Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age

A new exhibition opening at London’s Science Museum on Friday includes the largest collection of Soviet spacecraft and artefacts ever exhibited outside of Russia. We spoke to curators Doug Millard and Natalia Sidlina about the show, which also presents a fascinating look at space propaganda and cosmic art…

Cosmonauts: The Birth of the Space Age charts the history of Russian space travel and the country’s enduring fascination with the cosmos.

Artefacts date from the 19th century to the 1990s and include the Sputnik satellite and Vostok 6, the capsule flown by Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space), as well as films, paintings, photographs and Soviet space propaganda. 150 items were sourced from Russian museums, galleries, educational institutions and private collectors.

“It’s something we ought to have been doing since the 1990s,” says curator Doug Millard. “The Science Museum has a permanent space gallery, but Soviet space is only mentioned there in passing, and there has long been a curatorial feeling that the Soviet Russian side was not getting the attention that an organisation of the Science Museum’s standing should be giving it,” he adds.

SOKOLspacesuit1991
SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman for the Soviet Juno Mission in 1991, manufactured by Zvezda. Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

US and European space achievements are well documented in the museum but until recently, Millard says it had been difficult to source Soviet space artefacts. “During the the final years of the Soviet Union in particular, it was very hard to acquire Russian space hardware on loan, whereas it was relatively easy to get hold of British and European and US items. There was definitely a logistical and political barrier,” he explains.

In 2011, however, the Science Museum held events around the country to mark the 50th anniversary of Russian Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 space flight, which Millard says highlighted Britain’s interest in the Russian space programme and paved the way for the show.

The exhibition includes some fascinating and bizarre memorabilia as well as items of historical significance. Alongside Sputnik and Vostok 6, there is Voskhod 1, the first capsule used to carry more than one crew member to space; LK-3 Lunar Lander, a five-tonne space craft built to compete with Apollo and the first drawing done in space by Alexei Leonov, during a mission in which he became the first man to walk on space. (The LK-3 Lunar Lander, at five metres tall, couldn’t fit in the museum whole, and had to be dismantled in Moscow and sent to London in pieces, then reassembled by a team of experts and specialist riggers, says Millard).

Close up of Vostok 6 descent module, 1963, c. Energia. Photo c. State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO
Close up of Vostok 6 descent module, 1963, c. Energia. Photo c. State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO

Also on display are Russian space suits, an ejector seat for dogs sent into orbit and the striking Phantom Mannequin (pictured top), a dummy with built in radiation sensors which was flown around the moon in 1969 to estimate the effects of radiation on living tissue (its face was made in the image of Gagarin). Millard says he hopes the inclusion of such inventions will raise awareness of Russia’s many breakthroughs in space travel, which are often overlooked or overshadowed by other countries’ achievements.

“Between 1957, with the launch of Sputnik, and around 1967, Soviet missions were pulling of all the big firsts – the first satellite, the first animal, man and woman in orbit, the first robotic landing on the moon – but all of this was obscured by the magnitude of Apollo, which was firmly in the public domain,” he says. “We were deluged with pictures and information and television coverage of Apollo, but there was nothing of the sort on the Soviet side, so those early years tend to get forgotten about.”

VostokEjectionSeatandSKSuit
Vostok VZA ejection seat (engineering model) and SK Suit as used on Vostoks 1–6, 1961-1963. c. The open joint-stock company ‘Research, Development & Production Enterprise “Zvezda”’ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

The exhibition also explores the representation of space in art, media and visual communications – and how writers, philosophers and artists sparked a widespread interest in space in the early 20th century.

The emergence of the cosmis movement, inspired by Russian Orthodox Christianity, Darwinian theory and technology, led to a popular belief that mankind’s future was in the heavens and that the key to a utopian society lay in space travel. This captured the imagination of authors, directors, architects and designers, says curator Natalia Sidlina.

“At the time, the idea of reaching for the stars and populating other planets was very much driven by artists, writers and philosophers. We have some amazing designs of space communities by a young architecture student … who received a diploma in architecture in 1928 by presenting a proposal for a floating city in space, a commune where workers would live and commute to earth in specially designed spacecraft. All of a sudden, there were these very mathematical and precise people who thought that space travel was absolutely imminent, and designers didn’t want to be caught unawares,” she explains.

