Ludmila, The Lost Cosmonaut

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Lost cosmonautA couple of weeks ago, I saw Skin Horse Theatre’s Nocturnes. It’s a new work, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve seen in years.

Nocturnes was a meditation on space — not architectural space or three-dimensional space, but honest-to-goddess, rocket-boosting, helmet-wearing, air-sucking outer space. It was performed in four or five movements, each in a different style, each exploring our desire to go where no one has gone before.

It was a little like an episode of Space 1999 as performed by Mummenchanz and the Wooster Group, if that makes any sense. (P.S. For your sake, I hope it doesn’t.)

One of the most poignant moments in the show — the thing that stuck with me, the thing that remains on my mind weeks after seeing it — came during the second movement, which was staged a bit like LSD: Just the High Points. The cast was seated at a long table, reciting essays, poems, song lyrics, and other documents having to do with space travel.

And among those tidbits was one I’d never heard about: the transcript of a “lost cosmonaut” named Ludmila.

The backstory is a little complicated, but the gist is that a couple of amateur radio operators in Italy set up a listening station near Turin in the late 1950s. From their bunker — dubbed “Torre Bert” — the two brothers claim to have recorded ground-to-air communications between the Soviets and early cosmonauts.

Their most famous is Ludmila’s recording, which dates from May 1961. It’s a brief clip, only a couple of minutes long. It is the sound of a woman slowly dying — a woman being burned alive as her craft re-enters Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere:

I don’t speak Russian, but the translation generally goes like this:

five…four…three …two…one…one…two…three…four…five…come in… come in… come in…

LISTEN…LISTEN! …COME IN! COME IN… COME IN… TALK TO ME! TALK TO ME!… I AM HOT!… I AM HOT!

WHAT?… FORTYFIVE?… WHAT?…FORTYFIVE?… FIFTY?…

YES…YES…YES… BREATHING…BREATHING… OXYGEN…OXYGEN… I AM HOT…

(THIS) ISN’T THIS DANGEROUS?… IT’S ALL… ISN’T THIS DANGEROUS?… IT’S ALL…

YES…YES…YES… HOW IS THIS?

WHAT?… TALK TO ME!… HOW SHOULD I TRANSMIT? YES…YES…YES…

WHAT? OUR TRANSMISSION BEGINS NOW… FORTYONE… THIS WAY… OUR TRANSMISSION BEGINS NOW…

FORTYONE… THIS WAY… OUR TRANSMISSION BEGINS NOW…

FORTYONE… YES… I FEEL HOT…I FEEL HOT… IT’S ALL… IT’S HOT…I FEEL HOT… I FEEL HOT… I FEEL HOT…

I CAN SEE A FLAME!… WHAT?…I CAN SEE A FLAME!… I CAN SEE A FLAME!…I FEEL HOT… I FEEL HOT… THIRTYTWO… THIRTYTWO… FORTYONE… FORTYONE

AM I GOING TO CRASH?… YES…YES… I FEEL HOT!…I FEEL HOT!… I WILL REENTER!… I WILL REENTER…

I AM LISTENING!… I FEEL HOT!…

It is shocking and heartbreaking to read — doubly so to have it read to you by a talented actress.

If the brothers’ account is accurate, Ludmila would’ve been the first woman in space — a title currently held by Valentina Tereshkova, who achieved the task in 1963.

I’ve since learned that Ludmila is not the only so-called “lost cosmonaut”. I’ve also learned that there’s a lot of speculation about her. The general consensus seems to be that the recording isn’t fake, that the woman really is Russian, really is on a Soviet mission, but that she was testing a high-altitude fighter plane, not a rocket.

That doesn’t make her story any less haunting.

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