Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age
18 September 2015 – 13 March 2016
The dramatic story of the Space Race is told from a new perspective, drawing on the most significant collection of Russian spacecraft and artefacts ever shown in the UK.
The ideological clashes that fuelled the Space Race can perhaps be exemplified through the US and Soviet Union’s comparative attitudes towards publicising their cosmic innovations. The former widely broadcast their achievements – most notably in the case of the Apollo Moon programme – while the latter preferred to keep advances shrouded in secrecy.
In the biggest UK exhibition of its kind, the Science Museum presents the Soviet accomplishments that often go relatively unrecognised in relation to the familiar American narrative, featuring a vast selection of items that have never been exhibited outside of Russia.
Highlights include an ejector seat and suit used to launch dogs on high altitude rocket flights during the 1950s. Although Laika’s infamous mission proved fatal, many subsequent canines returned safely, and became national heroes. The phenomenal story of Alexei Leonov’s historic, disaster-ridden spacewalk is also told through an array of touchingly human objects, including a sketch of the view from orbit, which he completed with a series of coloured pencils attached to his wrist with individual threads.
Arguably the most outstanding feature of the show is the Vostok 6 descent module that carried Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, in 1963. The charred exterior is evidence of the intense heat suffered as it hurtled back to Earth at 27,000 km per hour, after a three-day orbit – constituting more flight time than all prior American astronauts put together.
An expert parachutist, Tereshkova had been selected by head of training Lieutenant General Kamanin, who had pushed for a female cosmonaut. When asked about his motives he replied: ‘under no circumstances should an American become the first woman in space – this would be an insult to the patriotic feeling of Soviet women’. The US seemed less concerned with any form of gendered national pride, with Sally Ride first boarding a space shuttle some twenty years later.
The lower body negative pressure suit was worn by cosmonauts preparing to return to Earth and conditions of normal gravity. It works using a vacuum effect that helps draw the cosmonaut’s blood towards the legs, and has more than a passing resemblance to Wallace and Gromit's Wrong Trousers.