Science Museum

Birth of the Space Age

New Planet, Konstantin Yuon, 1921, From the collection of: Science Museum
Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age
Russia has navigated the turmoil of the modern age with powerful dreams of technological and social transformation. Turning their eyes towards the sky, the Russian people pioneered space travel, becoming the first nation to launch satellites, animals and humans into orbit. These events turned science fiction into reality, transcending both the Earth's atmosphere and the Cold War political climate. Russia's early achievement was seen as a challenge by America, and fierce competition eventually led to the loss of the race to the Moon. However, this period of tension has since given way to an era of international cooperation. With over a century of rich cultural history and daring technological innovation, the Russian space programme remains a world leader in manned space flight.
RD-108 rocket engine, 1954/1957, From the collection of: Science Museum
Into the cosmos
Russia's century-long fascination with space travel has been fuelled by a unique mixture of spiritual, cultural and political ideologies. Russia's revolution in 1917 encouraged many to contemplate new worlds, both on Earth and out in the cosmos. Enthusiasts gathered to design rockets, while others engaged through art, literature, cinema and architecture. After the Second World War, Russia's path into the cosmos depended on the technological breakthroughs of military ballistic missiles. To the astonishment of the world, this also gave Russia the means of launching a spacecraft.

Join Ian Blatchford, as he takes a tour of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, revealing the most significant collection of Russian spacecraft and artefacts ever to be shown in the UK. In this video, he explores part 1 of the exhibition, Into the cosmos.

Outline of the Image of a Universal Task of Resurrection, Nikolai Fedorov, 1900, From the collection of: Science Museum

The philosophy of cosmism was founded on the principle that the future of humanity lies in space. Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903) has been widely considered the leading cosmist philosopher, whose writing detailed the destiny of humankind and inspired generations of scientists and dreamers.

Tsiolkovsky with a member of the Cosmic Voyage film crew, 1932, From the collection of: Science Museum

It was Fedorov's friend and follower Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who made the leap from fantasy to science when he calculated the mathematical means of launching a rocket into orbit. Tsiolkovsky's predictions went even further to include illustrations portraying the technical problems of life support in space and the spacecraft environment.

Page from Tsiolkovsky's Album of Cosmic Journeys, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, 1933, From the collection of: Science Museum

From the Russian town of Kaluga, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) dreamed of escaping the Earth's gravity and colonising the Milky Way. By the turn of the 20th century, he had envisioned both the philosophical and scientific foundations of cosmonautics.

Tsiolkovsky's vivid imagination produced the first portrayal of spacesuits, multi-stage rockets, satellites and orbital space stations. He illustrated calculations for the rockets that would carry humans to and from distant planets, as well as the life-support systems that would allow us to live and work in space.

More than simple fantasy, Tsiolkovsky provided future generations with the fundamentals of space flight.

Suprematism, Ilya Chashnik, 1922/1923, From the collection of: Science Museum

Much of Russia's early space research was achieved through self-organised groups, which ran outside of the state-controlled science and culture. Russians from diverse backgrounds were inspired to exchange ideas about space travel, producing posters, pamphlets, articles, art objects such as this painting by Ilya Chashnik, and exhibitions on the subject.

They formed clubs where they experimented in rocketry. With few industrial resources at hand, some even melted down household cutlery to build rockets. Years before the first viable space rocket, these enthusiasts were determined to portray the possibilities for human space travel.

Labour Commune' residential complex, Georgii Krutikov, From the collection of: Science Museum

Krutikov's master's thesis explored the possibilities of building cities and workers' communes in space. His space satellite city of the future is fully equipped for commuting to and from Earth, using a teardrop-shaped vehicle to ferry citizens between space cities.

Soviet order relating to rocket research, 1946-05-13, From the collection of: Science Museum

Despite persecution and repression in 1920s and 1930s Soviet Russia, dreams of the cosmos survived, evolving through the work of military engineers and scientists such as Sergei Korolev.

