SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 193 November 2015

Space race frontrunners

Cosmonauts, Birth of the Space Age

Science Museum, London

To 13 March 2016

Admission £14 (concessions available)

Reviewed by Alison Hill

Vostock 6 is the spacecraft which took Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go into space, on her historic journey. Thanks to years of delicate negotiations by staff at the Science Museum, at the moment you can actually see this and much more in London’s South Kensington. The exhibition was opened by Tereshkova herself in September.

As you stare at the scorched heatshield and the tiny size of the cosmonaut’s compartment, your first reaction is, of course: "You’d never get me up in one of those". But you are then forced to admire, not just Tereshkova’s bravery, but the impressive developments of the Soviet space programme, in the teeth of an intense cold war rivalry with the USA.

Tereshkova’s historic mission took place in 1963, six years after the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Sputnik was an immense achievement. It was a vivid demonstration of the development of science and technique in the USSR, and a serious shock to the ruling class in the USA. Sputnik could be heard bleeping as it orbited the earth, frightening to those worried about the ‘evil empire’. Remarkably, an engineering model of Sputnik from 1957 is on display in the exhibition, vindicating chief Soviet rocket engineer, Sergei Korolev’s instruction that Sputnik had to be shiny because one day it would be displayed in the world’s museums.

The space programme captured the imagination of many in the USSR and beyond. Around the exhibition there are copies of letters from Soviet workers volunteering to go into space, in spite of the personal risks involved. One young girl declared she would be OK to land on the moon because she had a good warm hat and coat!

The enthusiasm with which space exploration was greeted by millions of people worldwide was shown when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961. Gagarin was invited to the UK by a steelworkers’ union just after his flight (Gagarin had been a steelworker). Thousands of people in London hailed him as a hero and he was even entertained for dinner by the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The exhibition includes banners from the crowds which greeted Gagarin in Red Square and his military uniform, noticeable for its small size – an important attribute at least for early space travellers. It is quite a poignant part of the exhibition when you remember Gagarin was killed in an air crash in 1968.

A reminder of the nature of the regime in the USSR is illustrated by Korolev’s prison drinking cup from 1939. He was caught up in Stalin’s purges and spent several years in captivity before, amazingly, returning to work on missiles and rockets for the USSR. Korolev’s drive, as well as his engineering and organisational skills, is a thread which runs through the exhibition.

The speed from Sputnik to the first human in space, from one cosmonaut to three at a time, is amazing. And the risks taken by the cosmonauts are breath-taking. The first space-walk, for example, went well until the cosmonaut tried to get back into the space craft. His suit had inflated when he was outside and it took quite a lot of squeezing before he managed to get back in.

Tereshkova had to get her re-entry plans recalculated when she noticed that she would never get back to earth on the calculations she was given at launch. They made the necessary adjustments and she lived literally to tell the tale. Voskhod 1 is next to Tereshkova's Vostock 6 in the exhibition and does not seem that much bigger. Yet three cosmonauts crammed into it, without ejector seats or spacesuits. They were in orbit for one day, during which time Russia’s leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was ejected and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, delaying the customary congratulatory phone call somewhat.

As you walk through the exhibition you get a hint of the space race of the late 1960s. US president John F Kennedy’s speech in September 1962 about getting to the moon – ‘not because it’s easy, because it’s hard’ – sounds a bit desperate. But there is footage of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface. Surrounded by evidence of the USSR’s engineering achievements, you get some idea of the prestige which was at stake during the cold war, let alone the potential military ramifications of successful space missions.

Then, turning a corner, you come across the LK-3 lunar lander. This was used for training cosmonauts preparing to land on the moon. Details of this project only came to be known under Mikhail Gorbachev’s premiership, as the USSR unravelled in the late 1980s. It had to be declassified from military status to be loaned to the Science Museum and it is quite an impressive device in anyone’s judgment. It sits next to the Lunakod 1 rover, originally intended to accompany the manned mission.

The Soviet mission to the moon was eventually abandoned. Engineering problems and political crisis allowed the USA to triumph. But, in the light of current ideas about establishing an international base on the moon and the reality of the international space station (ISS), the next section of the exhibition is fascinating.

Russia has amassed an enormous amount of experience with long-duration space flight. And the Soyuz descent module on display is now – since the retirement of the US space shuttle – the only way cosmonauts and astronauts can be ferried to and from the ISS. There are space suits to pore over, including the survival suit worn by Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space, when she visited the Mir space station in 1991. This suit was developed after the death of three cosmonauts when the crew capsule depressurised during the Soyuz 11 mission in 1971.

Answers to important questions are supplied. There’s a model of a space dining table, with a device for preventing crumbs from floating about. There’s a space shower, although apparently cosmonauts and astronauts get on better with wet wipes these days. And, of course, there’s a space toilet, with a full description of its operation.

The final room has a small, reclining mannequin which was flown around the moon in 1969 to try to measure whether it would be safe for a human mission to take place. The prediction on the wall tries to echo the hopes of the original pioneers. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was a pre-revolutionary Russian rocket scientist who made some important theoretical calculations about orbit and weightlessness, among other things: "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever", he wrote in 1911, giving a clue about the enthusiasm about space which existed in Russia at the time – dreams and aspirations which were unleashed and developed after the revolution.

The exhibition is well worth seeing. It fills you with admiration for the early pioneers, and charts the decline of the USSR from the development of science and technique after the revolution to the failure to win the race to the moon as organisation unravelled and budgets were cut. But it also shows how space exploration should not be the province of one country or one bloc. It really is a quest for all humanity. Ironically, what started off as a device for military intelligence gathering in 1971 – the Salyut space station – has evolved through Mir to the ISS, where some, limited scientific collaboration between nations does take place.

The Science Museum has pulled together a fascinating exhibition. Most of the objects are seen here together for the first time – so take the opportunity to see it. In addition, there are regular talks about the exhibition, how it was pulled together, women in space and other topics. There are also exhibits from the Apollo missions in another part of the museum, so it would be worth making a day of it.

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