Do you remember where you were when Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the Challenger crew died in a fiery explosion? It was 1986. I'm almost certain I was sitting in my middle school English class when the news broke. We were watching the launch on one of those TVs they would wheel in from the library. The whole school had been quiet with anticipation. Now it was quiet with shock. For you youngsters, the 2003 Columbia disaster, when the space shuttle was ripped apart upon re-entry and the entire crew perished, might be fresher in your memory.
Whatever the example, the point is that we've lost quite a few cosmonauts and astronauts in the name of space exploration. Here's one you may not have heard of: Valentin Bondarenko. The 24-year-old, who died after a freak fire erupted in a pressurized training chamber, may hold the dubious distinction of being the first cosmonaut death. The public, however, didn't find out about Bondarenko's death until more than two decades later. Not wholly surprising given that the Soviets didn't exactly have a reputation for being chatty or disclosing state secrets.
In fact, there's a robust Lost Cosmonaut conspiracy theory, according to the Straight Dope, that holds that two Italian brothers operating their own space listening post picked up three different signals from Soviet spacecraft in distress in the 1960s. One signal supposedly was an SOS addressed to the world, another featured only the sound of a labored heartbeat and breathing. On the third, there was this eerie conversation among two men and a woman: "Conditions growing worse why don't you answer? ... we are going slower... the world will never know about us . . ." You can read the archived Reader's Digest story here. Were these the last words of never-acknowledged dying cosmonauts, or just an elaborate hoax? What do you guys think?
In the meantime, all this talk of death in space doesn't make me want to head up there anytime soon. Maybe we should head on back to the HowStuffWorks.com home page or do a little light reading instead: