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First Soviet Cosmonaut Ivan Ivanovich Was a Space Dummy

By Wesley Fenlon

Before Yuri Gagarin made a successful orbit of the Earth, a Soviet mannequin tested the dangers of spaceflight and reentry.

Yuri Gagarin is commonly remembered as the first man to travel to space. He made an orbit of the Earth in April 1961; a year and a half later, John F. Kennedy kicked off the space race for real, charging America with the task of reaching the moon by decade's end. Gagarin made a huge impact as the first man in space, but he wasn't the first humanoid cosmonaut to orbit the Earth in a Soviet capsule. Just a few weeks before Gagarin's flight, that honor belonged to Ivan Ivanovich. He was a test dummy.

The Atlantic's "The Doll That Helped the Soviets Beat the U.S. to Space" tells Ivan's story, which ended with a March 25th flight (and successful landing) in a Soviet village. Because no human being had ever been to space, the test dummy was designed to test as many unknowns as possible on a real human form. And because the Korabl-Sputnik capsule he traveled on wasn't designed to make a soft landing, Ivan's trip tested a human passenger's ability to bail from the capsule during descent and parachute safely to ground.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

That's not all Ivan tested. His limbs and body cavities were filled with instruments to measure radiation and acceleration, radio to communicate with Soviet scientists, and animals: " He carried in his appendages, variously, 40 white mice, 40 black mice, a group of guinea pigs, various reptiles, human blood samples, human cancer cells, yeast, and bacteria."

The Atlantic's history of Ivan conveys how weirdly--perhaps unnecessarily--creepy Ivan the doll really was. Why was his skin synthetic leather? Why did he have fake eyes, and eyebrows, and eyelashes? Why was his body jointed just like a real human's? It must have all been in the name of reproducing the human experience as closely as possible, but as a result the test dummy who now rests in the Smithsonian is an eerie approximation of a living cosmonaut.

Ivan's flight unsurprisingly kicked off some confusion in the U.S., but it's funny to read about exactly how hard to Soviet Union tried to avoid such a situation. The Atlantic writes: "But what should a dummy cosmonaut say to the world below him? This was a tricky matter, given that the Soviets could expect Western intercepts of whatever radio transmissions they sent during their flights. Their messages would have to be coded -- but, then again, not too coded as to arouse Western suspicions of spy activity. And coded in such a way, furthermore, as to maintain the pride and dignity of the Soviet space program. (Previous flights, per the cosmonaut Georgi Grechko, had featured basic, pre-recorded combinations of letters and numbers. Which "led to rumors that a cosmonaut had called for help from an out-of-control spacecraft.")"

Despite their careful planning, Ivan ended up confusing the U.S., anyway--but at least he made a successful landing that gave Gagarin the green light for a manned mission. Check out the rest of The Atlantic's story for the results of Ivan's landing and the radio messages he ended up taking with him (spoiler: one was a recipe for Russian borscht).