When Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon in 1969, it was broadcast around the world. For someone of my generation, it is hard to imagine a time when space breakthroughs were on the front cover of newspapers. Today, space exploration is confined to the science section of most news websites. Is that because we are not pushing back boundaries in the same way that we were in the 60s, or are people less interested in the exploits of private space companies when the benefits of their breakthroughs will not help all of humanity? Maybe we have all become cynical about space exploration because dreams of living on the moon by the end of the last century did not come true, or maybe we have simply stopped believing that the future can be different from today.
Despite America being the first to land a human on the moon, the 1950s and 1960s were dominated by Russian space breakthroughs. The first satellite in space, first animal in space, first man in space, first woman in space and first group in space were all Russian. Now a new exhibition at the London Science Museum called ‘Cosmonauts’ looks at the history of the Soviet space program and its accomplishments.
The exhibition tells the detailed story of the Russian exploration of space, through objects from the period, models, videos, photographs, audio and written accounts. The exhibition reveals the background to the Soviet space program that many people will not know in detail. For example, I did not know that Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, worked in a textile-factory before going into space.
The exhibition is arranged roughly chronologically from the early inspiration that Russian science fiction writers had on the space program, through to the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 and then Yuri Gagarin's first trip into space in 1961. The exhibits tell the story in a powerful and emotional way, bringing in the personal stories of the people involved. ‘Cosmonauts’ also shows how the USSR's achievements in space inspired the ordinary Russian people.
As the exhibition develops, we are shown how fiercely Russia competed with America during the Cold War space race. Driven by early successes, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev put pressure on the space program for more and more firsts. The USSR's achievements were supposed to keep them one step ahead of the USA, which they were until NASA landed the first person on the moon.
‘Cosmonauts’ does not shy away from the fact that Cold War hostility drove Russia's expanse into space. The exhibition shows how military technology, mainly rocketry, was adapted for the Soviet space program and how America was alarmed by Russia's progress. Successfully putting satellites into orbit confirmed to the Americans that the Soviets had rockets capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the USA. These advancements in space travel where not "in peace for all mankind", as Armstrong claimed when he stepped down into the moon.
‘Cosmonauts’ also walks the fine line of acknowledging the political repression in the USSR at the time, whilst not being too hostile to the Soviet government. This is primarily an exhibition about scientific and technological accomplishments, and not political history. ‘Cosmonauts’ is not a critique of Communism but a look at the scientific history of the 1950s and 1960s space program.
I am interested in both science and political history, and so I found ‘Cosmonauts’ fascinating. Beyond the history, I found it interesting because of my interest in modernism. Like a lot of the modernist period, the space race was a time when it seemed like the future was happening right now. People were not always optimistic about the future – the chance of the world being annihilated in a nuclear war seemed high – but people knew that the future would be radically different from the present. It is this dream, more than anything else, that we have lost. It is telling that ‘Cosmonauts’ ends at the end of the 1960s, when the modernist age was also ending.
I found that ‘Cosmonauts’ was accessible to people without much technical knowledge of space travel or rocketry. Despite reading The Martian recently, I cannot tell my Apollos from my Soyuzs. The technical information in ‘Cosmonauts’ was pitched at the right level: not too much to be confusing, but detailed enough so that I learned without feeling talked down to.
As a side note, I would certainly recommend picking up the audio guide for this exhibition. Partly because it is narrated by Helen Sharman, the first British person in space, but also because it gives the listener information about the exhibits without the need to crowd around the display signs, which will be busy on a weekend.
I would recommend ‘Cosmonauts’ at the London Science Museum to anyone interested in the early years of space travel. Even if you know nothing about – or are not particularly interested in – Soviet Russia, this is a fascinating exploration of a (mainly) peaceful competition that once captivated the entire world. Hopefully it can inspire us to look upwards once again. The exhibition closes with the words of of Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever".