In the past few days, the whole proudly too-smart-for-this-bullshit web community has been chuckling at the latest Nigerian 419 scam, this one substituting the iconic prince for a lost cosmonaut. Interestingly, though, the scam actually is based on some real facts, reworked in an imaginative way. Let’s see if we can dig out the bones of truth here.
First, here’s the full text of the scam email:
Subject: Nigerian Astronaut Wants To Come Home
Dr. Bakare Tunde
Astronautics Project Manager
National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA)
Misau Street PMB 437 Garki, Abuja, FCT NIGERIA
Dear Mr. Sir,
REQUEST FOR ASSISTANCE-STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL
I am Dr. Bakare Tunde, the cousin of Nigerian Astronaut, Air Force Major Abacha Tunde. He was the first African in space when he made a secret flight to the Salyut 6 space station in 1979. He was on a later Soviet spaceflight, Soyuz T-16Z to the secret Soviet military space station Salyut 8T in 1989. He was stranded there in 1990 when the Soviet Union was dissolved. His other Soviet crew members returned to earth on the Soyuz T-16Z, but his place was taken up by return cargo. There have been occasional Progrez supply flights to keep him going since that time. He is in good humor, but wants to come home.
In the 14-years since he has been on the station, he has accumulated flight pay and interest amounting to almost $ 15,000,000 American Dollars. This is held in a trust at the Lagos National Savings and Trust Association. If we can obtain access to this money, we can place a down payment with the Russian Space Authorities for a Soyuz return flight to bring him back to Earth. I am told this will cost $ 3,000,000 American Dollars. In order to access the his trust fund we need your assistance.
Consequently, my colleagues and I are willing to transfer the total amount to your account or subsequent disbursement, since we as civil servants are prohibited by the Code of Conduct Bureau (Civil Service Laws) from opening and/ or operating foreign accounts in our names.
Needless to say, the trust reposed on you at this juncture is enormous. In return, we have agreed to offer you 20 percent of the transferred sum, while 10 percent shall be set aside for incidental expenses (internal and external) between the parties in the course of the transaction. You will be mandated to remit the balance 70 percent to other accounts in due course.
Kindly expedite action as we are behind schedule to enable us include downpayment in this financial quarter.
Please acknowledge the receipt of this message via my direct number 234 (0) 9-234-2220 only.
Yours Sincerely, Dr. Bakare Tunde
Astronautics Project Manager
What I like about this scam email is that whoever wrote it just didn’t make up details willard-nillard; rather, they’re using a nice melange of real Soviet spacecraft and space programs, with just enough correct terminology, mixed with the complete fabrications. Even the lies, though, do somewhat adhere to the framework and vocabulary of reality. The result is something that, while clearly a scam to most of us, has just enough seeming credibility to make it feel just almost plausible.
First, let’s break down exactly the situation of this cosmonaut as depicted in this letter:
Name: Abacha Tunde
1979: Mission to Salyut 6 (first African in space, yet unannounced mission)
Presumably returned to earth after mission.
1989: Launched in Soyuz T-16Z to dock with Salyut 8T.
His seat in Soyuz T-16Z was taken by “return cargo,” remained on station for 14 years/or to present day. “Occasional” Progress unmanned cargo resupply missions have been sent to Salyut 8T.
Okay, so let’s see where the truth is here. First, there absolutely was a Salyut 6, and it would have been the Soviet’s active space station in 1979. In fact, this station was host to the very first cosmonauts (or astronauts, for that matter) who were not either from the USA or USSR.
The first one was a Czech cosmonaut by the name of Vladimír Remek, who started the Soviet’s Intercosmos program, the program to bring (mostly Eastern Bloc) cosmonauts to the Soviet space station. After the Czech, the station hosted cosmonauts from Hungary, Poland, Romania, Cuba, Mongolia, and more.
With this in mind, a 1979 trip to Salyut 6 is an excellent, plausible choice for the first African cosmonaut. It doesn’t really make sense that the Soviets would launch a Nigerian cosmonaut and then keep it secret, but this is the right time and destination.
Also, Salyut 6 was the first space station to have two docking ports, which allowed the Soviets to develop unmanned resupply ships called Progress, which, misspelled, do have an important role in the scam email.
