As Russia’s most treasured space-age artefacts are unveiled at the Science Museum in London, Mick O’Hare relives the glory days of the race for space
Yuri Gagarin, 12 April 1961 (Image: RIA Novosti)
“It’s the Russian equivalent of the crown jewels.” Doug Millard is not exaggerating when he describes the vast collection of Russian space hardware that makes up the exhibition. It’s the first time that such a huge array of Soviet-era space hardware and memorabilia have been exhibited in one place at the same time and, perhaps more astonishingly, not in Moscow. “It’s been four years of hard work to gather them together,” says Millard, senior curator of the exhibition at London’s Science Museum, “and, quite frankly, they’re priceless.”
This isn’t hyperbole. The exhibits from the early era of space flight in the 1950s and 1960s when the Soviet Union led the race into Earth orbit are a source of huge national pride for both the Russian government and its people.was the world’s first artificial satellite. was the first man in space, the first woman. And was the first person to walk in space. The USSR was streets ahead of its closest opposition, the United States.
“For those Russians who remember the 1960s, in particular, there is an enormous sense of achievement and great affection, particularly for Gagarin,” explains Millard. “More than once, when his name came up at meetings in Moscow, the tears would flow. It’s on a par with the Soviet victory in the second world war. It transcends all the political changes, all of the memories of the Soviet Union, whether they are fond or not.”
And for fans of space history, it’s an outstanding collection sourced from 18 different institutions, museums and private collections throughout Russia. The hardware is a roll call of the golden age of space travel. There is Voskhod 1, the capsule for the first multiperson spaceflight in 1964. Soviet politicians were so keen for the flight to take place that spacesuits were left behind to reduce weight and so the three cosmonauts could fit inside a capsule designed for two.
(Image: State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO)
And in the “Space Race” section of the exhibition sits Vostok 6 (see above), the craft that carried the first woman into orbit. The capsule has taken one hell of a battering, its heat shield ravaged. Fifty years on, it seems unthinkable a human could survive inside. But one did. Its commander Tereshkova was reunited with her craft on the opening day of the exhibition. “Every time I see it I touch it,” she admits. “It is my best and most beautiful friend. It is my man.”
“It’s the spacecraft that took the first woman into space – something that will be remembered as long as we’re on this planet,” adds Millard. “It was a tall order getting Vostok 6 to London. It’s not on display in a public museum but belongs to Energia, the private Russian space enterprise.” And sometimes the lack of sophistication is breathtaking: the Voskhod and Vostok capsules appear, from the outside, to be little more than burnt metal balls with a hatch.
While both Russian and British governments were enthusiastic about the project, Millard points out that the cultures of bureaucracy in both countries differed significantly. “There were lots of visits, negotiating, loads of letters. My goodness, so many letters. We all have different styles of operating, so we had to learn our opposite numbers’ ways – quite different to the British way. Letters, as I said, are crucial. The bureaucratic tradition in Russia requires written authority from senior managers. But the momentum was always there. And this is the outcome.”
Dog ejector seat (Image: State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO)
Other exhibits are more esoteric. They include a space suit for a monkey and a pair of cosmonaut cardio-vascular trousers. Yet it’s perhaps the human element that gives as much insight into the era as the impressive line-up of capsules, space suits andthat was kept secret from the West right up until Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of glasnost in 1989.
There’s a letter from a collective plant worker Maria Trofimova written in 1959 to Radio Moscow. She had contacted many institutions requesting to be sent into space in a satellite. “The people were so caught up in their nation’s success that she wanted to serve her country, whatever the risk, whatever the danger. It could actually be my favourite exhibit. It’s poignant stuff,” Millard states. You’ll also see the aluminium mug used by the father of the Russian spacewhile imprisoned in the Gulag during government purges before and during the second world war. Fortunately for him and the Soviet space effort, the charges were dropped and the exhibition is testimony to his career.
So is it priceless? Well pretty much, says Millard. “We have to make a government indemnity. So anything the museum borrows is covered. But how do you put a price on this stuff? It’s all a one-off that can never be rebuilt or replaced. These items are beyond value… “
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