Must-See Exhibition Shows How The Soviets Conquered Space

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, Science Museum ★★★★★

By M@ Last edited 104 months ago

Last Updated 18 September 2015

Must-See Exhibition Shows How The Soviets Conquered Space Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, Science Museum 5
Image (c) Science Museum.

"It's my best and most beautiful friend; my best and most beautiful man." So declared Valentina Tereshkova, speaking today about the charred metal ball shown in the image above. Tereshkova's 'beautiful man' is the capsule of Vostok 6, the mission that sent her into orbit in 1963. In doing so, she became the first woman and the first civilian in space. It took the US 20 years to catch up with the first of those achievements. Opening the Science Museum's barnstorming new Cosmonauts exhibition, Tereshkova admitted that she strokes the capsule every time she walks past.

Today, for the first time, that historic artefact is on show in London. It is joined by some 150 other objects, most of which have never left Russia. Collectively, they tell the story of Russian spaceflight and the scientists, engineers and cosmonauts who made it all happen.

And what a story. The Soviet, and later Russian, space programme is a glittering trail of 'firsts', as the exhibition makes clear. The Soviets lofted the first artificial satellite, animal, man, woman, spacewalker and space station. Contrary to popular belief, the Soviet Union was also the first nation to make a controlled landing on the moon, albeit robotically. Three years before Neil Armstrong took his one small step for man, the petalled egg of Luna 9 touched down onto the surface. The Russian lead in spaceflight continues to this day; since 2011, the Soyuz vehicle has been the only craft capable of transporting humans to the International Space Station.

Visitors explore various engineering models, including Sputnik 3 and Venera 7. Image (c) Science Museum.

The exhibition starts in the early 20th century and the formative Russian dreams of space flight. This is the most understated section, yet contains the most powerful human stories. We see the ear trumpet used by stone-deaf rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the prison possessions of Sergei Korolev, who would go on to mastermind the early Soviet space programme. Most beguiling of all are Tsiolkovsky's simple pencil drawings depicting the future of humanity in space. Decades before Gagarin and co, Tsiolkovsky was sketching space walks and space stations (below).

Image by M@.

Hereon-in, the big toys come into play: a couple of crew capsules, various space suits, rocket engines... a dog ejector seat. Just when you think you've seen the highlights, the next room holds two incredible exhibits. The LK-3 Lunar Lander — a secret until 1989 — was the Soviet's answer to NASA's Lunar Module. It would have conveyed a single cosmonaut to the lunar surface. After the American triumph, however, the programme was cancelled. The titanic exhibit is so large, it only just fits into the room. Alongside sits a test model of a Lunokhod rover, two of which were driven robotically around the moon during the 1970s.

The LK-3 lunar lander (left) and Lunokhod 1 lunar rover model. Image by M@.

The Space Race that produced these artefacts was the ultimate expression of governmental and ideological posturing. Today, too, it is impossible to escape the political dimension. The exhibition displays historic Russian objects (some of which have never been seen by the Russian people) in a British museum at a time of heightened tensions between our countries. But scientific and cultural cooperation go on, even as the politicians argue.

LEGO Soyuz. Image by M@.

After all, these are cultural treasures for the whole species, on a footing with Renaissance masterpieces or the first steam engines. 1,000 years from now, these early space-faring machines will still be viewed with wonder, long after today's political squabbles have been forgotten.

If you don't want to pay the ticket price (it's a whopping £14, but then this really is a one-off opportunity), there is one bonus exhibit you can check out for free. Head to the main Science Museum shop, where you'll find a scaled-down lego version of a Soyuz command module (right). We're not sure it would stand the heat of reentry, but it would certainly be easy to dock.

Overall, cosmonauts offers an unrivalled glimpse into a great human adventure that is still in its infancy. This is the singularly impressive exhibition of technology, but even more a story of human struggle, bravery and achievement.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age runs at the Science Museum from 18 September 2015 to 13 March 2016. Tickets are £14.