Hidden Histories: The Lesser-Known Aspects of …

The First Men in Space

The world knows that Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and Gherman Titov were the first men in space. But what if the world is wrong? After all, a person is smart but people are dumb. Manned spaceflight has been a dream for centuries, but what if it began years earlier than we think? So everyone, meet the predecessors of Gagarin and Shepard- the first men in space.

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Von Braun’s done it Yet Again

No, our favorite rocket scientist didn’t launch into space himself despite how much he desperately wanted to. But he did build the first rocket to do so. Otto Skorzeny, a famous Nazi commando, began selecting and training pilots for the Third Reich’s Astronautenkorps in February 1944. Like in NASA’s Mercury program almost twenty years later, six men were selected out of the bunch to fly (remember, NASA had the Mercury Seven but only six of them flew during Mercury). Their vehicle was the A9/A10 manned ICBM created by Wernher von Braun, the creator of the A4 rocket (known in the US as the V-2) and later on, the Saturn V. The pilot chosen to hold the esteemed title “first man in space” was Rudolf Magnus Schroeder. His mission was to fly his rocket to New York City. On January 24, 1945, Schroeder launched into space in the presence of visionaries such as von Braun and his mentor Hermann Oberth. However, fire engulfed ten seconds into the flight. To avoid a painful death, Schroeder ingested the cyanide capsule the doctors had given him before the flight. Von Braun’s knowledge of the poison pill would be passed on to NASA officials although they would never be produced by the American space program. The Third Reich, devastated and embarrassed by this failure (even though the rocket itself eventually made it to the North Atlantic Ocean somewhere), terminated all future attempts to send man into space and did its best to cover up the story of Schroeder. Over the past seventy years, however, bits of information has been leaked. But you live in fame or go down in flame, and most of Schroeder’s mission remains virtually unknown to those not deeply interested in spaceflight history. 


A propaganda shoot of Schroeder in his pressure suit

Two Words: Sput-Nik

It wouldn’t be for another 15 years that man attempted to fly into space again. Von Braun and his team of rocket scientists fled to the US and became citizens under the infamous Operation Paperclip at the end of WWII. It was now up to the Soviet Union to pick up where he left off. The first man in space- since Schroeder perished before every leaving the Earth- was a man by the name of Aleksei Ledovskiy. On November 1, 1957, less than one month after the USSR launched the first artificial satellite Sputnik, Ledovskiy became the first man in space. He launched atop an R-5A rocket, the same rocket that would be used to launch the dogs Belyanka and Pestraya. Like Shepard’s flight would be, his was only suborbital. However, unlike Shepard, he perished during flight. The details of this flight, particularly what went wrong, have been covered up by the Soviet Union and now Russia for the past sixty years. The Soviets weren’t just going to be the first in space, but the first to bring someone back from space alive. This failure would discredit their attempts of manned flight and only encourage, rather than discourage, the US to try for themselves and possibly beat the USSR. Therefore, this is all that is available to the public about this flight.


Oh, and possibly this picture. No one really knows what this is of, but it’s likely to be of Ledovskiy’s flight

Russia Russia, Lay that Missile Down

This next venture wasn’t until the US had already successfully entered the Space Race with the launch of their Explorer 1 satellite (with the help of von Braun even). The next cosmonaut to attempt manned flight was Serenti Shiborin. Like Ledovskiy, his flight was a suborbital one launching from Kaputsin Yar. And like Ledovskiy, he died during flight on February 1, 1958, the same day he launched (remember, suborbital flights were only about 15 minutes long since they went up and came almost straight back down). It’s pretty much the same song and dance with Shiborin as it is with Ledovskiy- reach space, sit up there for a few minutes, die while coming back, and having your story covered up out of embarrassment. 

The Real Major Tom

Over the next two years, there would be few attempts to launch men, all cosmonauts, into space. All of them were failures resulting in deaths and because of that, not much information about them has ever been revealed to the public. In fact, it is likely that current Russian cosmonauts do not about these pioneers either. Another man by the name of Andrei Mitkov attempted another suborbital flight on January 1, 1959 and became the third man in space. One of these, a woman named Mirya Gromova, piloted a space plane into oblivion on June 1, 1959. Another cosmonaut named Zavadovski, V (his first name was never revealed per request of the family) died on the flight of Korabl Sputnik 1 on May 15 1960. His capsule failed to separate from the booster and was stuck in orbit. Rather than perform a retrofire, the guidance system had oriented the spacecraft incorrectly the spacecraft was instead put into a higher orbit. Unable to come home, Zavadovski became the first to perish in space. Despite these failures, it had finally seemed that man could survive spaceflight. A cosmonaut named Alexis Graciov accidentally rocketed into a translunar trajectory, putting him on the course to the moon. Realizing what he had done, he had sent out the Morse code message (now translated into English) “SOS to the entire world” from deep space, thus making him the first to leave Earth’s gravitational pull- a feat that wouldn’t be accomplished again until the end of 1968. He was officially declared dead on November 28, 1960.

Borman and Lovell Who?

The first pair of space travelers were cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev. Or at least that’s what everyone thinks. Four years prior to their historic flight, a man named Gennady Mikhailov and his woman companion, whose name was never made public, launched from Baikonur aboard a Lunik spacecraft on February 17, 1961. Ignoring previous failures, the USSR decided that this flight was to be circumlunar (well, Graciov had already made it that far anyway). However, there was a problem with the spacecraft and it remained in low-earth orbit. Over the next week, things proceeded normally with the crew frequently radioing back that everything was nominal. On February 24, at around 20:00 Moscow time, the two saw something outside their spacecraft and felt the need to tell the whole world about it. However, the signals were lost right after and the first pair of cosmonauts were never heard from- or seen- again.


The world’s first space twins lift off from Baikonur

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Let me tell ya, I never thought I’d have this much fun making something that never existed sound like it really happened. Was it at least half way believable? Did you at least half way enjoy it? Have you just read all this and are now even more confused than you were before? Well don’t you worry; next week’s Hidden History will be part 2 with a twist: the truth behind Phantom Cosmonauts