After the Second World War, Korolev harnessed the military objectives of ballistic missile production to the agenda of putting a man in space. Where the Soviet establishment saw a way to display their technological might, Korolev saw a step into the future for the human race.

Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer, 1969, From the collection of: Science Museum

Sergei Korolev (1907-66) had a passion for designing and building aeroplanes, but his desire to fly higher and faster pushed him towards the new science of rocketry. He helped found the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion, or GIRD, whose first laboratory was based in his home.

Sergei Korolev's prison mug, 1939, From the collection of: Science Museum

Korolev was imprisoned during Stalin's rule, along with many of the cultural and scientific elite. Upon his release, Korolev continued to insist on the wider potential for rocketry, and his work was instrumental in the creation of the Soviet space programme. Known only as the programme's 'Chief Designer', Korolev was the unnamed mastermind behind its many innovations, including the first satellites and manned flight.

Sputnik 1 satellite models, From the collection of: Science Museum
Birth of the Space Age
On 4 October 1957, Soviet Russia successfully launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and with it opened the road to the stars. This small device had a huge cultural and scientific impact and came to represent the great power of the Soviet nation. The launch stunned the world, causing celebration in Russia and fear in America. Sputnik 1 was followed by numerous missions, each one more ambitious than the last. Russia was the first nation to send living creatures into orbit, starting with Laika the dog. The ultimate goal lay in a possible future of manned space flight.

Join Ian Blatchford, as he takes a tour of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, revealing the most significant collection of Russian spacecraft and artefacts ever to be shown in the UK. In this video, he explores part 2 of the exhibition, Birth of the Space Age.

Samovar in the form of Sputnik 1, 1970/1979, From the collection of: Science Museum

During its 22 days in orbit, Sputnik 1 passed over almost all the inhabited areas of the Earth. Sputnik, which translates as 'fellow traveller', held a dual radio transmitter package. As it circled the globe it transmitted a signal - 'beep... beep... beep' - that relayed the change in atmospheric pressure and temperature inside the object. This gave important indications for the possibility of sustaining life in space, and could also be picked up by radio listeners on Earth.

The challenge of delivering a simple satellite into orbit and tracking its modulating signal was a historical event, leading to a new era whose citizens were wide awake to the possibilities of space flight.

In the Name of Peace, Iraklii Toidze, 1959, From the collection of: Science Museum

Starting in 1959, the Soviet Luna missions soared towards the Moon. Initially missing its intended impact there, Luna 1 flew on and became the first spacecraft to orbit the Sun. Luna 2 successfully collided with the lunar surface. In the coming decades lunar robotic spacecraft were the first to return images of the far side of the Moon, as well as lunar surface samples.

Sputnik 3 satellite, 1958, From the collection of: Science Museum

Sputnik 3 was launched by Soviet Russia in 1958. It was a sophisticated space laboratory, carrying an array of instruments for cosmic research. It was originally designed to fly first but was held back, allowing Russia to accelerate its first launch by preparing a smaller and simpler Sputnik. This third satellite served as a refined tool for astronomy, biology and physics.

Luna 9 probe, 1970, From the collection of: Science Museum

As Soviet space probes ventured further into outer space, the first successes lay in flyby missions of the Moon, the Sun, Mars and Venus. Luna 9 performed the first ever soft landing on the Moon, in 1966.

Venera 7 lander and parachute, 1970, From the collection of: Science Museum

Venera 7 performed the first ever controlled landing on the surface of another planet. The spacecraft survived for 23 minutes on the surface of Venus, defying temperatures of almost 500 degrees Celsius.

Letter to the Moscow Radio Committee, 1959, From the collection of: Science Museum

The Russian space programme had captured not only the attention of politicians and military commanders, but also the popular imagination. Media across the world reported the arrival of Sputnik in the sky and invited people to find its signal on the radio.

