Heavenly Choir

03 09 ivan ivanovitchGoodness, March is turning out to be quite the month for space travel. On this day in 1961,the Russians launched their spacecraft Sputnik 9. At the beginning of the 1960s, there was a huge race between Russia and the United States to be the first nation to launch a human into space. Everyone needed to learn a lot about space flight; what it would do to a human body, how to make a successful landing, and they needed to learn it quickly. Sputnik 9 was not a manned space flight, but it was an important and interesting step along the way. On March 9th 1961, a dummy was launched into space. He was named Ivan Ivanovich which is the Russian equivalent of ‘John Doe’ or ‘Joe Bloggs’.

People who were working in the space programmes were worried about the effects of the lack of gravity on the human body, about the presence of radiation and also that a human confined in a tiny capsule so far away from earth would succumb to what they called ‘space madness’. As much as they wanted to send a person into space, they wanted that person to come back safe and well. The Russians tested and retested their equipment and their final test was to send something as human as possible in an orbit around the earth.

Ivan was made mostly from metal with bendable joints because they needed to dress him in a space suit. He had a skin of synthetic leather and a detachable head. His head, they decided to make as lifelike as possible. He had eyes and eye brows, even eyelashes. Then they thought about what might happen if he crash landed in a remote area. Someone might think he was a real human, even an alien. So they taped a big label over his face with the word ‘maket’ which means mock-up. To make sure that space travel was as safe as possible for organic life, Ivan had companions. Because space was at a premium inside the capsule, they used cavities inside his body to carry forty white mice, forty black mice, some guinea pigs, various reptiles, human blood cells, human cancer cells, yeast and bacteria. In addition to this, they sent a dog with him called Chernushka, which means ‘Blackie’.

Apart from testing how all these life forms would fare, the safety of the capsule and of the space suit, they also needed to test the ejector seat mechanism that would be used on landing. Sputnik 9, could not land safely, so the pilot would need to be ejected, along with a parachute before the capsule reached the ground. Ivan could also carry, within his body, instruments that measured things like acceleration and radiation levels but they also needed to test communication between the capsule and the ground. For this, Ivan would need a voice. They knew that their transmissions would be picked up by western countries, so they had to think carefully about what Ivan would say. If it sounded like a coded message, people might think they had secretly launched a human into space and that they were being spied upon. Perhaps, they thought, a tape of someone singing a song. This was rejected because anyone who intercepted the transmission might think they had sent up a cosmonaut who had succumbed to space madness. Their solution was simple and rather beautiful. They fitted Ivan with a tape that would play a whole choir singing. There was no way anyone would think that they had sent a whole choir into space inside one tiny capsule.

So, Ivan Ivanovich was first launched into space on March 9th 1961. Sputnik 9 made a single orbit of the Earth in a journey that lasted a little over an hour and a half. The mission was a success, the ejector seat and parachute worked and the dummy was recovered. You’ll be happy to know that Chernushka, the dog, who crash-landed along with the craft also survived.

A second trial was made on March 25th. This time Ivan was accompanied by a dog called Zvezdochka which means ‘little star’. The dog was given this name by Yuri Gagarin who would, less than three weeks later, become the first human in space. This time, they added to the choir recording, a recipe for cabbage soup, either to make the message even more confusing, or because they thought the world needed to know how to make it properly. This flight was also a success and Zvezdochka also survived her trip. This time the recovery team were unable to get to the landing site, in the Ural mountains, for twenty four hours. The local people, who had watched a figure floating down in a parachute, arms and legs flailing, were very surprised when they approached the lifeless figure and opened his helmet, only to see the word ‘maket’ taped across his face.