Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age
The box room is bathed in an eerie blue light. Mellow Russian music plays on a synth piano. The tones are transcendent. Illuminated in yellow at the centre of the room, a mannequin of Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space – is cradled in a metal net, itself resting within a polygonal glass coffin. He stares up at a red-glowing rectangle on the ceiling, representing, so I’m told, the possibility of a mission to Mars. The sensors covering his body once recorded radiation levels while he orbited the moon. On one wall is written, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever – Tsiolkovsky, 1911.” With its mellow ambience, I feel as if the exhibition is giving my brain a soothing massage.
This, the final section in the Science Museum’s latest show, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, is a fitting, yet curiously abstract and arty end, to a bold and ambitious exhibition, driven, for the most part, by solid human endeavor, technological innovation and exhausting persistence. It’s also the first time in recent years that an exhibition has truly surprised me; after propelling you through galleries tightly wrapped in technology, filled to bursting point with the relics of Soviet space equipment, videos, photos and information panels – above, beside, below and sometimes stacked one above the other – the exhibition doesn’t so much as come to an abrupt end, as leave your senses suddenly weightless and freed, floating in an electric blue orbit alongside mannequin-Yuri. I half expected David Bowie to turn up.
Through roughly 150 exhibits, Cosmonauts covers all sides of the Soviet space experience – its origins and inspiration, birth, technology and human aspect are all explored, alongside overarching themes, such as the US-Soviet space race, the scrapped secret moon mission, the development of Russian space stations and beyond. It’s a side of the space race often swiftly passed over in the West, in part due to the sheer secrecy Soviet Russia imposed on much of the technology on display and even on the details of the story itself.
This isn’t exaggeration, most of the exhibits have never left Russia (well, except for those that went into space). Some were only declassified by the military especially for the exhibition, including one of the highlights: the 5 m tall moon lander, made for a manned moon mission that never happened. Other items, gathered together for the first time from various museums and private collections across Russia, survived the trip into space, including the beaten up sphere of the Vostok 6 spacecraft, its heat shield barbequed during reentry, and the Voskhod 1 spacecraft, the first to (barely) hold multiple cosmonauts. Further exhibits, including spacesuits and a bathroom shower, spent time aboard the Mir space station, and neatly illustrate daily life in orbit – in particular, the realities of space toilets, much to the delight of younger visitors.
As part of this rare peek behind the Iron Curtain, we’re also introduced to many of the firsts achieved by the Soviet Union. Of course, there’s Sputnik (“Fellow Traveller”), the world’s first artificial satellite, represented in the show by a replica dangling from the ceiling and a commemorative teapot and kettle set, known as a samovar in Russian. (An interesting aside: Sergei Korolev, the lead Soviet engineer and designer, apparently insisted that Sputnik be shiny so that the inevitable replicas in museums across the world would appear more striking – inspired thinking Sergei!) Yuri Gagarin is also well-represented; aside from mannequin-Yuri, there’s various mementos of his space mission and return, including his military uniform and photos of his time in London spent with the queen. The descent module that brought Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, back to earth is also on show and still bears the violent marks of reentry. Less showy, but nonetheless just as historic, is the first image of the dark side of the moon. And all of this human focus doesn’t mean that the first animals in space are neglected; a dog ejector seat and suit, used during suborbital rocket flights in the 1960s, is modeled by a plastic puppy with a face intently focused on her daring mission.
As well as the undoubtedly impressive technology on display, the museum equally (and wisely) focuses on the human story behind the Soviet rush for space. Pages from Konstantin Tsiolkosvsky’s 1933 Album of Cosmic Journeys include sketches of spacewalks and illustrations predicting the need to tie down objects aboard orbiting spacecraft. Tsiolkosvsky was a pioneer in the development of space exploration, whose calculations, theory of rocket flight and concepts for multi-stage rockets created a foundation for future generations. He’d also been mostly deaf since the age of ten, and manufactured his own hearing tubes, one of which is on display.
Another key figure was Sergei Korolev, the mastermind and chief designer behind the Russian space programme, whose death at 59 probably contributed to the Soviet manned mission to the moon falling behind the Americans and ultimately being scrapped. Sent to a Siberian gulag in 1938, accused of anti-Soviet activities, but later cleared of all charges, Korolev made the 5000 km journey back to Moscow with only one possession, a mug inscribed with his name; it is an evocative personal item, representing a period of chilling brutality amid all the wonder and technology on display. There’s also a 1959 letter from schoolgirl Maria Kartseva to the Moscow Radio Committee, expressing her desire to fly to the moon; Maria writes that she is ready for the journey because she has a “warm skiing jacket, felt boots, coat and warm fur hat.” (I’m no expert, but if you ask me, I don’t think Maria would’ve made it.)
A story that needed to be told, Cosmonauts encapsulates everything a space enthusiast might want from an exhibition: there’s fabulous technology aplenty, adventurous space pioneers, drama and education. And the wonder of space exploration – an essential ingredient in any space-themed exhibition – is captured most effectively in that final electric blue room, when your accelerating ride through 20th-century space exploration finally burns out its fuel, and you’re left to coast serenely into orbit.
Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age is at the Science Museum, London, until 13th March 2016.