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 of 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 lbs 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.
Shelby 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-entrty 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 and 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/.