Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Officially, Yuri Gagarin was the first human to reach outer space. His historic flight in April of 1961 kick-started the space race in earnest. The Soviet space program, however, was shrouded in secrecy from the beginning. There have long been questions regarding the existence of “lost cosmonauts,” those individuals who’d ventured beyond our atmosphere at the cost of their lives, their failure and very existence expunged by the Soviet government in an effort to save face.
From a listening station just outside of Turin, Italy, two amateur radio operators had been scanning the skies since the 1950s. In October of 1960, a full six months before Gagarin flew, they picked up a strange transmission from space. Breaking through a sea of static came the ghostly voice of a woman, which they were able to record. She spoke Russian, and while they couldn’t understand it, the distress in her voice was clear. She seemed to be choking back tears as she spit out the words. After a moment the static came creeping back, swallowing her voice like a wave. It wasn’t long before the operators had a translation:
“No one will ever know,” she was repeating. “No one will ever know…no one will ever know…”
The words would prove prophetic, for indeed no one would know who this mysterious woman was, or why she said what she’d said.
Growing up, the greatest speeds Roza Ivanova had ever known were on the back of her favorite horse Agripin, racing across the rolling hills of the Irkutsk countryside. She’d never felt so free as on the back of this powerful beast, and almost believed his hooves might well leave the ground upon cresting each rise, never to land again.
Then came the war to shatter juvenile fantasy. Like so many Russian families, hers came to know loss and hardship firsthand. Roza didn’t like to talk about that. She had been lucky though, securing an education in Moscow in the years that followed. It was here at university where she found her second passion after horseback riding, that of skydiving. Agripin never did leave the ground, but Roza, having achieved the feat on her own, now gleefully dove back toward it.
Motherhood and a stint in local politics kept her busy after graduation. Yet if her thirst for adventure was quelled, it was not quenched. It simmered below the surface, anticipating any chance to boil over. It was with great delight, then, that she received news of her selection for training in the nascent Soviet space program: Me? They want to see me? What I can show them!
Sergei Korolyov was adamant: It must be a woman. Pulled from the Gulags two decades prior, the brilliant head of Soviet rocket development insisted to his superiors that it would be a public relations coup. Besides, he argued, women in general are smaller and lighter than men. And as he was so fond of saying with regard to launches, every gram counts. Only in the last few months had the potential for a payload greater than dogs been realized. Their deaths were not a deterrent. The Politburo, for their part, did not need much convincing. They glowed at the choice. “Hah!” responded a low-ranking official. “First person and first woman in one — let the Americans best that! They haven’t the balls twice over!” That earned a smattering of laughter from the council.
The selection process began, and by the time Korolyov’s team found Roza, there were nine other candidates. One by one, they were brought in and presented to him in the same brusque manner.
“Name?” The baby-faced director sat scribbling at his desk.
He gave her the briefest of glances as he continued to write. “And where do you come from, Roza Ivanova?”
“Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia!”
“Mm-hmm. Age and weight?”
“Thirty-two years, fifty-six point seven kilograms!”
Scribble scribble. “Thank you, Roza Ivanova from Irkutsk. You may go.”
It was new, tense, exciting. She couldn’t wait to start.
All of them passed the rigorous training process, which included isolation and centrifuge tests, numerous parachute jumps, and engineering studies. But it was Roza they picked in the end. Her skydiving background should serve her well in the mission’s critical reentry stage, as should her political acumen in presenting a face to the media. It was an easy face to look at too, with high cheek bones, asiatic eyes, and a confident smile framed by thick blond curls. She was also the lightest of the group — every gram counts — and her father being a war hero didn’t hurt either.
She counted the days until her launch, half-believing there was no way it would actually come, that this was all a grand dream — until the day it actually came.
The October morning in the Kazakh Steppe was cool, dry, and gray. Early sunlight began its steady march across the warming tarmac. Roza had seen the Vostok rocket plenty before. Still, being ferried to it now, knowing what was in store, it impressed anew as the sun rose. The thing was a marvel, a shimmering silver-white skyscraper towering over the flat landscape. Four massive boosters draped off its sides, meeting the core stage with an elegant taper. The surmounting nose cone pointed triumphantly skyward.
Already suited, Roza met with Korolyov at the launch pad. He took her gloved hands in his. “This day will be a remarkable one,” he said, planting kisses of well-being on her cheeks. “You will succeed.” She smiled, grateful for his words. She only wished her son could be here. Of course, the mission must be kept secret, for now, even from her loved ones. Especially from her loved ones. She made her way toward the service structure cradling the rocket. Back turned, Korolyov fetched a pill from his pocket and tossed it down his throat. He was a jungle of frayed nerves inside.
