Cosmonauts: Tribute to Russia's space achievements becomes most successful Science Museum exhibition of all time

The exhibition, which ends on Sunday, has sold more than 140,000 tickets in just six months

A celebration of Russia’s pioneering space achievements has become the most successful exhibition in the 159-year history of the Science Museum in London. Cosmonauts: The Birth of the Space Age, which ends on Sunday after selling more than 140,000 tickets in just six months, has triumphed against all the odds of organising a temporary display of some of the most valuable – and bulky – items in Russian space exploration. 

With the delicate space garments worn by the first woman in space, to the chunky landing capsule of a Vostok spacecraft, complete with re-entry scorch marks, the show became a critically acclaimed hit with visitors from Britain and the rest of the world despite coming at a time when Anglo-Russian relations sank to a new low over Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the official report into the poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

“We’ve been struck by the number of Russians who’ve been coming, including many who have made the journey from Russia,” said Doug Millard, the senior curator of the exhibition who spent more than five years organising the selection and transport of the objects over land from Moscow.

“We’ve been knocked out. We used to use the word ‘blockbuster’ and certainly Cosmonauts has been one of those,” Mr Millard said.

Although America effectively won the space race to land the first man on the Moon, it was Soviet Russia that took most of the other medals on the way, including the first satellite in orbit, the first animal in space, the first man, woman and crew in space, the first space-walk, and the first lunar probe and first photographs of the lunar landscape on the “far side” of the Moon.

Soviet Firsts

Yuri Gagarin: the first man in space, Gagarin was a steel worker who became a test pilot and the first cosmonaut to orbit the Earth in Vostok 1. He flew in space only once but he was idolised both within the Soviet Union and beyond. In the same year as his historic flight, in 1961, he was invited to London as a guest of the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers and was mobbed wherever he went.

Valentina Tereschova: the first woman in space, in 1963. Tereschova had kept her mission secret, even from her mother, who first heard of her exploits from a neighbour. Tereschova identified an error in her re-entry program which would have killed her had it not been for her foresight. She landed off course in the remote Altai region of Siberia and had to threaten to use her pistol to stop local peasants from interfering with her parachute ropes.

Alexey Leonov: first cosmonaut to carry out a space-walk, in 1965. Nobody had done an “extra-vehicular activity” until Leonov stepped out of the temporary air-lock of his Voskhod 2 mission. He later recalled it was so quiet he could hear his own heartbeat.

Many of the objects on display have not been seen in public before, even in Russia. They include the simple mug brought back from a Siberian gulag by  “chief designer” Sergei Korolev, who had been caught up in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and 40s before eventually becoming the secret head of the Russian space programme, until his untimely death in 1966 during what should have been a routine surgical procedure.

“The Cosmonauts exhibition is the most remarkable in the Science Museum’s illustrious 159-year history. It has far exceeded our expectations, winning glowing reviews from critics and the 140,000 people who visited during its six-month run,” said Ian Blatchford, director of the Museum and winner of the Pushkin Medal, Russia’s highest cultural honour, for managing to pull the show off. 

In addition to the massive machinery, such as the once top-secret lunar lander designed to land a single cosmonaut on the surface of the Moon, the exhibition included items and literature that date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Russian scholars saw the cosmos in terms of philosopher Nikolei Federov’s mystical idea of “Cosmism”, which envisaged man’s resurrection and ancestral revival through the medium of space.

“We knew from the beginning that we wanted this exhibition to be more than a parade of technology – amazing as the technology was. This was a far broader cultural treatment,” Mr Millard said.

“The old historiography was about Sputnik popping out of the Cold War, the missile age and the geopolitical struggle, which was true. But the historiography now has taken us way back to the 19th century, and this very singular interest in space, where Cosmism was crucial,” he said.

“It was built on the foundations of Russian [Christian] Orthodoxy, but looking to a second resurrection for everybody, including one’s ancestors, who would come back from the dead and join in this deliverance in space,” he explained.

“The Russians were three years behind Apollo and they did didn’t have the clarity of purpose that Apollo had, and they didn’t have the money. The figures are unclear, but it looks like they had well under half the funding that Apollo had,” Mr Millard said.

One of his favourite items in Cosmonauts is the “golden man” exhibited on its own in the final, neon-blue room. It is a life-size, gold-painted manikin that was sent to the far side of the Moon and back again to test for radiation, which Millard and Blatchford both spotted lying forlornly on the floor of a Moscow polytechnic museum.

“I knelt down to read the label and I was absolutely astonished that we were looking at something that had flown in space. We ended up putting it in the final room where it carries a whole raft of implicit messages about the journey we’ve been on in the exhibit, but also what the future of spaceflight might be, and whether indeed there is one,” he said.

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