Review: Cosmonauts, the birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum.



Cosmonauts, birth of the space age, is an exhibition well worth a visit no matter how interested you are in Space. I spent over an hour and half there, and probably could have comfortably stretched another 30 minutes out of it, so even if I hadn’t gotten a gratis ticket because I have a blog I would have gladly paid the entrance fee at the ticket office, instead of at the gift shop at the end. It’s layout cleverly takes you through a chronological story from 1903 to 2010, the amount of 1st’s the Soviet Space Program and today’s Roscosmos accrued in that time is baffling. It is full of atmosphere and education, representing years of work to get the 150 or so artefacts to London from Moscow, almost none of which have ever left Russia. The guides and curators are very knowledgable and take time with people. When I was there several of them had extended conversations with an elderly Polish woman who was very voluble about her admiration of Russia, and eager to learn the details about the Cosmonauts and show her young relative around. The museum guards keep a sharp eye on those carrying cameras, so if you are carrying one make sure the lens cap is on and in a neutral position, it helps them relax. Backpacks appear to be fine, I saw two people wearing them. When I visited it was very overheated, so just in case wear something that isn’t too bulky or that you can comfortably carry around. The exhibition lets out into the well stocked gift shop and subsequently into the cafe. There are T shirts, and buttons and pins, a space dog cuddly toy, a great selection of books and stacks of postcards and prints. And if your budget goes to £100 and your style is akin to Will.I.A.M then the replica Cosmonaut jacket is definitely for you.
This exhibition was better than I could have expected, so please, when you go take your time to appreciate it to its full, it truly is a once in a lifetime show that tells a largely untold story. It is an exhibition that will make you reevaluate what you thought you knew about the Space Race, and encourage you to think about the importance of cooperation in the the future.

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

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.
As I climbed the stairs to reach the 1st floor of London’s Science Museum I can’t say I understood just how dominant the Cosmonaut program was in the history of Spaceflight. I Passed the donation desk and the information booth on the ground floor hearing the echoes of the main hall yawning to my right and took the steps two at a time. It was busy and the noise of people was loud in my ears. Climbing up to the 1st floor the temperature rose too, by the time I had collected my ticket and made my way to the entrance I was beginning to feel warmer than I had expected.
The large exhibition sign greets visitors from across the other side of a wide landing as they come out of the stairway. A small ticket booth stands on the left hand side and tape barriers stand ready to control lines. There was no wait for me. I proceeded to the entrance where staff took my ticket and ripped off the stub, informed me that there was no flash photography permitted and let me pass.
As soon as you enter a striking red display presents itself to you. A model of an RD 108 Rocket hovers above a four sided presentation of early space research, the next thing you notice is a dramatic painting. Spiky, silhouetted forms of people react to a mysterious and violent force, seeming to burst upon them from the depths of space. It is New Planet by Yuon, painted in 1921, presenting the Russian Revolution as a Cosmic event. A large white screen rises behind the display, upon which images appear. It is hot and filled with the sound of Russian flute music and a distinctive Beeping noise.
At first I bypassed this display, turning to my left I was confronted by a block of text explaining about the origins of rocket and space science. Thinking back I might have been as well served to have begun at the left hand side of the initial rotunda, orbiting this and then striking off to where I actually started.

The initial display.
The initial display.

