I didn’t grow up dreaming about space. In the year the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit, my country had only just gained independence. Malaysia didn’t start a space program until 2002 – decades after America put a man on the moon. But stand in the entrance for the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition at the Science Museum in London, I felt a little bit of that wonder; that heart-wrenching, deep-seated desire that leads a nation to the stars.
Open to the public until March 13, 2016, the exhibit is a vivid reminder that while America’s contributions may reverberate loudest in the collective memory, it was the Soviet Union that opened the trail in the first place. The collection on display is billed as the largest of its kind on display outside of Russia. It contains historical relics such as a Sputnik 1 display model; paintings of Alexei Leonov, the first human to walk in space; and the actual Vostok-6, the capsule that brought Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in space – home to Earth. More interesting perhaps, Cosmonauts also shines a spotlight on the socio-political influences buried in the bones of Soviet cosmic exploration.
Clad in red and cold silver, the first part of the exhibition could pass for a futuristic memorial – and in a sense, that’s exactly what it is: a testament to the human passion behind it all. Long before the idea was anything more than a fairy tale, Russian cosmists talked about how humanity’s future lay beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Chief among them was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a hermit and a scientist who is considered by many to be one of the founders of space travel. His body of work has included philosophical texts, space technology designs and even science fiction, the latter of which is on display at the Science Museum.
Tsiolkovsky’s research was instrumental in shaping the USSR’s space program. They helped inspire Sergei Korolev, a Soviet engineer who nearly died during Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge. Despite the hardships he endured, Korolev would later direct many of the nation’s astronautical achievements. It was he who developed Sputnik 1, he who orchestrated the first spacewalk, he who launched Yuri Gagarin into space – all in obscurity until after his death.
Like Korolev’s identity, much of the Soviet Union’s astronautical achievements during that period were shrouded in secrecy. But that did little to detract from the propaganda machine. The exhibition space is dotted with countless triumphant posters depicting a utopian vision of tomorrow. They are a striking addition to the more tangible relics from the Soviet space program. The claustrophobic Vostok-6 capsule, its hull battered and burned by reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, is a horrifying sight. Likewise, in the Secret Moon section, the LK-3 Lunar Lander, a closely guarded secret until President Gorbachev’s leadership, is almost ominous in its immensity.
But for all the grandeur of the larger pieces, it’s perhaps the smaller ones that best sell the idea behind them Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. There’s Yuri Gagarin’s military uniform, a letter from Maria Trofimova begging the government to send her into space, a Japanese doll that helped confirm ground control whenever a spacecraft was in orbit. A wall of specially designed suits and equipment, including clothing used to counteract the negative health effects of weightlessness, also helps show the complexities of life in space. The penultimate segment is a wealth of detail; nascent technologies hinting at how humanity could one day live in heaven.
That is perhaps why the last room of the exhibition is such a shocking contrast. Drenched in a harsh, eerie blue, it houses only a single scientific mannequin and a quote on the wall: “Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” In a way, the abruptness of the transition epitomizes both the previous part – a dream of Mars that the Soviet Union shared with the rest of the world – and what happened next.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson said in 2011, we stop dreaming. No longer haunted by the specter of war, governments slowed their pursuit of the stars and our forward-looking vision of tomorrow lagged behind today’s problems. The space race was pointless. America has won. The Russian shuttle program, Buran, was mothballed after a single launch. War, civil unrest, terrorists, an unstable global economy – these sober issues became more important. Where the earth, before looking up, had to turn its gaze to the ground.
But there is more hope now than ever before. As ESA’s Rosetta sends close-up images of its comet to Earth and NASA’s Curiosity rover continues its photographic journey over Mars, private companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic fight technology mishaps to send the common man into orbit. Humanity is stuttering forward again, maybe in bits and pieces, it feels like we’ve gained momentum again. And the Cosmonauts exhibition is a reminder of what it was like before we lost it.