Dog ejector seat and suit, 1955, From the collection of: Science Museum

Before humans ventured into space, dogs were flown inside the spacecraft. Man's best friends were picked to lead the way to the stars for their obedience and amiable temperament. Laika, the first living creature to experience orbital space travel, flew on a one-way mission inside Sputnik 2 in 1957, proving that living beings can cope with space flight.

Another dog crew consisted of Belka and Strelka, both making a safe return. Strelka gave birth to a litter of six. One puppy, Pushinka (which means 'feather'), was given as a gift to US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy by Nikita Khrushchev.

Vostok VZA ejection seat and SK-1 spacesuit, 1961, From the collection of: Science Museum
Space race
On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet citizen, became the first human to launch into space, returning an international hero. This astounding achievement cemented Nikita Khrushchev's confidence in the space programme, and with renewed government support another string of Soviet firsts soon followed: first woman in space, first crew in space and first spacewalk. In the United States this rapid progress was alarming, and President John F Kennedy responded by committing America to land an astronaut on the Moon before the end of the decade. As the competition heated up, the risk of what was already the most dangerous of human endeavours increased. When Russia hurried the design of a new spacecraft, Soyuz, a tragic accident on its maiden flight ended in the death of cosmonaut Komarov.

Join Ian Blatchford, as he takes a tour of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, revealing the most significant collection of Russian spacecraft and artefacts ever to be shown in the UK. In this video, he explores part 3 of the exhibition, Space race.

Lab coat with the slogan 'space is ours', 1961, From the collection of: Science Museum

In the course of his 108-minnute flight, Yuri Gagarin was promoted in rank from senior lieutenant to major. In less than two hours he became a world celebrity. As a prized figure and the new face of the nation, Gargarin came to represent the new Soviet citizen. Two days after his space mission Gagarin was welcomed by Soviet premier Khrushchev and thousands of Muscovites in Red Square.

Maquette for a monument to Yuri Gagarin, Pavel Bondarenko, 1980, From the collection of: Science Museum

Like many other young Russians, Yuri Gagarin (1934-68) was fascinated by flight. As one of the candidates of the cosmonaut team, Gagarin progressed quickly through the training process, with doctors highlighting his intellect, imagination and memory.

In the end, the decision to select Gagarin as the first cosmonaut was highly symbolic and political, and his working-class upbringing and photogenic smile were just as important as his ability to withstand the extreme conditions of space flight.

Vostok 6 descent module, 1963, From the collection of: Science Museum

Launching in the last of the Vostok missions was the world's first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova (born 1937). She flew in the Vostok 6 spacecraft for three days beginning 16 June 1963 - a flight longer than all of the preceding American manned space flights combined.

Ventilation garment worn by Valentina Tereshkova, 1963, From the collection of: Science Museum

Tereshkova embodied the 'new Soviet woman', and her enthusiasm for parachuting helped put her at the top of the five-candidate female cosmonaut team. Not only did she make history in space, her flight also began to change perceptions on the ground. It presented a new face for a Soviet hero - a female cosmonaut.

Voskhod 1 descent module, 1964, From the collection of: Science Museum

Beginning with Yuri Gagarin's monumental first space flight, two consecutive Russian manned programmes launched one world record after another. Flying second aboard Vostok 2, cosmonaut Gherman Titov was the first to spend 24 hours in space. The Vostok 3 and 4 missions were the first to orbit the Earth simultaneously. Vostok 6, the last of the series, carried the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova.

The Voskhod programme modified the original craft so that it could carry more cosmonauts. Voskhod 1 took the first three-member crew, a diverse group that included a pilot, a medic and an engineer.

Cosmonaut Komarov's cap, 1964, From the collection of: Science Museum

In 1967, Vladimir Komorov, commander of Voskhod 1, flew the first ever Soyuz mission. Soyuz would be the successor to Vostok and Voskhod, a far more sophisticated spacecraft capable of manoeuvring in space and of deeper missions beyond Earth's orbit. Komorov overcame a succession of problems in orbit only to be killed when his parachute failed to deploy during his descent to Earth.