This room, which I called stage 1 introduces the visitor to the big names that dominated this field of science in the early 20th century. Inspired by his friend Federov, a amateur enthusiast named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published a theory of rocket flight in 1903, effectively taking a Jules Verne Sci-Fi idea into the realms of Science. By 1922 early rocket research had begun in private clubs where members, short of industrial supplies, melted down household cutlery to make rudimentary rockets. The 1920’s were years of ideas, and art helped drive these ideas deep into the imagination. Apart from Yuon’s work already mentioned, Supremacist artwork adorns the left hand wall, illustrating the drive into the modern age. Chashnik’s “Suprematism”, looks like a monochromatic signpost, but is oddly reminiscent of an orthodox cross with too many branches. With such little practical knowledge, most art dealing or hinting at Spaceflight was allegorical, like “Suprematism” and “Disjunction” by Kudryashev. But from these artistic endeavours grew grand ideas, as a visitor can see by the set of drawings hanging alongside the Suprematists. They are detailed architectural concept sketches, they look like something out of the Jetsons, or a cross between a Moore era Bond set and something out of Star Trek. It is a space station. As early as 1928 Georgii Krutikov had imagined a space station, writing his thesis on a teardrop shaped vehicle transporting passengers to an impressive looking “city” that resembled a chunky hula-hoop with 7 modular towers rising out of it.
Although art and imagination drove rocket theory onwards towards space, it becomes increasingly obvious as you wander around the first stage that two names dominate this period. Those of Tsiolkovsky and Sergei Korolev. Tsiolkovsky being so influential that the filmmaker Zhuralev asked him to lend his professional expertise to help make his move “Cosmic Journey” more accurate. The effectiveness of this is debatable, given the film bites that keep popping up on the screen above you, and as one visitor I overheard said the visions of Spaceflight Tsiolkovsky sketched looked like the author was on LSD, but it was Tsiolkovsky that established the basic theory of Spaceflight, and his ideas were put to the test by admirers and followers. Now the idea of exploring the cosmos was firmly established as a concept for the future. By the 1930’s Russia had a Rocket Research Institute, it is a testament to the seriousness with which the government held these ideas, and the power of science to inspire artists and of artists to inspire thought that the dreams of the cosmos were kept alive during the upheaval of the 20’s and 30’s.
Walking around the central display I approached a glass case holding what at first I had thought was an example of Russian peasant clothing. Upon inspection I found it to be an introduction to the man whose expertise would dominate the next 50 years. Korolev was just one of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Citizens that were sent to Gulags in the 1930’s. The poignant case showed a the prison coat and hat of a fellow internee A. Grigoriev plus Korolev’s mugshot, cup and glasses. To the right of this, past two information boards about the fathers of Spaceflight is a marvellous painting of Korolev. It stretches up almost to the ceiling to the side of entrance. Korolev was the Chief director of the space program until his death in 1966 and the painting by Yuri Korolev is an ode, stretching from lab to a launching rocket, to space with Korolev in front. Split over either side of the entrance is written “Onwards to Mars citizens of the universe” a quote from Tsander in 1931, is written across the entranceway.” (A nice join to the latter half of the exhibit which features some items from Mars500 test).

Turning my back to this giant painting, I had partially forgotten how hot it was inside the exhibition until I saw another visitor touch a radiator and murmur, “They had to leave the heat on of course”. Ignoring the temperature, (beware all those who are warmly dressed) I now arrived at the verge of Stage 2. A moderate sized display case sitting below the large white screen that portions the exhibit. On this portion is written Beep Beep Beep. I knew the reason why, and it becomes clear to those who don’t very quickly. This was the first man made sound heard from Space in 1957.
A model of the spiky, orbicular form of Sputnik I features prominently above you, signifying the dawn of a new age, from the theoretical to the practical. The launch of this satellite was enormously significant, and a inspired Russia like the Moon landing and Shuttle did the USA. To prove it the case features a samovar in the form of Sputnik lies beside a copy of Time Magazine, some propaganda and black and white photos of the launch.

Sputnik flies high over the transition between theoretical and practical Spaceflight.
Sputnik flies high over the transition between theoretical and practical Spaceflight.

It now becomes obvious what that intermittent beeping noise means. The atmospheric Beep of Sputnik (played on a loop alongside that moody Russian flute music that annoys the guides) now and again rises over the murmur of tour guides, the harsh alarms that go off when someone reaches over a barrier, the voices of parents and the wows and coughs of children. You pass beneath Sputnik and suddenly the exhibit widens and brightens. Space has been unlocked and around the room there are spread the machines that unlocked it. “The road to the stars is open” reads a quote by Korolev in the top corner of the left hand left hand exhibit, giving a clue as to where to continue. I smile and turn sharp left to circle the room clockwise. Above you on the reverse side of the screen, moving images flash up over its surface, showing the famous Space dogs in training, the bellicose face of President Khrushchev, and tests being carried out. Scouts of the cosmos is the theme here, which is written on the right side of the panel, the first rockets and spacecrafts to breach the new frontier.
In a sort of white zoo enclosure, fronted by cases and information boards, are engineering models of the first explorers. One kid approaching the silver coffee pot that is Sputnik 3 told his mother that it looked like something out of Dr. Who, to which she replied, “Yes like a very large Darlek”. Apart from the S3 there is a Luna I scale model from 1959, a Luna 9 Probe a Luna 16 lander and the impressive Venera 7 probe.
The Lunas were the first sun orbiters and moon landers, and they look like Myth Busters made them. Seeming to look like an array of incongruous things scrounged from who knows where. Progressing around the room is a dog ejector and a monkey suit sitting in a case beneath a model of Sputnik 2 which carried the doomed Laika into space in 1957. While feeling deeply sad that these animals, chosen for their good disposition and loyalty were sacrificed in this way, I was confronted by information Panels of Khrushchev the dogs. Contrary to popular belief the Russians did not only shoot Laika into space, but two further dogs, Belka and Strelka, and more besides, who to my surprise and that of a nearby parent who had also laboured under a similar delusion of dog massacre, were successfully retrieved. These missions proved that living beings could survive in space and be brought home. Not only that but many lived long and comfortable lives afterwards, one of Strelka’s subsequent litter of puppies being given to Jackie Kennedy. Colourful posters of the usual soviet variety are dotted along the walls and cases, following the right hand wall now I come to the next great leap in the Cosmonaut journey, the manned spaceflights of the 1960’s.

