Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age - Exhibition Review

When most people in the west consider space exploration, they tend to think of the USA. Less well known is that NASA- the government body founded in 1958 to coordinate the United States space program- was late to the game. We all know how they put the first humans on the Moon and developed the Space Shuttle. But what of its rival, the Soviet space programme? How did the Russians, seen by many in the west as being technologically backwards, manage to achieve a spectacular series of early space achievements? This included launching the first satellite (Sputnik 1), the first living being in space (Sputnik 2) and putting both the first man and woman, not just into space, but into orbit too (Vostok 1 & 6 respectively).

The Russians call their space travellers 'Cosmonauts', meaning navigators of the cosmos. A nice general term in many ways superior to the more familiar 'Astronaut' (meaning 'Star Voyager'). Also the obvious title for the current exhibition at the Science Museum, telling the history of the Russian space programme: 'Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age'. It runs until March 2016.

What I found especially engaging about the show was that it examines the whole story; from its esoteric philosophical origins in Cosmism, through the inspirational pioneering work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and his influence on subsequent generations of rocket dreamers, designers and engineers. This first section of the exhibition explores aspects of Transhumanism, the idea that human beings are at an intermediate stage of their evolution. The expansion of the human species into space because we can't stay on earth forever. "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever" (Tsiolkovsky 1911).

As you can see, the scope of this exhibition is broad and I felt it brought together just the right amount of material to demonstrate the expansive thinking of these early visionaries, including examples of Suprematist art and beautiful drawings describing the mechanics of spacefaring.

Emerging from the oppression and sacrifice of Stalin's tyranny and the huge losses of the war, came designers and engineers of exceptional brilliance. The most prominent was probably 'The Chief Designer' himself Sergei Korolev (never named in his lifetime because he was seen as a potential target for assassination by western agents, given his importance to the Soviet missile programme). He was the visionary genius behind the early Soviet successes. Able to sell his idea for a huge rocket delivery system to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, he had coordinated and overseen the development of the R series of rocket designs. These took the work of captured German rocket scientists forwards towards a working missile delivery system. From the Russian military perspective, they needed to build a missile powerful enough to deliver a thermonuclear weapon over a huge distance. Because their bombs were heavier, the rockets they constructed needed to be more powerful. Crucial to Russian success was the rocket engine design itself. One is on display in the exhibition, created by the brilliant designer (and Korolev's great rival) Valentin Glushko.

Although the R-7 design was sold to Khrushchev (and the skeptical Soviet military) as a missile, Korolev's real ambition for it was as a space launcher. In fact, as a missile it was totally impractical. It took time to prepare for launch and stood on the ground like a sitting duck. But as a means to put objects into space, it went way beyond anything the US had developed at that time and although had some initial developmental problems, by late 1957, it was in working order and ready to fly.

Then, after astounding the world with the successful launch of an artificial earth satellite 'Sputnik 1' on October 4th 1957 (a huge propaganda coup for the Russians which still reverberates today), came a series of increasingly ambitious Soviet 'firsts'. Laika was a stray dog who became the first space traveller aboard Sputnik 2 later in 1957- part of the International Geophysical Year, although in reality timed to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. A replica of her hastily developed life support system is displayed in the show, although the poor creature in fact perished soon after lift-off. That aside, 'Sputnik 2' did detect the Van Allan radiation belts (although this wasn't officially clarified- the US 'Explorer' satellite formally discovered them two months later). Presented also in the exhibition is the stand in for Sputnik 1 itself- not a replica. So small I could hold it in my arms.

On April 12th 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space aboard 'Vostok 1', beating the US yet again. Not only did he become the first man in space, he also was the first to complete a full orbit (The Americans didn't manage this until a year later with John Glenn aboard 'Friendship 7'). Overnight he became the most famous person in the world. This was despite the fact that there were significant technical malfunctions during the mission which threatened his life, but were not revealed until much later. Brave and smiling, Major Gagarin toured the world, even meeting the Queen and Prince Phillip. A signed photo, given to him is on display. Itself having been taken into space later on.

We have two Vostok capsules on show. The 'descent module' of Vostok 6 brought back the first woman in space- Valentina Tereshkova in June 1963. For several days, she made scientific observations of the atmosphere, took photographs and piloted her craft. However, in 2004, it was revealed that an error in the control programming made the spacecraft ascend from orbit instead of descend, putting her long duration mission in peril. Interestingly, she visited 'Cosmonauts: The Birth of the Space Age' on its opening night. She waxed lyrical about her ship- “My lovely one, My best and most beautiful friend – my best and most beautiful man.”

