The March of 1961 might have been the closest point between Soviet Union and America in the first wave of the space race. Both countries were fighting to get a man in space and both took major steps that month. For NASA, it was the final unmanned mission to test the booster that would take its first astronauts aloft. For the Soviets, it was the flights of Ivan Ivanovich that proved the Vostok capsule was ready for a man.

On Jan. 31, 1961, NASA’s Mercury-Redstone 2 flight (MR-2) saw Ham the chimp fly 157 miles on a Redstone rocket before splashing down. The test was a moderate success. While the chimp survived, the Redstone was hot, meaning it burned its fuel too fast. The problem with the booster prompted its designer, Wernher von Braun, to order an additional unmanned mission. This pushed the first manned mission back to late April or early May. It also gave the Soviets room to breath, but not much.

With an eye towards beating von Braun, his Soviet counterpart Sergei Korolev set a tentative launch date for the first manned Vostok flight in early April. The Soviet Space program stepped up its efforts to launch on schedule.

PHOTOS: Apollo 18: Myths of the Moon Missions

In the beginning of March, several engineers and high ranking officials from the Soviet Strategic Missile forces left Moscow for Leninsk, a city near the launch site of Tyura-Tam. They were there to launch two unmanned missions designed to test the man-rated Vostok 3A spacecraft.

Though unmanned, these test flights did have significant biological payloads. The first flight, Korabl-Sputnik 4, carried a small dog named Chernushka — or Blackie — on board. Along with the pup were 40 black mice, 40 white mice, several guinea pigs, reptiles, plant seeds, human blood samples, human cancer cells, micro-organisms, bacteria, and fermentation samples. There was also a human analogue, Ivan Ivanovich, the Russian equivalent to John Doe, whose hollow body was stuffed with more mice, rodents, and biological samples.

Beyond a dry-run for the eventual manned missions, these flights were also vital tests of the communications systems that would let engineers in mission control talk to their orbiting cosmonaut. The simplest way to test the system was to send Ivanovich up with a recording that could be automatically played from the capsules and received in Moscow. But just what that recording could be was a question.

ANALYSIS: Cosmonauts Faced Cold, Snow After Dicey Landing

Soviet officials decided a numeric countdown would be a bad thing to play from space; it might lead observers listening in in the West to think they had secretly launched a real cosmonaut into space. A song was similarly rejected. No one wanted the Americans to hear it and think a cosmonaut in orbit had lost his mind to space sickness and broken out into song. A choir, they figured, was the best bet. No one would think the had launched a capsule filled with singers.

And so Ivan Ivanovich, singing like a choir and wearing a white sheath for modesty’s sake, was dressed in a fully functioning Sokol space suit and loaded into Korabl-Sputnik 4 along with the menagerie of animals. The mission launched on March 9, 1961.

The mission was a striking success through to landing. Like a real cosmonaut would do, Ivanovich was ejected from the capsule just before landing and descended by a personal parachute. It terrified people nearby who saw a body fall to Earth and land, apparently lifeless, on the cold ground. The Soviet officials had anticipated a shock like this and placed a panel in front of Ivanovich’s face inside his helmet identifying him as a Maket — or dummy.

NEWS: Deaths of Phantom Cosmonauts

Chernushka landed separately slightly apart from Ivanovich. Protocol dictated that a Soviet official had to be the first on the scene to recover the spacecraft and its occupants since it was armed with an automatic self-destruct system that needed deactivating. But something prevented officials from getting there in time and recovery crews took it on themselves to rescue Chernushka. The field was cold and snowy; no one wanted the little dog to survive the mission only to die of exposure waiting for recovery.

Korabl-Sputnik 5 launched on March 25 and was another success. Both missions helped the Soviets stay on schedule leading up to Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight on April 12, 1961, and Ivan Ivanovich was their singing unsung hero.

Image credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum