Space travel: When Soviets ruled the great beyond

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Tim Radford is thrilled by an unprecedented exhibition marking the USSR's cold war feats in space.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age

Science Museum, London.
Until 16 March 2016.

State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

An ejection seat and suit used on the Soviet Vostok missions from 1961 to 1963.

Between the cold war years of 1957 and 1966, the Soviet Union established primacy in space. Its heady list of triumphs embraces, in the 1950s alone, the first artificial object and first animal in orbit, and the first image of the far side of the Moon. In the next decade, it grew to include the first attempt on Venus, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first three-man mission in space, and the first spacewalk, automaton touchdown on the Moon, lunar rover (1970), and scoop of Moon rock brought back to Earth by an automaton. Reflecting the significance and extent of those triumphs, the long-awaited Cosmonauts at the Science Museum in London assembles memorabilia and engineering marvels borrowed from around a score of Russian institutes.

It opens with dreams: of high orbit, free fall and exit through an airlock, sketched on paper in 1933 by schoolmaster and rocket visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. It concludes with a recumbent mannequin in a cradle (a “tissue equivalent phantom” flown in 1969 to absorb and measure space radiation), representing the Soviet dream of a crewed mission to Mars, and a quotation attributed to Tsiolkovsky: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” In between is a parade of hardware that none of us who followed the news greedily in those years had ever dreamed we might see assembled in one place, let alone in South Kensington.

The models are marvels. Here is a highly polished display model of Sputnik 1, launched in October 1957 (its chief designer, Sergei Korolev, reportedly said, “This ball will be exhibited in museums”). There are two engineering models: one of the two Lunokhod lunar rovers, the other of the once-secret lander Lunniy Korabi, designed to deliver one cosmonaut to the lunar surface in 1969. It flew, but not to the Moon, and the rest of us knew of its existence only two decades later.

L–R: State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO; Science Museum; Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics/State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO

A scale model of a 1960s Vostok spacecraft; a 1959 propaganda poster, In the name of peace; and a lower-body negative pressure suit from 1971.

And then there are the real things. Along with the charred, three-person Voskhod 1 descent module used in 1964 is the descent module of Vostok 6. In it, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova orbited Earth for three days in 1963 before a return during which the heat shield was scorched by impact with Earth's atmosphere at 27,000 kilometres an hour. This is iconic stuff: the RD-108 engine that powered the space race; the complex space toilet designed to drain human waste aboard the space station Mir; the powered backpack with port and starboard lights for free flight beyond the spacecraft.

But what sets the scalp prickling are the little things that tell those other stories implicit in this dizzying show. There is Georgy Krutikov's 1928 drawing Labour Commune, a stratospheric dream prefiguring the great adventure. And there is a little metal mug once owned by Korolev, the man most people now recognize as the driver of the space race, and thus the hero of this story.

Korolev, a Ukrainian, had been incarcerated in a prison camp in the Kolyma region of Siberia during Joseph Stalin's notorious 1930s purges. No Westerner — and few Russians — knew his name during the cold war, so closed was the Soviet world. Fresh from wartime labour detention, he arrived at the German Peenemünde base of the Nazi V-2 rocket programme to realize the dream of planetary exploration.

Sputnik 1 jolted Western complacency and helped to reignite the US space programme originally launched by the aerospace engineer and Nazi-turned-émigré Wernher von Braun. When Korolev died in 1966 during what should have been a routine operation, the new Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was a pallbearer. Even then, no one in the West knew of Korolev's existence.

Science Museum/SSPL

The space suit worn by UK cosmonaut Helen Sharman on a 1991 mission to the Mir space station.

Inevitably, the rocket engineer's genius surfaces again and again through the exhibition. There is a letter signed by Stalin authorizing the intercontinental ballistic-missile programme that made Sputnik 1 possible, and the personalized number plate YG1, used by Yuri Gagarin, the foundry worker who became a fighter pilot and, in 1961, the first man in space. There is Korolev's freehand drawing of the launch of canine cosmonauts Strelka and Belka. Alongside triumphant official Socialist realist posters there is a white lab coat daubed in red with the Russian for “Space is ours”, a memento of a spontaneous 1961 celebration in Red Square. The pencils and sketch pad that Alexei Leonov took on his pioneering 1965 spacewalk — a near-catastrophe — are here, along with a later self-portrait of him floating at the end of a tether over the Black Sea.

The United States' role in the space race is hardly acknowledged, beyond a Time magazine cover declaring Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev its 1957 man of the year. But the Soviet space effort seemed to lose momentum as the US Apollo programme — a story told in the Science Museum's main galleries — began in every sense to take off. Korolev's death must also have been a factor. The wonders went on, but the never-admitted race for the Moon was all but over.

This cosmic cornucopia reflects the intoxication of those first years and looks forward to the age of the space station. There is a spoon used aboard Mir by Sergei Krikalev, the man who went up as a Soviet cosmonaut and came down in 1992 as a citizen of the Russian Federation (and yes, there is a Soyuz descent module that carried a Mir crew back to Earth that year). But this unprecedented collection delivers more than a glimpse of distant exploratory technologies. It is a snapshot of Soviet history and, because the cold war warped the twentieth century, of global history, too. And where else could you see an ejector seat for a dog? The exhibits impose their own metaphors: see this show and be uplifted, transported, taken out of this world. It is the curatorial equivalent of a legal high.


  1. Report this comment #67039

    Patrick McCray said:

    Dear Mr. Radford,

    This was a great review of what sounds like a fascinating exhibit. I have one comment, however. It's simply incorrect to refer to Werner von Braun as the person who launched the U.S. space program. While Mr. von Braun was using slave labor to build V-2 rockets that showered bombs on London and other Allied cities, American-born Frank J. Malina and his team in Pasadena (Caltech) were pioneering rocket designs that led to the launch in September 1945 of the WAC Corporal. This rocket became the first object to travel into space. Along the way, Malina also co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Malina's concerns with the Cold War-era arms race coupled with his "pink" past (he went to Communist Party gathering in the 1930s) made the U.S. government uncomfortable. When it came to giving credit and accolades for leading the U.S. into space, the American public were shown the once-Nazi von Braun, rather than the native born but left-leaning Malina. It's time for the "American rocketeer" to get the credit he deserved.

    W. Patrick McCray
    Professor, Department of History, UCSB
    Lindbergh Chair (2015-16), National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

  2. Report this comment #67041

    Vladimir Escalante said:

    Actually Korolev appears in the documentary "Spaceflight" that aired on US TV in 1985. The problem was that the Western public was kept misinformed about the Soviet Union space program by the Western media during the Cold War to belittle Soviet achievements in space.

  3. Report this comment #67067

    Upinder Fotadar said:

    One must not overlook the American rocket pioneer Robert Hutchings Goddard either. Indeed while no fair-minded person can ignore the Nazi past of Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun, nevertheless the latter's contribution to the U.S. space program was surely enormous..

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

  4. Report this comment #67243

    Magnus Lewan said:

    There is a typo in "Lunniy Korabi". It should be "Lunniy Korabl", with an "L" as last letter. Korabl (???????) means "ship".

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