Our story begins with two Italian brothers, Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia. They were extremely intelligent men with a passion for radio who grew fascinated with space travel. When the Soviets first launched Sputnik I, they were so proud of their achievement that they published the radio frequencies of the instrumentation for all to hear. Achille and Giovanni quickly set up some radio equipment and listened in. They curiosity was fueled by this success and during the next few Soviet and American launches they began to enhance their equipment and even managed to pick up the radio transmitted heartbeat of Laika, the unfortunate dog on board Sputnik II. They set up a small radio observatory in an abandoned bunker, which they named Torre Bert, and achieved a small measure of local fame. Their success was not just down to their own abilities, their home city was Turin and northern Italy was the only part of Western Europe under the Soviets orbital path. They were the perfect people, in the perfect place, to capture some of the most famous radio broadcasts in history.
On the 28th of November 1960 things took a turn into both the bizarre and, possibly, the tragic. The brothers heard that a West German observatory (the Bochum space observatory) was reporting weird signals coming over a Soviet frequency. They quickly listened in. Hearing nothing they were about to give up when they were astonished to hear an SOS signal being sent by Morse code. Worse, by their Doppler calculations this was not from a craft in orbit but one moving away from the Earth. The signals gradually faded and disappeared. Did the brothers pick up a signal from a cosmonaut lost in space?
This story got them a job working as the space experts for a nearby radio station. On the 2nd of February 1961 the brothers were listening for any signs of activity on Soviet frequencies, when they picked up an unusual series of sounds. The brothers thought it sounded like a man suffocating and quickly took the recording to Professor Achille Dogliotti, a local cardiologist.
“I could quite clearly distinguish the clear sounds of forced, panting human breath,” said Dogliotti.
There was no reports of a Soviet launch at that time, although a few sources do state that a couple of days later the Soviets confirmed there had been an unmanned space
launch which had failed. I haven't found any confirmation of this as yet.
After this experience the brothers had a far happier successful radio capture; they caught the transmissions of Yuri Gagarin orbiting the Earth on the first, official, manned spaceflight. Thanks to a tip off they were aware of the Soviet success well before most in the West. But this happy time was not to last...
On the 19th of May 1961, they picked up a transmission that was the clearest evidence they had to date of problems with the Soviet space program... as they listened they heard a female voice saying in Russian:
“Come in… come in… come in… Listen! Come in! Talk to me! I am hot! I am hot! Come in! What? Forty-five? What? Fifty? Yes. Yes, yes, breathing. Oxygen, oxygen… I am hot. This… isn’t this dangerous?
Transmission begins now. Forty-one. Yes, I feel hot. I feel hot, it’s all… it’s all hot. I can see a flame! I can see a flame! I can see a flame! Thirty-two… thirty-two. Am I going to crash? Yes, yes I feel hot… I am listening, I feel hot, I will re-enter. I’m hot!”
The signal cut off.
Sound clips of this and some of the other recordings can be found in the transcript of a Skeptoid podcast on the story
The brothers couldn't speak Russian but understood the urgency in this ladies voice so were not surprised when their sister offered the above translation.
Not more than a few days later they picked up a further short piece of transmission:
“Conditions growing worse, why don’t you answer?”
That would be the last such recording they reported. They went on to have success in capturing transmissions of the first astronaut in space and further adventures which are all recorded in a well written Fortean Times article.
So, did the brothers really pick up the cries for help from cosmonauts in distress? Would the Soviets really be able to cover up such failures even after the Soviet Union fell?
Well we do know that the Soviets did cover up a lot of problems with the space program, including fatalities on the ground and going so far as to airbrush people out of some official photos. You can see more about that over at The Lost Cosmonauts. So we can safely assume that if such accidents did occur the Soviets would have done they darndest to cover them up, especially in the competitive atmosphere of the Cold War and the space race. However would we really not have heard about these from the post Soviet Russia? There have been suggestions by some former cosmonauts of fatalities in space but nothing concrete.
The brothers increasing fame could have lead them to feel a need to keep satisfying their friends, families and local peoples hunger for more information. Could this have lead them to make up these stories? I think such speculation might be unfair, given their obvious achievements and abilities.
As time passes it will become more difficult to discern the truth. Already many involved in the space program at that time are dead, and the veil of secrecy can only grow stronger.
I truly hope the brothers did make it up. For there could be few worse ways to die than to burn up in our atmosphere or, worse still, to drift, lost and alone further and further away from Earth desperately, but hopelessly typing S-O-S until you fall into an eternal sleep.
Yes, let us hope they are lying because if they are not then the Soviet Union has a few more bloody secrets still left to reveal.
EDIT: Interesting piece debunking the brothers claims here, as shared by "Anonymous" in the comments.