Over the Black Sea, Alexei Leonov, 1973, From the collection of: Science Museum

Alexei Leonov (born 1934), an accomplished artist and talented pilot, was one of the original group of 20 Soviet cosmonauts. He was the first to perform a spacewalk, when he climbed out of the hatch of the Voskhod 2 capsule on 18 March 1965. Leonov's 12 minutes in open space have been the subject of many of his paintings and drawings.

In 1975, Leonov flew on the first joint flight between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soyuz-Apollo mission. He took a box of pencils with him, producing drawings of the Earth as observed from the spacecraft and portraits of his international crewmates.

LK-3 lunar lander, 1969, Original Source: Moscow Aviation Institute
Secret Moon
Twenty years after NASA's Apollo 11 made history by taking America's astronauts to the Moon, Soviet Russia acknowledged the existence of its own manned lunar programme. Competition with the Americans and technical problems were responsible for keeping the project strictly confidential. It was not until 1989, during a new era of openness in the Soviet government, that its details became publicly known. Having come as far as building a manned lunar ship, the Soviet space programme ultimately lost its leading role because of ineffective organisation and a depleted budget. In the midst of this, the main driving force behind the Soviet space programme, and its Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev died unexpectedly during an operation in 1966.

Join Ian Blatchford, as he takes a tour of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, revealing the most significant collection of Russian spacecraft and artefacts ever to be shown in the UK. In this video, he explores part 3 of the exhibition, Secret Moon.

Lunokhod 1 lunar roving vehicle, 1973, Original Source: NPO Lavochkin (Roscosmos)

The secret Luna programme initially planned to reach the Moon one year ahead of NASA's Apollo. It consisted of two manned missions: the first would send a crew into orbit around the Moon, while the second would land a cosmonaut on the lunar surface.

The Luna missions required the development of a new N1 rocket, but it was these rockets' repeated engine failures that brought the project to an end. In light of America's success, the programme was cancelled. Nonetheless, the Soviets successfully launched unmanned rovers and robotic probes, which brought back some of the first images and samples of the lunar surface.

The Thinker, Grigorii Postnikov, 1980/1989, From the collection of: Science Museum

Sergei Korolev led the Soviet space programme through its formative era, but during his lifetime he was never named as the 'Chief Designer'. After years of momentous success, Korolev's health began to deteriorate. Complications during an operation to remove a tumour ended his life abruptly at the age of 59 in 1966.

Having ultimately been credited as Chief Designer in his obituary, Korolev received a state funeral. His passing left behind a huge gap of vision, technical expertise and political awareness in the space community.

Soyuz TM-14 descent module, 1992, From the collection of: Science Museum
Outpost in orbit
As the Moon programme faltered, Russia focused on one of its long-term goals - a permanent outpost in space, starting with the Salyut space station in 1971. At first these stations were used for military intelligence gathering, but with the launch of Mir in 1986, this gave way to an era of international cooperation and scientific research. In 1991 cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev witnessed the end of an era from space, as the Soviet Union came to an end while he was on board the Mir station. Ten months later, Krikalev returned to Earth a citizen of the Russian Federation. In the meantime, an alliance between Russia and America signalled the advance of the International Space Station.

Join Ian Blatchford, as he takes a tour of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, revealing the most significant collection of Russian spacecraft and artefacts ever to be shown in the UK. In this video, he explores part 5 of the exhibition, Outpost in orbit.

Orlan DMA-18 spacesuit and 21KS manoeuvring unit, 1988, From the collection of: Science Museum

A spacecraft presents a completely new living environment for humans. Modelled on our basic life-support needs, it sustains a stable pressurised environment with oxygen supply, temperature regulation, water supply and waste collection, as well as a communication system.

In this sense, a spacesuit is just like a miniature spacecraft. The suit's layers protect the cosmonaut inside from the harsh environment of space.

Mir toilet, 1990, From the collection of: Science Museum

Inside the space station there is no difference between floor and ceiling, and yet cosmonauts have to sleep, eat and work within its tight confines. Re-imagining these everyday activities for life in weightlessness is a work of both science and the imagination.

