Designer of my dreams and nightmares

When Rona Munro started to research the history of space travel for a new play, she discovered an unsung star of the skies

I've just devoted three years of my life to writing a play about the Soviet space programme. Of course I interspersed it with other things, but I've been living with stories of cosmonauts and rocket engineers since 2007. If you're going to write on that scale you'd better love the work. Why that play? Why that history?

When I was a little girl, the grown-ups seemed to be making a new world. We were going to grow up to travel faster than the speed of sound and live in the stars. I spent a significant part of my early childhood worrying about floating in zero gravity and breathing bottled oxygen while staring at the black infinity of space. And that wasn't the only terror that haunted my childhood. We had the very clear prospect of being engulfed in a nuclear holocaust to enliven our nightmares.

Maybe every generation peoples its past with titans, in the same way that everyone who moved house in childhood remembers their first home as a vast, magically huge world. In my memory spacemen still float above us on shining metal cords and we're going to Mars any day now.

When I began writing my play Little Eagles I wanted to write about the history I remembered and that had inspired me. I remembered the fear I felt, as a very young girl, hearing the news of the disaster that befell Apollo 1, all three astronauts trapped and burnt to death during a routine test on the launch pad. Space explorers were heroes risking their lives. That was clear. I remembered hearing the words of Genesis, read from lunar orbit as Apollo 8 came out of the darkness no one else had ever seen, on the far side of the Moon. The astronauts were up there in the same dark that God inhabited; that, too, was clear to an eight-year-old. I remembered the grainy images of Neil Armstrong bouncing down those steps and on to the soil of an alien world, and I remembered really believing he was doing it for peace and for all of us. I hadn't made the connection between my nightmares of mushroom clouds and the race between the Soviets and the US to reach the Moon.

Of course this familiar story grew smaller as it was re-examined, as a huge childhood bedroom turns out to be a shabby boxroom when you revisit after 40 years. It was still compelling – I read every space-geek book I could get my hands on – but at some point in the wonderful, exciting, indulgent process of research, I thought: "I'd better just check out what the Soviets were doing."

And I found titans. I found darkness. I found stories I'd never heard before that still affected me as they might a child, with terror and wonder. I found history I'd lived through and never known. I was reminded of people who were already diminishing into history as I grew up: Stalin, Krushchyev, Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space, Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in space... and behind them all, one man I'd never heard of, that no one heard about while he was alive, the mysterious chief designer of the Soviet space programme, Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov. He called his cosmonauts "Little Eagles". Maybe it's the unfamiliarity of this story that allows it to keep its scale for me. Maybe it's the passage of time; the Soviets' amazing success, putting the first human beings into space, predates my conscious memory.

In June 1938, Korolyov, a young aeronautical design engineer, was arrested in one of Stalin's purges and sentenced to life (and almost certain death) in a Siberian labour camp. As war with Germany threatened and his expertise was required, he was summoned to Moscow. It was a journey of more than 4,000 miles and he had to walk most of it. From Siberia. A few years after his epic journey Korolyov would develop intercontinental ballistic missiles and put the first satellite into orbit. Korolyov, I learned, was the chief designer and creator of both my childhood dreams and nightmares. Everyone's history is full of titans who diminish under scrutiny. But – flawed and tragic and human though he was – Korolyov still seems larger than most of the ghosts out there.



'Little Eagles', Hampstead Theatre, London NW3, 16 April to 7 May (020 7722 9301)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz