Lies and half-truths have a way of catching up to you, largely because nobody has a good enough memory to be a successful liar for long. The Soviet side of the 1960s space race is a particularly graphic example of this(wiredscience).

The Soviet Union's string of space triumphs over the United States was tarnished by a series of falsifications that surfaced and cast doubt on all their accomplishments, even the genuine ones. Today on the 50th anniversary of the Yuri Gagarin's first spaceflight, the greatest of the Soviet space triumphs, there are still plenty of unresolved doubts and suspicions.

Those doubts are encouraged by a series of photographs of the cosmonaut team, released in the 1970s, in which some individuals have been airbrushed out of scenes. The photo-doctoring was discovered because Soviet news managers lost track of which versions of photos had already been published, and re-released them after alteration.

These group shots of cosmonauts at work and on vacation included some as-yet unflown men. Apparently the subsequent bad behavior — or possibly victimization — of some of them rendered them unfit role models for Soviet youth, and they were erased (as shown above). These men would have been total strangers to the public, the fact that they never later appeared on space missions would seem to suggest that something bad had happened, something that had to be kept secret.

Western space enthusiasts, including me, eventually found both versions of some of these photographs, and in some cases, three or four different versions. Side-by-side publication of the forgeries sparked widespread mockery of the clumsiness of the Soviet lies. This led to a series of awkward attempts to explain the photos, that let slip even more information.

Finally, under Gorbachev's glasnost in the final years of the Soviet regime, the USSR's own devoted space journalists and historians were able to track down and share the names and fates of the men who had been deleted by clumsy censors.

The lies illustrated by these images fueled Western suspicions that a number of cosmonauts had died in secret space disasters, but it turns out this wasn't true. The erased men had either misbehaved and been expelled, or even more innocently, had simply developed disqualifying medical conditions.

In the post-Soviet era I actually had the enormous pleasure of shaking hands with one of those erased men, who had been amused by my publication of before-and-after views of his own disappearance after he was dropped from spaceflight status.

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