A flurry of thoughts filled Roza’s head as the elevator inched its way up the scaffolding. She felt as if the whole of her life had condensed to this single moment. That she had a responsibility not to one person, not to any group, but to all of mankind. And realized, behind the pride and joy, there lurked the somber knowledge that for a short time, she would be more alone than anyone who ever lived. She made these thoughts known to the flanking personnel, save the last, and they recorded them. With a soft whine, the lift came to a halt before the vacant craft.
Assisted by technicians, she secured her helmet and squirmed inside the cockpit. Cramped, but not much to it, she mused. Seat could use some cushioning. The instrument panel was simple in the extreme: a few gauges, various indicator lights, a moving half-globe to show position. Controls were all but nonexistent. In fact, all major controls were locked. The craft would operate with automatic systems or via remote ground control — manual override was not an option. Nobody was sure how a human might react in the weightless environment of outer space, so no chances would be taken. After a final check, the hatch was closed and sealed. Roza communicated with ground control, operating under the call sign “Dawn,” while awaiting the go-ahead for launch. She’d chosen as her own call sign “Agripin.”
AGRIPIN: How do you read me?
DAWN: I hear you well. Cabin pressurization complete. VHF reception is good. Ping 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
AGRIPIN: I understand fine. Ready to go. How do I look?
DAWN: Roger. TV image is good. Heart beat is normal. Lights check.
AGRIPIN: Roger. Lights are good. Like a New Year tree. [laughs]
DAWN: A bit unseasonable for that, I'm afraid.
This pre-flight chatter continued for a while, until finally:
AGRIPIN: I hear the valves working. Slight rumbling.
DAWN: Yes, get ready please.
AGRIPIN: Ready. I feel good. Rumble increasing.
DAWN: We are giving ignition...preliminary stage...intermediate...main...lift off!
Whoomp. The scaffolding parted. Steam billowed, fires burst, and the tower slowly rose in defiance of gravity.
AGRIPIN: Soar, Agripin, soar!
Roza was pushed to her seat with oppressive force as the vehicle shook and rattled. She prayed it would hold together. Agonizing minutes later, having propelled her to north of 18,000 miles per hour, the boosters dropped away in unison. Acceleration let up at once, throwing her forward. The payload fairing split in two petals and fell away, revealing a second porthole at her feet. She radioed that she could see Earth, that it was breathtaking. Then whoomp as the second stage ignited. Multiple Gs pinned her back as the rocket arced in an easterly curve away from Baikonur Cosmodrome. The sky had gone from white to a variety of lighter and darker blues, approaching black: a smooth gradient of Earth to space.
The second stage engine shut down, then whoomp as the third fired up. More Gs pounded every part of her body, threatening to flatten her, as if she were being pinned down by an elephant. She rode the wave of acceleration until the final stage was spent, detaching with a bang. Free. Ten minutes after liftoff, all sensation of speed stopped for good. Roza was now free-floating in space. She sat off her chair as far as the restraints would allow, enjoying the sensation.
The Vostok spacecraft was little more than a hollow ball on a cylindrical chassis, terminating to a retro engine and bristling with antennas. Its objective was to make one revolution around Earth before reentry, after which Roza would eject from the module and parachute to the ground. Total flight time should be just over one and a half hours.
Roza fed ground control continual status updates as she got on her way. This would constitute the bulk of her mission, as there was little else to do but enjoy the sights. Through the lower porthole, Earth was a beautiful mosaic of mountain, sea, and cloud. She reached for an overhead compartment, producing a monocular (a request granted with some hesitation — every gram counts, after all), lifted her visor, and trained the instrument on random landmasses. The terrain crawled by like a conveyor.
Forty-two minutes after liftoff, Roza reported that she was on the night side of Earth and would soon be passing over the United States. The California coast with its nebulous tendrils of city lights rolled into view, and she wondered how slumbering Americans would react to news of this Soviet woman above their skies.
If Sputnik was a headache, this ought to be a full-blown nervous breakdown!
She radioed ground control for a general update. No response came.
Korolyov was himself on the verge of a breakdown. He paced back and forth through a blue haze of cigarette smoke, puffing and steaming. “My capsule!” he shouted to anyone making the mistake of eye contact. “How is my capsule?”
“She has passed beyond the radio horizon,” said a flight controller, “but should –”
“But should have come back by now!” snapped Korolyov.
“Sir, there are any number of reasons why –”
“I’m getting something!” The controller was interrupted again, this time by a radio operator. “I think it’s her!” He turned up a dial.
Korolyov frowned, cocking an ear. Reception was poor at first, the words coming through in disjointed chunks.
AGRIPIN: ...read me? There is...repeat, I can see something...orbit...to be artificial. Do you read me? Dawn, can...I see an object...
DAWN: We read you, we read you. It is poor, say again!
AGRIPIN: I understand you. Dawn, there is a foreign object in orbit ahead.
Every body in the room froze.
The world of dream transitioned to that of waking. Daylight was breaking above the South Atlantic when Roza, still trying to make contact with Dawn, caught sight of a twinkle. A thing that should not be there. Now, communications restored and curiosity piqued, she provided details as they came.
