Thursday, February 24th, 2011
The first man in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, blasted out of the Earth’s atmosphere on April 12, 1961 in a wee little sphere called the Vostok 3KA-3 Space Capsule. Three weeks before that momentous day, the Soviets sent up the last of their test spheres, the Vostok 3KA-2, carrying a mannequin named Ivan Ivanovich and a dog named Zvezdochka into low earth orbit.
After completing one full orbit of the earth, the capsule reentered the atmosphere with only minor scorching and landed in a gully near the city of Izhevsk. Ivan Ivanovich ejected as planned before landing, and Zvezdochka emerged from the capsule unharmed.
V.P. Efimoz, one of the people who worked on the pressurized spacesuit that kept Ivan and later Yuri intact, described its retrieval: “[arriving] by sleigh, the rescue team reached the landing place of the descent capsule. Half scorched, slightly bent over the ground, it seemed an enormous animal driven too hard, lying in a narrow snow-covered gully, the snow melting around the charred and still hot body of the unit. Attached to it by slings, lay sprawling the voluminous canopy of the parachute.”
With the success of this test mission using an identical twin of the capsule Gagarin would stuff himself into, the historic mission to put a man in space got the final green light.
Ivan Ivanovich is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Gagarin’s Vostok 3KA-3, later renamed Vostok 1, is part of the permanent collection of Russian rocket company Rkk Energia’s Museum outside Moscow. The Vostok 3KA-2 is going up for auction at Sotheby’s New York on April 12, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the first man in space.
The bottom half is blackened from scorching while reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. The top half of the outside shell, made of synthetic materials, is bronze-colored and bears a huge dent. Inside, the cramped space is littered with remains of old wires and the ejector seat.
“These were very primitive,” Redden said. “There was a good shot that whoever went into space was not coming back.”
And even if they did, just the fact of being shot into space in a 2.5 meter (8 feet) cabin would be challenge enough.
Sotheby’s estimates the sale price at $2-10 million. The seller is an anonymous American who bought it from Russia (thank you, post-Soviet cowboy capitalism) some years ago. Plutocrats with money to burn are major buyers on the Russian antiquities and collectibles market right now, so my guess is that this item will sell big and will end up back in Russia. Here’s hoping it goes on public display instead of being squirreled away into another secret collection like the one it came from.