Sotheby's to auction 1961 Soviet space capsule

MOSCOW Fri Feb 25, 2011 5:45am EST

This Vostok 3KA-2 Russian space capsule, which was sent into space March 23, 1961, will be sold at Sotheby's auction house in New York March 16.

This Vostok 3KA-2 Russian space capsule, which was sent into space March 23, 1961, will be sold at Sotheby's auction house in New York March 16.

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Before blasting the first human into space in 1961, the Soviet Union fired off one last test flight of the tiny capsule that would carry Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on his historic mission.

The test capsule, Vostok 3KA-2, still scorched from re-entry, will be sold at Sotheby's in New York on April 12, the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's flight.

Sotheby's, which is displaying the capsule at its New York headquarters ahead of the sale, estimates it will fetch between $2 million to $10 million. The owner, who wished to remain anonymous, bought it privately from Russia several years ago.

"Not only are there no other examples outside of Russia of the world's first spacecraft, this capsule was pivotal in space history as providing the green light for Gagarin's spectacular achievement," David Redden, the head of Sotheby's special projects department, said in a statement.

The Vostok space programme, conceived by the architect of the Soviet space programme Sergei Korolev, first made history by blasting two dogs, Belka and Strelka, into space -- the first animals to survive the voyage in 1960.

The capsule's spherical cabin, no more than 2.5 metres (8 feet) in diameter and made of aluminium alloy, was then adapted to carry humans.

Just weeks before Gagarin's mission, in a final test flight the capsule carried a life-size cosmonaut mannequin and a dog named Zvezdochka.

The capsule completed one orbit, re-entered the earth's atmosphere and landed in a snow-filled gully near the Soviet town of Izhvesk, paving the way for Gagarin historic mission in an exact copy of the capsule.

The Vostok 1 model that carried Gagarin is on permanent display in Russian rocket maker Rkk Energia's Museum near Moscow.