After months of talking about it (seriously, it’s been on since September…), I finally got round to going to Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum last weekend. I first heard about it way back in June and was instantly interested. For one thing the era is fascinating, and I mean, who isn’t entranced by space? The exhibition reveals the historical and cultural impact of Russian space travel, from the launch of Sputnik in 1957, to dogs in space, to Yuri Gagarin, and beyond.
Many of the pioneering moments in the Soviet Union’s space programme were shrouded in secrecy and this is the most significant exhibitions of Russian rockets, satellites and spacecraft to be shown in the UK. The exhibition has actual spacecraft, like the Vostock 6 capsule, flown by Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, which is terrifyingly small. I was shocked at the size and the apparent fragility of many of the objects – I can’t believe they actually flew people into space.
It’s only recently that I’ve started to have an active interest in science, and it was actually more the history that drew me to the exhibition. The thing I liked most about the exhibition was finding out about the people involved. Everyone’s heard of Yuri Gagarin, the USSR’s first cosmonaut and first man in space, he became an international hero, what with his good looks and charm (oh yeah, and the fact that he was the first man in space…) There’s a collection of memorabilia and posters in the exhibition, highlighting his celebrity status.
But I hadn’t known about Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space in 1963. She was one of 23 women picked out of 400 in the search for a female cosmonaut in 1962. She was also the youngest person chosen for space-flight training at just 22 years old (she was 26 when she went into space).
I was also surprised to learn that the first British person in space was a woman. Helen Sharman was born in 1963, the year of Tereshkova’s first mission. At 27 she herself went into space. She was selected for a programme called Project Juno, which was a cooperative arrangement between the Soviet Union and Britain. Her spacesuit is on display towards the end of the exhibition.
Meanwhile another section focuses on the first man to walk in space Alexei Leonov’s love of art. The collection of his paintbrushes and pencils and a rough painting of a sunrise drawn from space, is small and simple compared to the vast LK-3 Lunar Lander nearby, but equally impressive and a poignant inclusion.
The exhibition also reveals the dangers behind the missions. There is the spacecraft and equipment themselves, which seem fragile and almost primitive compared to our ideas of slick space travel. And there’s the story of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who died in the maiden flight of a new spacecraft, Soyuz. Tragically, he died when the spacecraft crashed on re-entry due to a parachute failure.
And of course, the other thing I enjoyed about the exhibition was seeing all the Soviet-era posters! Propaganda posters first appeared during the workers’ revolution of 1917, and soon became one of the most recognisable and influential art forms of the 20th century. I loved seeing real posters from the golden age of the space programme, the iconography of the cosmonaut and the stylised, dramatic imagery. They’ve hung a gallery wall of prints in the gift shop and I had to stop myself from buying myself a collection! I settled for a postcard of the print used for the exhibitions poster instead…
The exhibition runs until the 13th March and I highly recommend a visit if you’re in London. The collection covers everything from large spacecraft to small artefacts like the woollen cap worn by Vladimir Komarov and it’s an inspiring insight into a period of history full of mystery.