NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A Russian businessman bought a piece of history when he paid nearly $2.9 million at auction for the Vostok 3KA-2 capsule the Soviet Union launched on a test flight before sending the first human into space.
Evgeny Yurchenko bid $2,882,500 at Sotheby's on Tuesday for the capsule, still scorched from re-entry, on the 50th anniversary of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin historic 1961 flight.
Yurchenko, chairman of the investment fund AS Popov, said in a statement he intended to return the artifact to Russia.
"Until now, the Vostok 3KA-2 space capsule was the only one of its kind outside of Russia," Yuchenko said.
The owner, who wished to remain anonymous, had bought it from Russia.
"With the support and participation of Sotheby's I will be able to bring it home ... I hope that Vostok will take its rightful place in one of the national museums devoted to the history of the formation of the Russian space program," he added.
The Vostok space program, conceived by the architect of the Soviet space program 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 eight feet in diameter and made of aluminum 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. The Ivanovich mannequin has been on exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum since 1997 after being purchased at Sotheby's at a Russian space history auction.
Sotheby's had estimated the test capsule would sell for anywhere from $2 million to $10 million. The sale followed its biannual New York auction of Russian art, which totaled $16 million, above the pre-sale high estimate and the highest total since April 2008.
Reporting by Chris Michaud; editing by Patricia Reaney