Sleeping bags are tied to the walls to simulate the sensation of lying in bed. Methods such as vacuum suction and Velcro fastenings are used to keep things from floating away, while the subtleties of using a space toilet require special training. These seemingly routine functions require unique ingenuity in orbit.

Chibis lower-body negative pressure suit, 1971, From the collection of: Science Museum

Human bodies need protection from the harsh conditions of outer space. The space station provides the barrier necessary to guard the body from the radiation and extreme temperatures.

Yet cosmonauts' bodies are still affected by this new environment. Protective gear can regulate body temperature, or assist in an emergency. Specialised garments can help maintain strength by binding the body in weightlessness. Trousers, belts and exercise equipment are all used to train the body for its inevitable return to Earth.

Sokol-KV-2 rescue suit worn by Helen Sharman, 1991, From the collection of: Science Museum

Helen Sharman (born 1963) was 26 years old when she responded to a radio advertisement recruiting the first British cosmonaut. Having made it to the top of the candidates list, Sharman left her job as a chocolate researcher at Mars confectionery, and became the first Briton to travel to space and the first woman aboard the Mir space station.

After a year of intensive training at the Yuri Gagarin training centre she launched on the Soyuz TM-12 mission with crewmates Sergei Krikalev and Anatoly Artsebarsky. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had both personally sponsored the mission, in honour of cooperation between the two countries.

Space food, 1990/2000, From the collection of: Science Museum

Although the technical design of the first space stations proved to be successful and durable over the course of many missions, the human experience on board has been an ongoing experiment. Russian cosmonauts have been sent on long-duration missions since the early 1970s and they continue to produce new knowledge about life in space.

Back-to-back crews stay for months at a time, filling their weightless days with research, exercise, communication with people on Earth and upkeep of the station. In the isolation of the space station, cosmonauts and astronauts learn how to battle with technical difficulties and not with each other.

Japanese space doll, 1961, From the collection of: Science Museum

A space station is designed to remain in orbit, but it requires constant attention, upkeep and repair.

Doing work in weightless conditions requires dedicated tools. From turning a screw to hammering in weightlessness, the equipment for the job has to be specialised. Most repairs can be viewed as adventures, requiring spacewalks and makeshift ingenuity.

Descent modules carry tools and supplies for emergencies, should the craft and crew stray from their intended landing site.

Sevastianov Family, Oleg Vukolov, 1981, From the collection of: Science Museum
Space is ours
The Russian space programme launched us into a new era of human experience. Beginning nearly a century ago with dreamers yearning for the stars and voyages into the unknown, it enabled us to reach out past our planet, and achieve a new view of the world and the Solar System. Construction of the International Space Station showed us how once-hostile nations could begin to cooperate on the basis of scientific progress. 
Tissue-equivalent mannequin, 1969, From the collection of: Science Museum

The Russian space programme proved that we are capable of extraordinary innovations and opened the door for the missions of the future, setting new targets such as Mars and beyond. Developing these future missions is up to the next generation of scientists, politicians, cosmonauts and dreamers.

Credits: Story

Cosmonauts was made possible with the support of:

With additional support from:
Art Russe
The Blavatnik Family Foundation

Key Exhibition Partners:
Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO
Federal Space Agency Roscosmos
United Rocket and Space Corporation
British Council

We gratefully acknowledge the kind support of:
Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Lavochkin Research and Production Association
Moscow Aviation Institute
Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Museum of the Yuri Gagarin State Scientific Research and Testing Cosmonaut Training Centre
Private Collection, Maria Arendt
Private Collection, Natalia Koroleva
Research and Production Association Energomash
Rocket and Space Corporation Energia
Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation
Russian State Library
Shchusev State Museum of Architecture
State Archive of the Russian Federation
State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia
State Polytechnic Museum
State Tretyakov Gallery
Tereshkova Family Archives
Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics
Zvezda Research, Development and Production Enterprise

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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