The Doll That Helped the Soviets Beat the U.S. to Space

Meet Ivan Ivanovich, the mannequin who beta tested space.
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Ivan Ivanovich, just returned from space (Zvezda Museum)

On March 25, 1961, a group of peasants in Izhevsk, a village near the Ural Mountains in the center of the Soviet Union, watched a man fall from the sky. He wore a bright-orange jumpsuit attached to a blooming parachute. His arms shook. His legs flailed. When he succumbed, finally, to gravity, he crumpled onto the snow-covered ground. He made no noise. The Izhevsk villagers, Deborah Cadbury writes in her book Space Race, were baffled by the sight of this fallen flier and "his lumpy body." They ran to him, opened his helmet's visor -- and were even more bewildered by the new sight that greeted them. 

The gaping helmet revealed, Cadbury notes, not a face, but a sign, printed with stark capital letters: MAKET, or "mock-up." (Less technically: "dummy.") The figure they'd just seen hurled from the heavens wasn't a man so much as a mannequin -- a space-traveling doll. He was an early cosmonaut, or rather a cosmonot: a sailor of the stars in every sense but the human one. 

The Doll It All Hinged On

His nickname was Ivan Ivanovich -- "John Doe" -- and he was, in his way, the first person in space. (He beat Yuri Gagarin to that honor, technically, by four weeks.) Today Ivan is displayed, still in his Tang-orange suit, in the Smithsonian -- a steely-eyed relic of a time when space inspired not just wonder, but something else, too: fear. We may now regularly tweet with astronauts living in space. We may now regularly enjoy their quirky YouTube videos and Google Hangouts and AMAs, delighting in the mind-bending images of microphones (and food, and water, and cameras, and humans) floating in microgravity. We may now treat space as, along with so much else, a form of entertainment.

Not long ago, though, when space travel was still one of humanity's most epic and frantic goals, the concept itself -- sending a man into space! -- alarmed people. Particularly those people who were responsible for making the travel happen in the first place. Space was tantalizingly, terrifyingly new -- and we simply did not know what would happen to an earthly body when it was shot outside of the Earth itself. There were legitimate fears of radiation poisoning. There were less-legitimate fears of "space madness." There were concerns about the considerable psychic and political consequences should something go wrong. The Soviets, like their American counterparts, wanted to be first to space -- but they wanted, more specifically, to be the first to make it back again. Gagarin had to make his historical orbit around the Earth; he then, just as importantly, had to return to Earth intact. No other outcome would be tolerable.

So the engineers of the U.S.S.R. tested and then re-tested and then re-tested their technology. And, to make sure space travel was as safe as possible for organic creatures like themselves, they sent fellow animals -- mice and cats and dogs and chimps -- as sacrifices to the cause of space. Ivan Ivanovich was the culmination of that testing: He was as human-looking a thing as they could send short of sending a human. And he had an important job to do. The Korabl-Sputnik satellite -- the spacecraft that would carry Ivan and, later, Gagarin into space -- wasn't equipped for soft landings. It required its passenger to eject sometime after re-entry into Earth and sometime before collision with it. A parachute, it was hoped, would take care of the rest. To convert that "hope" into considerably-more-reassuring "expectation," Ivan would take two flights: the first, on March 9, and the second, on March 25. He would operate as a high-tech crash-test dummy. 

And so, for a few heady weeks in 1961, all the hopes and fears of space's vast new frontier were embodied, quite literally, by a doll. If Ivan failed, leaders might conclude that it wouldn't be worth the risk of swapping him out for a human. If he succeeded, though, all systems were go. Gagarin -- and all those who would follow him -- could launch. Ivan was, Joyce Chaplin writes in her book Round About the Earth, "a dummy human to represent the human space travelers to come."

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Ivan, having never been removed from his suit or his chute, today hangs as part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. (airandspace.org)

'So Much Like a Human Being'

Ivan was made, for the most part, of metal, with bendable joints that allowed for ease when it came to dressing him and situating him within his tiny spacecraft. He had "skin" of synthetic leather. His detachable head -- engineers connected it to his body through his open helmet -- was made primarily of metal, too. Ivan was, and this was the whole point, humanoid. 

But he was also, and this was less the whole point, a little bit creepy. He was designed with the help of the Moscow Institute for Prosthetics, and his face -- the only part of him that would, in flight, not be covered by his spacesuit -- was made to look as lifelike as possible, with eyes and eyebrows and "even eyelashes," Mark Gallai, an acclaimed test pilot who advised the U.S.S.R. on cosmonaut training, recalled. Ivan resided, as such, in the uncanny valley -- a "phantom cosmonaut" who was more phantom than cosmonaut. "There really is something deathly unpleasant in the mannequin sitting in front of us," Gallai put it, bluntly. "Probably it is not good to make a nonhuman so much like a human being."

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Vladimir Suvorov, an acclaimed documentary cinematographer hired to film Ivan's test flights, agreed with that assessment. In diaries documenting his filming of the first Vostok flights, Suvorov describes his first encounter with Ivan at the Soviet space agency's Assembly Testing Complex (ATC):

The next day we got acquainted with Ivan Ivanovich: a dummy pilot. In a spacious clean room of the ATC three men in white overalls opened a big, sealed box which arrived via the special delivery service. They lifted the dummy carefully from the box and put it into the cosmonaut's seat. "He" was dressed extraordinarily: bright-orange suit, white helmet, thick gloves and high, laced boots ... His head, the "skin" of his body, arms, and legs were made from synthetic material with durability, elasticity, and resistance mimicking that the of the human skin. His neck, arms, and legs had gimbal joints so they could be moved ... Dressed in a complete cosmonaut spacesuit he looked somewhat unpleasant with his fixed false eyes and a mask for a face.

