3:38pm

Mon April 11, 2011
Space

Craft That Led To First Man In Space Up For Auction

Fifty years ago, America was in the depths of the Cold War.

From the launch of Sputnik in 1957 to Yuri Gagarin's historic flight in 1961 that made him the first man to venture into space, the Soviet Union was winning the race, and the competition spurred the achievements of both nations.

Eighteen days before Gagarin's flight, the Vostok 3KA-2 rocket blasted into space and safely brought home a little dog named Zvezdochka and a mannequin in a spacesuit.

On Tuesday, Sotheby's in New York City will auction off that space capsule, which is the only Vostok capsule outside Russia.

NASA will also announce the museums that will take home three of its retired space shuttles: Atlantis, Endeavour and Enterprise.

A Tiny Spacecraft

The entrance hall of Sotheby's showcases the capsule, which looks small and primitive. The inside is about the size of a large car, and it housed 1,800 pounds of instruments, the mannequin and the dog.

David Redden, a vice chairman of Sotheby's, says when school groups see the spacecraft they're very excited and surprised. "They bounce up and down, and they think, 'Human beings first went into space in this funny, round beach ball?' " he says. "It doesn't look like a great big sleek spaceship."

There are marks on the capsule where it burned as it re-entered the atmosphere, and a spot where engineers cut into the heat shield to examine how well it withstood the flaming re-entry.

Selby Kiffer of the special projects department at the auction house says an engineer involved in the recovery of the capsule in Siberia described the ship's condition after its re-entry as a wounded animal, panting its last breath.

"It was so hot still from burning through the atmosphere it was melting the snow around it, and it must have been a very evocative sight," he says.

A video from the Russian state archives shows the recovery of the spacecraft, with footage of the dog Zvezdochka, or little star, coming out of the capsule and being petted and cradled lovingly.

An American businessman originally bought the spacecraft in 1996. The estimated price at Sotheby's tomorrow is $2 million to $10 million.

Several hours before the auction, NASA will announce which three institutions will win the right to exhibit the space shuttles. It will cost each institution $28 million to have the shuttle moved, cleaned and decontaminated.

It's no accident that the auction of the Vostok comes a few hours later. Redden says that allows those museums that didn't get a shuttle a little time to digest the fact and to come buy something that, in Sotheby's view, is far easier to accommodate.

And although it's smaller in both size and price, it's something certainly as historic. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Tomorrow is a big day for space history buffs. NASA plans to announce which museums are getting the three retired space shuttles. It's also the 50th anniversary of the day Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to venture into space.

To mark that event, Sotheby's is auctioning the Vostok capsule that made the final test flight 18 days before Gagarin landed safely back on Earth. NPR's Margot Adler has the story.

MARGOT ADLER: Fifty years ago, America was in the depths of the Cold War.

Unidentified Man: Today, the 12th of April, 1961, the first cosmic spaceship, named Vostok, with a man on board was orbited around the Earth from the Soviet Union. He is airman Major Yuri Gagarin.

ADLER: From the launch of sputnik in 1957 to Gagarin's flight in 1961, the Soviet Union was winning the space race. The competition spurred the achievements of both nations. Eighteen days before Gagarin's flight, the Vostok 3KA-2 rocket blasted into space and safely brought home a little dog named Zvezdochka and a mannequin in a space suit. This is the space capsule to be auctioned at Sotheby's tomorrow.

When you lay eyes on it in the entrance hall of Sotheby's, it looks small and primitive. The inside is about the size of a large car, but it must have been crowded with 1,800 pounds of instruments, a mannequin in a space suit and the little dog.

David Redden is Vice Chairman of Sotheby's. He says when school groups see the spacecraft, they're very excited and surprised.

Mr. DAVID REDDEN (Vice Chairman, Sotheby's): I mean, they bounce up and down, and they think about: My goodness, human beings first went into space in this funny round beach ball? It doesn't look like a great big, sleek spaceship.

ADLER: There are marks on the capsule where it burned as it re-entered the atmosphere. There's a spot where they clearly cut into the heat shield to examine how well it withstood the flaming re-entry.

Shelby Kiffer, of the Special Projects Department at the auction house, says here's how an engineer involved in the recovery of the capsule in Siberia described the scene.

Mr. SHELBY KIFFER (Special Projects Department, Sotheby's): It looked like a wounded animal, sort of panting its last. It was so hot still from burning through the atmosphere it was melting the snow around it, and it must have been a very evocative sight.

ADLER: You can see a video from the Russian state archives that shows the recovery of the spacecraft. There is amazing footage of the little dog Zvezdochka, or little star, coming out of the capsule and being petted and cradled lovingly.

(Soundbite of music)

ADLER: An American businessman bought the spacecraft in 1996. The estimated price at Sotheby's tomorrow is $2 to $10 million.

Several hours before the auction, NASA will announce which three institutions will win the right to exhibit the space shuttles. It will cost each institution $28 million to have the shuttle moved, cleaned and decontaminated. It's no accident that the auction of the Vostok comes a few hours later. David Redden says that will allow those museums that didn't get a shuttle a little time...

Mr. REDDEN: ...to digest the fact and be prepared possibly to come and buy something, which in our view is far easier to accommodate.

ADLER: In both size and price and something certainly as historic.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

SIEGEL: You can see pictures of the Vostok space capsule at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.