In addition to those already mentioned, the Soviets sent the first probe to the moon (Luna 2 in 1959). They also obtained the first images of its far side- never seen before- from Luna 3, as well as sending probes to various planets. Thanks to Korolev and his team, by the mid-sixties the USSR had achieved the first space 'Walk' by Alexander Leonov, sent groups of Cosmonauts into orbit (Voshkod 1 is displayed in the show) and looked set to land on the moon with their huge N1 rocket. However, after Korolev's untimely death and several space accidents, the Soviet manned moon programme was cancelled. Nevertheless, they did manage to be the first country to send life to the Moon: Zond 5 carried two Russian Tortoises, some Wine flies, mealworms, bacteria, plants and seeds around the Moon and brought them back to Earth.

One room simply contains a single period television. On it, President Kennedy can be seen in grainy black and white, committing the United States to landing on the Moon....

One of the highlights of this exhibition is the unused Soviet LK 'Manned Lunar Lander', placed together with the unmanned rover 'Lunokhod' that got to the moon around the time of Apollo. It looks like a bath, but did the job. Interestingly, there's the capsule of Apollo 10 (which orbited the moon in 1969) and the Apollo LEM lander on general display in the Science Museum. It's worth making comparisons. For a start, the LK is smaller than the ingenious 'Tissue Paper Spacecraft' designed by Grumman Industries.

The exhibition is comprehensive enough to capture the feeling of those heady times. Posters and sound bites from the era still inspire and exult progress. We see footage of Cosmonauts training, their equipment and how the space programme became pivotal in helping to shape Soviet pride and national identity. This wasn't just in the Soviet Union either. There was international prestige to be gained. As part of it's 'Interkosmos' programme in the Seventies and Eighties, the Soviets began to train Cosmonauts from Warsaw Pact and other countries to send into space. I couldn't help recalling the bit in 'Goodbye Lenin!' in which the protagonist sees his boyhood space hero Sigmund Jähn, driving a taxi after the fall of Communism in East Germany.

Despite setbacks, the Soviet and later Russian space programme has continued to make systematic developments in spacefaring. Although the Americans made great strides forward towards the moon and sent probes even farther afield, the Russians developed ingenious solutions to the problem of living and working in space for long periods. On the early (and dangerous) Salyut missions through to Mir, the first practical permanent 'space station'; teams of Cosmonauts and later Astronauts lived, serviced by Russian rockets and space hardware. One was Helen Sharman, who in 1983 became the first British woman in space aboard Mir.

Looking at these items of space equipment is revealing in a number of ways. Firstly, how the Soviets achieved so much with (relatively) simple designs. It is clear that ingenuity and bravery drove their designers and Cosmonauts forwards. In spite of ideological political pressure and with limited funds in a command economy, they made the best of what was available. Risk was high and failure severely punished.

Of course, in spaceflight risk is ever present. The fact that the Soviet-Russian space programme developed in secret as part of the military, enabled them to cover up anything they didn't want to share with the wider world. Compared to the US programme which was overall more visible to media scrutiny. In Matthew Brzezinski's book 'Red Moon Rising', the author makes the point that many in the West could never understand how it was possible that the Soviet Union, with its inefficient command economy (which produced shabby shoes and low agricultural yields), could be so ahead in developing an advanced rocket programme. That it was the strict Soviet command structure itself which allowed vast resources to be applied to a single task. Whereas the American corporate system- perfect for producing consumer goods- initially struggled to coordinate the necessary elements to make their rockets work effectively.

Viewed in hindsight from our era of technical 'perfection', the traces of the maker's tools on certain pieces of hardware can be seen almost as a labour of love, appearing 'hand crafted'. Once the Apollo programme got going, and especially after the Apollo 1 fire had galvanised the whole of Corporate America to reach hitherto unattainable standards of quality control, these early examples of humankind's first ventures out of the 'cradle' began to look somewhat dated. But remember, it's the Russians, still using designs from the time of Korolev and Glushko, who are currently servicing the International Space Station. The workhorse of today in space is the Soyuz, not the Shuttle.

Canny as they are, the Russians eagerly embraced the idea of 'Space Tourism' early on (the first 'tourist' Dennis Tito's Cosmonaut suit is on display in the show) and continue to drive forward the technical means for a future mission to Mars. The exhibition ends on a fitting philosopical note, as the spectator moves through a blue lit room. A figure in a metal seat lies on it's back in a rhombus shaped glass case, looking up at a red lit rectangle in the ceiling. On the wall is the aformentioned qoutation by Tsiolkovsky. The whole thing looks like an installation by James Turrell.

In conclusion, this exhibition is especially relevant to our understanding of science and the evolution of space travel today. How the Soviets and Russians managed, not without considerable setbacks, to win the first round of the Space Race through a mixture of ingenuity and vision.

(C) Gideon Hall 2015

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age
Discover the story of Russian space travel in this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition
Open from 18/09/2015
To 13/03/2016
Price: £14 (concessions available)

Author's review: