just a year on from his spaceflight, Yuri had turned to drink. Was this the result of living with a terrible lie? Seven years after his spaceflight in 1968, when he was just 34, Yuri Gagarin was dead. He’d been killed in an aeroplane crash. An aeroplane crash that remains a mystery. No one knows to this day what caused it…