Adding to the unpleasantness, no doubt, was the fact that scientists, eager to make the most efficient use possible of the test flights Ivan would complete on their behalf, designed his hollow limbs to function as their own kind of spacecraft. Ivan's arms and legs housed medical experiments designed to test -- even further than researchers already had -- how living organisms would fare in space. So Ivan's compliant corpse became home to a mini-menagerie of life both large and microscopic: 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. (This was in addition to the canine companions that flew with Ivan, in the proud tradition of the Soviet space program: Chernushka ("Blackie") for his first flight, and Zvezdochka ("Little Star") for his second.)

Ivan would, over the course of his mission, suffer many more indignities for the cause of manned space flight. Within his remaining cavities were placed yet more experiments devised by zealous humans, these featuring, instead of animals, tools and instruments. They measured the acceleration, angular rate changes, and levels of space radiation Ivan encountered while away from Earth. And they included radio devices so that Ivan could communicate with the ground below.  

Spies! Choirs! Borscht!

So Ivan's creators gave him not only a face, but a voice. His main mission, besides surviving the Korabl-Sputnik's hard landings intact, was to use that voice to test his communications equipment during his orbit of Earth. 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.")

A proposal that the tape Ivan played would contain a recitation of technical details of the flight itself was rejected on the grounds that it might suggest Ivan was part of a spy mission. Next came a proposal that Ivan would activate a tape of someone singing -- discarded on the grounds that anyone who overheard the flying singer might assume that a Soviet spy had succumbed to space madness. (Thus failing, obviously, on "pride and dignity" grounds.) In the end, engineers decided on a musical compromise, including on Ivan's final flight a tape of a choir singing songs (since "even the most gullible Western intelligence man knew you couldn't fit a choir in a Korabl-Sputnik satellite"). A human voice reading a recipe for borscht, the Russian beet soup, was added for tasty -- and Western-intelligence-confusing -- measure.

In an age of rampant paranoia, however, Ivan's final test flight still ended up causing confusion. As the cosmonaut Alexei Leonov tells it, Ivan's recording -- as both feared and expected -- was indeed picked up by Western listening posts. And "since no announcement of the flight had been released by our state news agency, TASS, rumors spread like wildfire that a manned space flight had gone wrong and been covered up."

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A model of Ivan in in the Korabl-Sputnik's ejection seat (Zvezda Museum via Russian Spacesuits)

It had not. On the contrary, Ivan's test flights -- both of them -- seem to have gone remarkably well. In their book Rocket Men, Rex Hall and David Shayler note that the March 25 flight, just like the March 9 version before it, had taken just as long as engineers had planned: exactly one hour, 40 minutes. It "lasted for just one orbit, and was a complete success." In Space Race, Deborah Cadbury elaborates on Ivan's -- and by extension, the Soviet space program's -- victory. "He made the perfect flight," she writes. "His sightless eyes took in a God's-eye view of the world. His unhearing ears heard the retro engines fire. His unfeeling limbs felt the rush as he landed in falling snow near a remote village." 

Ivan's victory gave Soviet scientists the confidence they needed to launch a human in the place of the doll -- which they did, finally, on April 12, 1961. The mannequin had done his job. 

Space Man or Spy?

And he was given, finally, the same treatment that his fellow cosmonauts would receive: He was recovered from his Earthfall, and then celebrated. When Ivan made his first orbit of Earth, a team of thirty Soviet paratroopers was sent to guard the site where he and his craft would land. Rescue engineers, using a ski plane and a horse-drawn sleigh, found the Korabl-Sputnik capsule, scorched from its re-entry, sizzling and steaming in five feet of melting snow. And then they found Ivan -- who, per one eyewitness, "looked precisely as if a real cosmonaut had been killed during the landing."

But there are differing versions of Ivan's second return to Earth. The most common is the one described at the beginning of this story: Confused villagers, open helmet, MAKET. Suvorov the cinematographer, however, describes the scene a little differentlyThe Russian peasants, he claims, fell victim to the same misconception that Ivan's designers feared Westerners would: They assumed Ivan was a spy. Only they assumed he was a Western spy. The villagers wanted not to help him, Suvorov writes, but to turn him in. 

Here, from the diary of the documentarian, are Ivan's final moments as a cosmonaut:

The people in the region of the landing mistook the sound produced by the spacecraft upon reentering into the Earth's atmosphere for an anti-aircraft rocket shot sound when hitting the target. In addition they soon saw a parachute-diver in a strange bright-orange suit. So they had all the reasons to believe that they were facing another spy pilot. Probably already anticipating the governmental awards the peasants with a local militia-man surrounded the motionless and silent figure and tried to grab him. At that particular moment the search group arrived and saved "Ivan Ivanovich." They said that the fellows were so frustrated by the revelation that they smashed their fists into the face of the dummy. But "Ivan Ivanovich" was too tough for them.

So the alternative history of Ivan Ivanovich (one told, it's worth noting, by an employee of the Soviet government) ends with the inanimate hero -- the doll that paved the way for humans' first tentative steps into space -- falling victim to a confusion of his own making. The pseudo-human lying on the snow scared people. He baffled them. He angered them. Newly returned from space, the pathbreaking doll was punched in the face.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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