AGRIPIN: Object is in a higher orbit...I believe I will overtake it. Reflective surface, spherical...approaching closer...too big for a satellite, I think. Just a minute...
Roza retrieved the monocular and aimed it through the forward porthole. She gasped. The shock could not have been greater were it a flying saucer with little green men inside.
AGRIPIN: A spacecraft! I make out lettering...”CCCP” -- it's one of ours!
The expletive was under the breath, unintended, but audible.
AGRIPIN: I see extensive damage. A hole has been ripped through the reentry module...two sides...catastrophic. It...
Roza struggled to maintain composure. The craft was almost identical to hers. She conjectured that a small meteoroid might have punched its way through the hull, a one-in-a-million stroke of incredibly bad luck. Aside from the damage, there was something else about this craft that bothered her. It was…too small? What did that mean?
Then came a new shock:
AGRIPIN: There is...oh! Can it be? There is an occupant inside! I see the torso, the helmet. How is this possible? I am approaching closer...
Her little spaceship sailed toward the anomaly.
AGRIPIN: I see the helmet in the sun. He is smi...
Roza let herself trail off. She could not finish the sentence, because it made no sense. Smiling? He was smiling? She pressed the monocular’s eyecup to her skin and soon saw why.
The meteoroid — or whatever it was — had torn not only through the craft, but through its unfortunate occupant as well. His body ended in ragged strips just below the waist. She forced herself to watch as it floated listlessly about the cabin. When the front of the helmet came into view once more, Roza took a good look at the face. The eyes were tiny, shriveled orbs. What she’d mistaken for smiling was in fact decayed flesh around the mouth, exposing teeth and gums in a horrible rictus. This surprised her. She would not have expected decomposition in space.
And he was so young. So young… Her brain did not want to process the final revelation that would set every piece in context. Yet she could not escape it as the gap between the two vehicles closed:
This was no man. This was a boy of about ten years.
Dogs were not enough. They needed a person in space, and before the Americans. Booster capacity, though, had not been adequate for a fully grown adult. Close, they were close, but not quite there. And they could not wait, would not wait. Their solution was a heartbreaking compromise. He must have launched not four months ago, when the last pair of “muttniks” went up. Every gram counts.
Roza thought of her son as anger welled within.
AGRIPIN: A boy? You sent a boy? How could you do such a thing?
DAWN: Agripin -- Roza -- please. We could not foresee such an accident. It was imperative he go.
Korolyov’s voice reached across space, ringing hollow by the time it filtered through Roza’s earpiece.
AGRIPIN: But why? It wasn't right. He should be acknowledged, people should know he was first. We must tell the world he was first!
A heavy sigh, then a moment of silence before Korolyov spoke again:
DAWN: Can you not reconsider?
AGRIPIN: I insist! The right thing must be done.
Rosa’s resolve was clear. More silence.
DAWN: I am sorry, Comrade. He cannot be first in space. And neither can you.
An orange lamp alerted her to the working of the attitude control thrusters. The view tilted as they fired in quick spurts, pitching the rear of the craft earthward.
AGRIPIN: Wait! What are you doing? Stop!
DAWN: I--we cannot return you. In any form. The wreckage may fall into the wrong hands.
Paralyzed, she stared into a silent empire of solitude. The black expanse stared back with a million starry eyes.
AGRIPIN: You mean to...
DAWN: You have served the Motherland well. I am sorry.
And Korolyov was sorry. She was a good Soviet. A good woman. But he could not risk a return to the Gulags.
The smaller Vostok came into view above and to her right. One arm of the remains of its passenger, palm out and bent at the elbow, seemed to give her a lazy zero-G wave as it bobbed through the window.
AGRIPIN: Nyet! Nyet! What you are about to do --
Whoomp. The retro rocket fired with a roar. In tandem with the nitrogen thrusters, it pushed her into a new orbit curving away from the Earth, into an escape velocity from which there was no return. The corpse floated and grinned behind her.
AGRIPIN: Nyet! You cannot!
Roza was powerless to stop the remote commands. The stars beckoned, growing the tiniest bit closer.
The capsule, her bravest, swiftest horse, was now her coffin, and it was her fate that she would be interred in the cold folds of deep space. The conditioned air of the cabin was ice on her skin. It smelled sickly sweet, like rotting fruit. Roza began to shiver. “But no one will ever know about us!” she cried out to the uncaring cosmos. “No one will ever know…no one will ever know…”
Agripin galloped through her mind, unbounded at last.
“Shut it off,” said Korolyov, pointing to the radio. Click. The men in ground control sat at their consoles with grim faces. Korolyov opened a new pack of cigarettes, tapped one out and hung it at his lips. “Tragic, yes. A setback, yes.” He struck a match. “Do not fret, Comrades. We will try again. And we will succeed.”
He trudged out the room in a wake of blue smoke, searching his pockets for another pill. No such luck.