The truth is that the first African-national in space wouldn’t be until much later when South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth bought himself a ticket to the Mir in 2002.
The next mission gets a little dicier, but there’s still clearly been thought put into this. The letter states he was launched, in 1989, in Soyuz T-16Z. This is a good number to pick, because the last Soyuz T-series flight on record is Soyuz T-15, and it’s a pretty special mission.
It’s special because, not only was it the last of the T-series (to be replaced by the TM-series, which were specially adapted for use with the Mir space station) but also because it was the only spacecraft ever (and still to this day) to visit two space stations: it set up the then-new Mir, and recovered and resurrected the disabled space station Salyut 7.
So, the ferry vehicle is correct; since this Soyuz would not be going to the Mir, it could be a Soyuz T, and the numbering is correct, since the last Soyuz T was Soyuz T-15. The addition of the ‘Z’ after the name, Soyuz-T16Z, just helps to suggest that this wasn’t an ordinary, public mission.
Or, perhaps, and this is just me finding justifications here, that Z stood for Zenit, which is another Soviet launch vehicle, developed in the 1980s, that had more power than the standard Soyuz launch vehicle. This could be useful if the Soyuz was being sent to a space station in a more exotic, further orbit, like, say, where a secret space station would be.
That brings us to the space station itself, the unwanted home of Cosmonaut Tunde for these 14 (well, +13) years.
The station is named Salyut 8T. The letter clearly states this was a “secret Soviet military” space station. Now, I see why they named it “Salyut 8T.” Salyut 7 was the last of the Salyut series of stations before Mir, so they did the same thing they did with the Soyuz ferry vehicle: add a one, and tack on a letter.
The name of the station is a little confusing, but the more you think about it, the better it actually is. See, the Soviets actually did have secret military space stations, but they were called Almaz. So, it seems like they got this wrong, right? Wrong, they got it right.
See, there were three of these Almaz military stations launched, and, to keep the Western world from being too suspicious, even though they were really, internally known as Almaz stations 1, 2, and 3, they were launched under the names Salyut 2, 3, and 5. So, a Soviet military Almaz station launched after Salyut 7 may very well have been called Salyut 8, even if in reality it was Almaz 4. Make sense? Good.
(Just as an aside, the real Almaz 4/Salyut 8 was cancelled in 1981.)
The Almaz stations shared a pressure hull and general shape with the Salyut, but had very different interior equipment and were oriented differently, with different solar arrays and their own special resupply/additional modules known as the TKS series.
These were the only (known) military space stations ever orbited (one even had a special recoil-less space gun!)
Now, the biggest part of the scam email is the claim that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cosmonaut Tunde was forgotten about and left up there on the secret station – though not so forgotten that a few Progress resupply ships weren’t sent to keep him supplied and alive.
The amazing part about this is that there is a very real bit of truth to this, too! There was a Cosmonaut left alone aboard a space station when the Soviet Union fell, and, while he wasn’t left there forever, accruing salary, he did have to stay longer than planned as everyone on earth figured out what was going on, and a Progress resupply ship was sent to keep him alive.
The cosmonaut was Sergei Krikalev, and the space station was the Mir. With the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse, and the need to keep good relations with Kazakhistan (where all the launch facilities are), an inexperienced Kazakh flight engineer was sent to Mir for a short stay, taking Krikalev’s return seat in the Soyuz back. Krikalev would have been relieved when the next crew arrived, but the Soviet Union collapsed in the interval, leaving Krikalev alone on the station for four months.
This story has always fascinated me, and, as an aside, I collaborated with artist Kerry Tribe on a film about Krikalev stuck up there, and built a 1/12th scale model of the Mir’s interior, filled with mineral oil to simulate 0G.
So, yes, a cosmonaut was left alone and forelorn in space after the fall of the Soviet Union, but it was only four months, and it was publicly known.
Now, of course, if the Soviets had a secret military station in some obscure orbit when all this went down, sure, that cosmonaut would probably have been stuck, too. I just think instead of sending resupply ships they’d have just let him quietly die a long time ago.
Happily, none of the bullshit about forgotten Cosmonaut Tunde is true. But, it’s a fable dressed in a pretty thick and comfy sweater of truths, and, even though I don’t suggest anyone send any money or anything, it does make for a pretty compelling tale of perseverance and accumulated wealth in the cold black of space.