Vostok 1 Ejection seat
Vostok 1 Ejection seat

Not only did the Russians beat the Americans into Space, and on top of that subsequently fire a living animal as well but in 1961 they added insult to injury by launching the first human being into orbit. Astounded Americans listened as news of Major Yuri Gagarin’s mission hit the airwaves soon after the event. A man had travelled in Space. This prompted president Kennedy to pledge America the moon. The exhibit narrows here and becomes a hairpin based around the golden age of Russian Spaceflight. The first part is dedicated to Gagarin and tells how Yuri was one of twenty 20 who beat out 3,000 other candidates to become the first Cosmonauts. Their training was conducted at the secret training facility nicknamed Star City. High on the wall is the training schedule, below this is a chair and were visitors can watch a video showing clips of very strenuous training. It is a natural a choke point as people jostle to see the show and at the same time try to examine the Vostok I presentation, while the sound of a launching rocket intermittently tears through the air. The V1 display shows the ejection seat that Gagarin used to exit his capsule before disengaging the seat and parachuting to earth. The seat is complete with a model Gagarin in his flight suit, and a scale model of the bulbous Vostok capsule. In front of the display is a case, inside is the chunky grey Vostok navigation console which gave the pilot flight information but no actual steering ability. Mission control controlled the ship from Earth.
A right turn takes you across a cabinet displaying the legacy of the Vostok I mission. A short biography of Gagarin, who’s infectiously smiling face stares out from a few places, hangs alongside items such as his blue trimmed, green uniform, showing his rank, insignia, medals and prominent Russian shoulder boards. Along from this are some items showing British recognition of the feat, a medal and a signed royal photo to Gagarin taken at Balmoral. In a low jewellery case are some colourful Cosmonautical postcards, a themed tea set and souvenir Russian dolls alongside some posters, and here you must turn. Written above this culdesac is the bold words “Poyekhali!”, let’s go! The words Gagarin cried at liftoff.

Ingenious Scouts of the Cosmos.
Ingenious Scouts of the Cosmos.

Despite the fame of Gagarin as the world’s most known Cosmonaut there can be no doubt that the centrepiece of this Stage 3 area lie in the two giant glass cases set apart against the wall. They immediately arrest your attention as you turn the corner from the Vostok I display. Two enormous spheres, looking rather like meatballs with windows, or blown up models of early diving suit helmets the colour of oven baked potato skins, dominate the small area. On the right lies the Vostok 6 descent module from 1963. This vehicle, which is identical to the Vostok I, carried Dr. Valentina Tereshkola, the first woman in space, back to earth. To its left across a small gap allowing visitors to peer into the capsule, is the Voskhol I descent module. This was launched in 1964 and was part of a program that saw the first ever EVA, or spacewalk, conducted by Alexei Leonov in the Voskhol 2 in 1965. There is a very cool video clip of the first EVA. Showing Leonov struggle to pressurise his space suit, while information boards explain about his accomplishments, not least of which are his painting skills. The VL1 is interesting as it has not one seat, but three, made in response to the American three seat Apollo modules, the space was so tight that the Cosmonauts couldn’t wear spacesuits inside it. However unlike the Vostok this model, very similar in appearance, had retro rockets that could slow descent to earth. Both are complete with the grey consoles seen in the V1 display case. I peered inside each of them, staring at their burnt shells and marvelling at how small they are inside. It must have been a cosy trip but the thought that predominated was, these things have actually been in Space.

What might have been the first manned vehicle on the Moon.
The training model for what might have been the first manned vehicle on the Moon.