Dog ejector seat and suit, ca. 1955. c. Zvezda. Photo c. State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO
Dog ejector seat and suit, ca. 1955. c. Zvezda. Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO

This thinking continued into the 1930s, says Sidlina, with new art fields such as photography and film documenting a fixation with the cosmos. The 1924 film, Aelita, which told the story of a man who travels to Mars and leads an uprising, featured some stunning set designs and martian costumes by constructivist artist Aleksandra Ekster. For his 1936 film Cosmic Journey, film-maker Vasili Zhuravlyov consulted with aeronautical theorist and rocket science engineer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on everything from how space crafts should look to how characters would walk on space. Tsiolkovsky produced an album of highly detailed illustrations to help the director, some of which are on display in Cosmonauts.

“The film featured the latest scientific understanding at the time, so people will be able to see some of the first drawings of space walking, space suits and life support machines, and compare those with what happened 30 years later,” adds Sidlina.

Alexei Leonov, Over the Black Sea, 1973. c. The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Alexei Leonov, Over the Black Sea, 1973. c. The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

In later decades, Russia’s space programme became an important propaganda tool. The government produced posters, postcards and leaflets to highlight the country’s achievements, but with much of the information surrounding the space programme classified, artists and graphic designers had to be creative with their illustrations.

“No-one could see what the spacecraft or the cosmonauts looked like, so artists had to make these posters and banners with no visuals whatsoever,” Sidlina explains. Without any reference material to work from, she says, they would often rely on “simple images, using very broad colours, an economy of lines and a punchy message”. Many designs produced at the time featured images of planets, space dogs and familiar Soviet symbols such as the hammer and sickle.

“They would use familiar colours – red for rockets, yellow for man, blue for planets and the universe, with very stylised space craft. You would also have a lot of images of the space dogs, which everyone had seen photographs of in the newspapers, so there was a mixture of the real, and very recognisable imagery, and familiar symbiology,” Sidlina says.

Be proud, Soviet citizen, poster c.unknownLR
Be proud, Soviet citizen, poster c.unknown. Image courtesy of the Science Museum

As well as promoting Russia’s scientific innovations, this propaganda aimed to highlight the peaceful nature of research missions and boost patriotic sentiment during World War II.

“The print runs [for posters and banners] ranged from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, so they would have been mass produced and available everywhere,” says Sidlina. “The cosmonauts were like the Hollywood celebrities of their time – everyone wanted a poster or a photo of them on their wall – and they were part of everyone’s visual culture, in the workplace, on the strerts and on TV.”

Iraklii Toidze, In the name of peace, 1959. Published by IZOGIZ. c. The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Iraklii Toidze, In the name of peace, 1959. Published by IZOGIZ. c. The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Children, too, would often play with rockets and space toys: “One of the postcards [in the exhibition], Happy New Year Guys!, features a Christmas tree and a rocket carried by two children – a boy and a girl. It was as if to say, ‘look! Girls can do this too!’ Space felt accessible, and all this had a huge influence on people: men and women, military and civilians, doctors and scientists. It was very inspiring and lots of people signed up for cosmonauts training,” she says.

Happy New Year Kids! Nikolai Charukin, 1964, postcard, from collection of Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Happy New Year Kids! Nikolai Charukin, 1964, postcard, from a collection at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Boris Berezovsky, Glory of the space heroes, 1963, from collection of The Memorial Museum of CosmonauticsLR
Boris Berezovsky, Glory of the space heroes, 1963, from collection of The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Alongside official propaganda are photographs, paintings and drawings by cosmonauts, which became increasingly popular in the 1970s and 80s (some, such as Vladimir Dzhanibekov, held exhibitions of their work). There are also a selection of everyday objects inspired by space flight.

“We have some amazing objects inspired by what was happening in the space industry,” says Sidlina, “from a Russian electric kettle in the form of Sputnik, to a 1960s minimalist tea set depicting rockets flying through dark skies.”

The road is open for humans, poster by Konstantin Ivanov, 1960
The road is open for humans, poster by Konstantin Ivanov, 1960

Other items, meanwhile, serve as a poignant reminder of the courage demonstrated by the men and women who took part in early space flights – such as a woollen hat which was given to Sergei Koralev, the lead Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer in the 1950s and 60s, whose daughter donated several items to the show.

“It was worn by a cosmonaut on the first crewed space mission in the Voskhod 1 descent module,” says Sidlina. “Three cosmonauts had to fit in the spacecraft, which had been meant for one person, and they couldn’t wear proper suits, so they needed the woolly hats for protection. …It looks like one you could pick up in a sports shop, but I think it’s a very powerful reminder of the bravery of these people – the dedication they must have had to their research and to exploring space,” she adds.

It’s a fascinating collection, and a rare chance to see a vast selection of Soviet space technology, art and design.

Cosmonauts opens at the Science Museum on September 18 until March 2016 and tickets cost £14. For details and opening times see science museum.org

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