The thing about the Iron Curtain is that we'll never fully know what crazy shit went on behind it during the Cold War. And that's too bad, because the little hints that leak out really make it look like these people just did not give a shit.
Take the Soviet space program. We know they were the first to get both a satellite and a human in orbit, which were both pretty admirable accomplishments. What they kept hidden from the world was that maintaining even minimal levels of safety was a completely foreign concept to them. And that the cosmonauts who flew their rickety ass spaceships must have had balls made of elephant tusks.
Here are five spectacularly audacious Soviet space programs that prove that in Soviet Russia, space goes into you.
#5. Space Dogs
Between 1951 and 1966, the USSR sent over twenty dogs into the cosmos, but to be fair, they weren't the only ones who tested the viability of human space travel by sending animals up first. What separated the Soviet space dogs from the American monkeys, however, was that Soviet programs didn't always have the animal's best interests at heart. And by that we mean they often had no intention of bringing the animal back alive.
We're guessing PETA never had a Soviet equivalent.
Take Laika, for example. In November 1957 the whole world watched in astonishment as the Soviets not only launched Sputnik 2, but revealed they had a stray mongrel in the satellite as well, making them the first to get a living organism in orbit. Everything about Laika's journey seemed to go swimmingly, until we realized the Soviets never had a safe return plan for their pooch, and they planned for her to die in space all along. Which sucks, of course, but at least she died peacefully when she ate her poisoned food dose a week into orbit, as the Soviets reported.
They honored her sacrifice with a stamp, that she might torment postal workers for generations to come.
Except, oh wait, that's not how Laika died at all. In 2002 it was revealed that Laika wasn't euthanized, but that she died in the most horrifying way possible within hours of the launch. Sputnik 2, it turned out, was something of a rush job. The whole thing had been planned and put together in four weeks, so no one should have been surprised when the thermal insulation system broke right away. Poor Laika, whose little doggy heart was already beating at four times its resting rate, found herself in a cabin that was 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Her body shut down from stress and heat within five to seven hours of her launch.
Even when the Soviet space dogs punched space in the face and landed safely, they still had to contend with a Russian winter, because the Soviets weren't exactly, how do you say, capable of landing them at the right place. Which was why dogonaut capsules came equipped with a 60 hour self-destruct timer on board, just in case. That self destruct function was almost used in December, 1960, when Damka and Krasavka's capsule landed off course in the middle of a NEGATIVE 45 DEGREE Russian winter. Rescuers barely got to the dogs before they became pupcicles.
Via Wikipedia Commons
All horror aside, that little space suit might be the most adorable thing we've ever seen.
Eventually, more and more of the dogs started coming back safe and sound, so the Soviets thought space was finally safe for humans.
(Spoiler: it wasn't.)
#4. Expendable Cosmonauts
All that dog torture paid off when the Soviets safely launched and returned human cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961. But there are more than a few people who contend that Yuri the Fury wasn't actually the first man in space, he was just the first one to survive to tell the tale. And that, theoretically, there are some cosmonauts still out there hurtling across the universe.
We're guessing none of them had Yuri's winning smile or soulful eyes.
While the Soviets hit the ground running in the space race, we later found out that their actual space program was a bit of a shit show. However, they did have one advantage on their side; their ability to cover up every single failure and destroy all evidence of incompetence, which is why no one can actually prove what we're about to tell you.
In 1959 a German scientist claimed at least four Soviet cosmonauts had already died between the years 1957 and 1959. According to Hermann Oberth, the Soviets were converting rockets to manned spaceships, and he would know, because he was working with NASA and had seen the intelligence to prove it. Plus, a high ranking Czech official further corroborated the story when he also leaked information that unofficial launches killed a few cosmonauts.
"Maybe we should send some oxygen up with the next batch of pilots?"
But it wasn't until two Italian brothers with a knack for radio got in the act that the story really gained some ground. After cobbling together an improvised listening system comprised of scavenged equipment and sheer audacity, Achilles and Giovanni Battista Judica-Cordiglia started picking up some creepy shit. Specifically, an SOS signal in Morse Code. And the dying gasps and fading heartbeat of a cosmonaut whose signal was getting farther and farther away from Earth. And a Russian woman who said:
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!
Via the Judicia-Cordiglia brothers.
Above: The most depressing hobby since stamp-collecting.
Just as signs of screaming began, the transmission was cut off. And then there was the couple who desperately pleaded for help:
Conditions growing worse. Why don't you answer? . . . we are going slower . . . the world will never know about us...
None of the transmissions were acknowledged by the Soviets, but the KGB began taking a hearty interest in the brothers, nevertheless. And then, as if it wasn't creepy enough that two Italian guys were recording the tortured last cries of phantom space travelers, there was the whole matter of the cosmonauts who mysteriously disappeared from official pictures.
Later we learned that one of the airbrushed cosmonauts was cut from official pictures and all records after suffering a horrific death by fire on the launchpad. Another was expunged because he was a drunk brawler who eventually committed suicide. As for the rest, we'll never know.
#3. The Voskhod Program
By 1964, the Soviets were trying to get their Commie asses on the moon, but they needed a bigger spaceship to do the job. Voskhod was the stepping stone to that spaceship, just like NASA's Gemini program was the stepping stone to Apollo. And for a while there, things went great! Voskhod 1 was the first spaceflight to have more than one person on board, which we're sure they celebrated by doing the first squat-kick dance in space.
Voskhod 2, however, proceeded with a Three Stoogian level of things going wrong, minus the hilarious eye pokes. The launch went up safely, got into an orbit, and a cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov, became the first human to perform a spacewalk. Super. But that was about when things took a turn for the cataclysmic.
On his way back in, Leonov's spacesuit inflated due to the vacuum of space, which, apparently, the guys who designed the suit had never heard of. His suit was so laughably ballooney, in fact, that he could barely move and most definitely couldn't fit back in the spaceship door. Leonov was forced to let some air out, all the while suffering from heatstroke and the bends. By the time his little 12 minute walk turned into a 20 minute walk, he was up to his knees in sweat. But he made it back in to the ship, safe and sound.
A less testicled individual would have shit themselves to death in fear about fourteen seconds into the ordeal.
Remember how we said the Soviet program was a bit of a shit show? This is the part where that shitshowiness comes into play. Voskhod 2 was really just a modified version of an earlier vessel, the Vostok, which was never meant to carry more than one cosmonaut. But in the race to beat the Americans, the Soviet government insisted this version go up.
Because of the crappy design, crew members had to crane their heads at a 90 degree angle just to read their instruments, and the capsule had zero exit strategies if an emergency came up during re-entry. But best of all, once the automatic landing failed, which it did, getting to the navigation system required one cosmonaut to lie down across the seats, while the other held him in place. So, imagine you just made humankind's first walk in space, you get back in the space ship, sick as all get-out, and now you have goose your partner while he tries to get you back home.
Above: The Voskhod 2 crew compartment, one ill-timed boner away from disaster.
AND THEN IT GOT WORSE. Pavel Belyayev, the guy who had to land the thing manually, asked Leonov to check their attitude. That little move cost them time, which cost them landing accuracy, which meant they were forced to land 800 miles off course in a part of the Ural Mountains so forested that no helicopters could land to rescue them. They literally had to chop wood for a fire and fend off wolves for two days while they waited for their rescuers, who eventually arrived on skis. The only way Voskhod 2 could have gone any worse would have been if Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase were the ones sent for the rescue.
We're guessing none of this stuff was OSHA-compliant.