We now leave these pioneering missions and enter a small box room with grey silver gauze curtains, where an old TV set plays footage of JFK’s famous speech and the moon landing. This tells us in no uncertain terms that the Russians have faltered against America and it leads directly to the next stage. The ill fated Luna program, and the end of unchallenged Russian space supremacy. What I call Stage 4 is probably the most impressive display and is all at once the most simple and yet the largest. The top secret Luna mission designed to outdo the Apollo. Standing resolutely in their enclosure is a giant engineering model from 1969 of the LK3 lunar lander, the would be Apollo 11. Had it succeeded Leonov would have been the first man on the moon. Standing next to the lunar lander is the Lunokhod 1 Rover, yet another first, both immensely impressive. It was all Korolev’s brainchild as is shown by an imposing bust of the director of the Russian Space program staring sternly out at his creations.
Leaving this brief but impressive stage behind I passed through another doorway and into a large room full of eye catching displays of equipment, and immediately in front of you is the mushroom top of yet another space module. This expansive room holds the artefacts of the Cosmonauts, after the American Moon Landing. I entered this area expecting some sort of sad decline, however it was in the period between the 70’s and the 90’s that Russia achieved some of the most impressive feats of astronautical endeavour and entered a new age of cooperation.

Kit Wall, EVA suits and another module.
Kit Wall, EVA suits and another module.

With the moon program flagging in the face of Neil Armstrong’s small step the Russian government revisited the idea of a permanent presence in Space. First floated (pardon the pun) by Krutikov in the 1920’s, Russia launched not one but 7 Space Stations into orbit. The Salyut program began in 1971 and ended with the Salyut 7 in 1986 and in that year the Mir Station was launched in 1986 and retired in 2001. These missions broke even more records, and their story is told through an array of increasingly familiar and high tech looking equipment.
This stage is predominantly about the growing habitability of spacetravel. The long term applications of life in zero gravity, represented best by today’s International Space Station, were founded in this time. The displays cover the whole room, even the roof. It has several impressive EVA space suits and seats, including a suit from the Mars500 program, and a Sayuz TM 14 Decent Module from 1992, it still echoes the Vostok in the rounded shape and in the console, however the inside, briefly glimpsed through one of it’s small windows, reveals many improvements. The music in this room changes to a more varied track, with increasingly up to date songs. Most eye catching is the wall of equipment it includes several suits a 1986 Shower and Water supply, a Mir toilet from 1990 and a Sleeping bag from 2010. In between the open display and the kit wall, are three main features, a 1985 Pressure Chamber, which looks like a cross between a slinky and an accordion bag, an unprepossessing seat and a case showing numerous items necessary for life in Space. In total there are 3 seats in the exhibition. One at the Vostok I display, the other is in the Luna program room (Stage 4) and the third is next door, sitting on it a visitor can either contemplate the array of EVA suits and test kit in the open display or look skywards to watch slightly pixelated footage from the ISS. It was not lost on me how important the Russian contribution is to today’s Space program. 5 out of the 15 modules of the ISS are Russian made, all together making up the elements of the cancelled Mir 2 Space Station and comprising the second largest component of the craft. Since the grounding of the Shuttle fleet Russian Soyuz rockets have been the only way to reach the ISS from Earth. On either end of the hall there are additional points of interest. Near the entrance there are information boards and a video about the support mechanisms, and boards at the far end tell the stories of 3 special Cosmonauts.
Dzhanibekov who conducted a mission that extended the life of Salyut 7 by 6 years in a very dangerous mission. Salyut 7 had suffered a malfunction, shutting down its power. With no electricity Dzhanibekov and his team worked in freezing temperatures by the light of the sun which came up every 45 minutes. Krikalev who spent 10 months in space in the Mir in 1991 when the USSR collapsed. He returned a citizen of the Russian Federation and slightly taller than when he left and Helen Sharman who was the first British cosmonaut and the first British citizen in Space.

Is it a meatball? Is it a fish tank? No, it's Vostok 6.
Is it a meatball? Is it giant early diving helmet? No, it’s Vostok 6.

A small corridor then leads visitors around the corner where they are confronted by a reflective piece of art from 1981 by Vukolov; showing a family contemplating a mission to Mars, and you are put in mind of the quote by Tsander at the beginning.
The exhibition ends in a surreal room filled with phosphorescent blue light. It is empty save for a large glass case, which holds a 1969 tissue equivalent mannequin sent around the moon which has the face of Yuri Gagarin. High on the wall is written the words of Tsiolkovsky from 1911 “Earth is the cradle of mankind but one can’t live in the cradle forever”. Eerie, transcendent music fills the room, allowing you to lose yourself for a moment as you reflect on what you have just seen. I spent from 3:30 to about 5 pm wondering at the strides made by Russia in the field of Space exploration that we hear too little about, but I think I could have spent much longer there. And it was with a reluctant sigh I took a final look around the strange blue void, put my crumpled notebook into my back pocket and my pen into my waistcoat and left through the exit doors, leaving the wonders of the birth of the Space Age behind me.


0 Replies to “Review: Cosmonauts, the birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum.”

  1. excellent review – must check out the science museum website for details of this exhibition – thanks for bringing it to our attention…

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