exhibition: cosmonauts

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, at Science Museum, London, 18 September 2015-13 March 2016. Replica spaceships, relics and conceptual art, early speculative works. Some takeaways:


1. The lines of force that extend from satellites like Sputnik in pictures are actual antennas.

2. The Soviet space program relied on individuals (whereas NASA was always presented to us as communitarian). There was a Chief Designer and if that guy died, which he did, it set everything back ten years. That’s why the Soviets lost the race to put a human on the moon.

3. Although the actual engineering, including the Chief Designer, was secret, there was huge popular support for space exploration, going back to the 19th century Cosmists. I’m guessing some of the appeal was that it allowed people to be patriotic while dreaming of a new start in the far, far abroad at the same time.

4. Yuri Gagarin was a worker, and made an honorary member of the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers when he visited Manchester three months after his flight. He was also about 157 cm tall. The first cosmonauts were chosen to fit into a very small capsule. Valentina Tereshkova was a bit taller to judge from her boiler suit.

5. The most affecting exhibits were two letters from ordinary citizens asking to go into space. One, from an older woman based on the shaky writing, said she did not mind if she died there. The other was from a schoolgirl who said she was prepared to go to the moon as soon as she could get a warm coat, sweater, gloves and boots, which suggested that she was inadequately clothed where she was, and thought that becoming an astronaut was as likely a way to get proper winter clothes as any other.

6. The space dogs display case was engineered for children to be less upsetting than it might have been. We can’t forgive the death of Laika but are cheered to know that Belka and Strelka returned home and one of them later had six puppies.

7. The zero-gravity adjustments were inventive, including colored pencils tethered to a wristband, and an intricately compartmentalized dining table with what appeared to be magnetized cutlery and cans. It looked like the ultimate evolution of the airliner galley cart:


8. At the other end, the space toilet had a small aperture that could be sealed to the thighs, and a four-tank sewage system trailing behind it. When we are thankful for indoor plumbing, we should also remember to be thankful for gravity.


9. A John F. Kennedy quote in an interstitial space devoted to the moon landing was almost the only acknowledgement of the US space programme. And fittingly considering all the Soviet firsts, and the British participation in the space stations run by Moscow. Much was made of Helen Sharman, who was the first British astronaut (it wasn’t Major Tim).


10. Quite a few of the replica capsules were shaped like daleks or the sort of platonic solids that appear on sf book covers. This makes it more surprising that there was no modern science fiction on display. On right, the Voskhod user interface for the ground-based computer that flew some of the early probes, with its spinning globe – a gyroscope, not a trackball, it looks like.

exhibition closing quote below from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky


Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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