Soviet space stuff lands at auction

August 08, 1993|By Francis X. Clines | Francis X. Clines,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- The gaze behind the helmet visor on the soft pink face of Ivan Ivanovich, the first Soviet mannequin in space, is as melancholy as all Pushkin.

It is as if Ivan always knew the gallant adventure of communism's astronauts would come to this -- a hard-currency auction at Sotheby's.

The hundreds of artifacts of the Soviet space program range from a well-charred space capsule built for three, to Ivan himself, the full-sized Soviet test dummy, still suited up and ready for earth's bittersweet turnings.

"This is close as you can get to the beginning of man's entry into space," said David N. Redden, Sotheby's director of the auction being planned in New York City for December. He was visiting Ivan in a warehouse on Manhattan's East Side where the space '' artifacts are being massed as if they were part of a going-out-of-business sale.

In a way, that's what it is, for the big-budget days of the space race ended with the Cold War. Dozens of Soviet astronauts who were celebrities mainly within Star City, the secret Soviet space center outside Moscow, have come forward with memorabilia for Sotheby's -- looking for dollars, of course, but also wanting to share with the world their long-hidden adventures.

The auction will feature such historic items as turn-of-the-century monographs of Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, the visionary who brilliantly anticipated the details of space flight. It will offer the "wand of the magician" -- the well-used slide rule of Sergei P. Korolyov, the chief engineer of the Soviets' Sputnik and manned flight triumphs whose identity and masterful program management were among the most tightly kept secrets of the space race.

It will offer lunar fragments gathered mechanically and rocketed back to earth in Jules Verne fashion, plus the one spacesuit the Soviets never got to use. It is a highly elaborate one designed for a manned landing on the moon that never came to pass.

Its metal zipper is big and clunky as any that communist couture produced for the gravity-ridden masses, but it bears evidence, too, that the "Evil Empire" bothered to steal some Velcro from the "Free World."

The space travelers had paint sets and used them at first to render a few solarscapes from the porthole, but then mainly to paint trees, brooks, streets and other dear memories of earth, far-out still lifes Mr. Redden cannot wait to auction.

They had "oasis" kits -- little gardens to grow as simple mementos of earth for their own enjoyment, rather than as pseudo-science projects to be televised back to taxpayers.

In 18 months of visits and negotiations for Sotheby's in the former Soviet Union, Mr. Redden discovered one of the Russians' stellar treasures, their passion for making rich narrative of life's details.

A badly frayed space glove turns out, in the telling, to have been critical for an astronaut who spent seven desperate hours in a space walk, clawing at a damaged hatch that threatened doom.

An innocuous-looking packet of nuts and bolts from one of the earliest flights was nervously collected by an astronaut startled to find pieces of his spaceship floating about.

The tales sound as potentially priceless as the various artifacts offered by Col. Aleksei Leonov, the first human to walk in space. He returned to earth badly, landing far off course in the Urals during a three-day blizzard.

He managed to build a fire outside the capsule with some tree scraps, only to be chased back inside his snow-bound space ship by a Russian bear.

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