Before a man could head into space, the Russians felt a mannequin needed to get there first.

It was on this day (March 9) in 1961 that Ivan Ivanovich — the mannequin, or space dummy — made his first flight in a Sputnik. He then took another turn in space later that month before being placed into storage for decades. United States businessman (and failed presidential candidate) Ross Perot bought him at auction in the 1990s, and lent him to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He’s on display there today.

Universe Today caught up with Cathleen Lewis, the museum’s curator of international space programs and spacesuits in the division of space history. She explained that the mannequin was actually designed and built by three organizations:

– Zvezda (aka JSC Zvezda and RD&PE Zvezda), a firm known for high-altitude suits and spacesuits;

– The Institute for Bio-Medical Problems, which performed aerospace medicine research;

– The Moscow Institute for Prosthetics, which built the mannequin using specifications from the first two groups.

Yuri Gagarin – first human in space. Credit: Russian Archives

Here are some of the lessons the Russians learned from Ivan Ivanovich’s flight, according to Lewis:

What the environment is like inside the spacecraft. While the Soviets had already sent dogs and other animals into space in that time, Lewis said they were sent up in their own self-contained canisters. The chest cavity of Ivan included accelerator and angular rate changes to see what gravity changes he was experiencing. He also measured the level of radiation. Notably, Ivan actually went up twice before the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin), but the reasons are still unclear. “One assumes that because they did do it twice, they weren’t satisfied with the result the first time,” Lewis said. “But there were not a lot of modifications [between flights], so it might have been a testing failure or ambiguity in the results.”

– The communications network. During the early years of the space program, the Americans had a number of ground and ship stations scattered around the world. These stations allowed constant, but not completely continuous, contact with the astronauts. The Soviets had a much smaller network, and wanted to know exactly when the cosmonauts would be audible to ground control. The solution? Recorded singing. “They were broadcasting a song, a folk song from the spacecraft,” she said. The song had an unintended consequence: those listening in from other countries thought there was an actual cosmonaut on board, leading to rumors that other cosmonauts died before Gagarin’s flight, she said.

Limited public outreach. In the closed Soviet society of the time, public broadcasts of missions generally happened after the fact. Engineers had to figure out how not to alarm the locals if Ivanovich ended up falling nearby a populated area and officials could not retrieve him first. They therefore wrote the word “mannequin” on Ivan to make sure people understood what was going on. It turned out the precaution was never needed, though. “He was more on target than Gagarin,” Lewis said.

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Recent Posts

Officially, Only the Sun Can Have Planets. Is it Time to Fix the Definition of “Planet”?

What is the true definition of a planet, and could there be a more refined…

4 hours ago

Neutron Star is Spraying Jets Like a Garden Sprinkler

X-ray binaries are some of the oddest ducks in the cosmic zoo and they attract…

11 hours ago

NASA Stops Work on VIPER Moon Rover, Citing Cost and Schedule Issues

NASA says it intends to discontinue development of its VIPER moon rover, due to cost…

11 hours ago

Experimental Radar Technique Reveals the Composition of Titan’s Seas

The Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn generated so much data that giving it a definitive value…

12 hours ago

Webb Measures the Weather on a Tidally Locked Exoplanet

Exploring exoplanet atmospheres in more detail was one task that planetary scientists anticipated during the…

22 hours ago

More Than Half of Near Earth Objects Could Be “Dark Comets”

Next time you're visiting the seaside or a large lake, or even sipping a frosty…

1 day ago