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.)

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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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