This week, Britain is sending a man into space. Now in the twenty-first century that may not sound so amazing but Tim Peake will only be the second ever British astronaut, the first being Helen Sharman who docked at Space Station Mir in 1991. Others have gone of course either privately or by adopting US citizenship, but Peake will launch on Tuesday 15 December and arrive at the International Space Station where he will remain for seven months. Space exploration is as relevant now as it ever was, and fascinatingly Professor Brian Cox recently told Radio Times that at no point in the twenty-first century has the whole of humanity been on earth because at any one time multiple astronauts have been aboard the space station. In the week of a new Star Wars movie, and the recent success of Gravity and The Martian, not to mention the eternal appeal of Dr Who, space remains an exciting topic.
Drawing on this backdrop, the Science Museum’s latest exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age brings together an astonishing assortment of space machinery, documents and ephemera from wide ranging collections to tell the story of Russia’s space race and its cultural effects. Uniting everything from a monkey space harness, drawings that imagined the future of space travel, actual moon buggies, space suits and resultant memorabilia, this exhibition is a must-see for anyone interested in the scientific exploration of worlds beyond planet earth.
It opens in the early 1900s and the first thing you see are sci-fi sketches of what they imagined the future to look like, and considers the pioneers of technological development in the coldest areas of Russia, and men like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who for a time at least were heroes of the Soviet Union. There are heavy-duty gloves worn to protect from freezing temperatures, and original material from the Gulags where, perhaps surprisingly, the notion of rocket science in Soviet Russia came to fruition. As the technology became increasingly refined, these were launched into space with impressive regularity and in the 1950s test flights with animals including dog Laika who was the first to orbit the earth in Sputnik 2 and the aforementioned monkey (with harness) were sent up to test whether a life-form could survive. Exhibits tell this story with original photographs, actual items recovered from the returned craft, videos and recreation models.
Before long animals were coming back alive so in 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The image of the male (and they were almost exclusively male) astronaut is very associated with a particular type of superhero masculine identity throughout this time, and room is peppered with posters, celebratory campaigns and statues presenting the astronaut as the ultimate man. Interestingly, a lot of this heroic styling has much in common with the image of the airman that emerged from the First World War, combining ancient characteristics of chivalry and sportsmanship with the most cutting-edge technological development that returns individual agency to notions of combat. In the items presented here, we see the cosmonaut as a military athlete (a very Soviet concept of ultimate manliness) seen in heroic guises, shoulders back, chest out, bestriding the land. Part of this tells us how consistently notions of masculinity were associated with developments in science in the early to mid-twentieth-century, particularly when this facilitated man mastering a new element – be it air or space – but also, given what we know about the long-lasting concept of pilots created by the Great War, just how important this particular portrayal of cosmonauts was to the Soviet concept of itself, and just how integrated it became into popular culture at that time.
For many, it will be the actual space equipment that will be the big draw of this exhibition and there are plenty of capsules, rocket parts and robotic vehicles on display. Perhaps even more shocking is just how much litter we’ve left behind as a note on one piece of tech tells us an exact replica was left on the moon when the astronauts left – surely there should be some kind of council-imposed fine for this? Still, seeing the scorching on the edges of capsules as they burned on re-entry brings the exhibition vividly to life and the proximity to things that have travelled to space and back is fairly powerful. Unfortunately, given the height of these relative to the floor, it’s difficult to see inside the capsules properly and the tiny space in which the astronaut travelled as well as the range of scientific equipment, which is a shame – maybe the Science Museum could consider adding mini-viewing platforms or stepladders so we can get a proper view inside.
As well as the scientific and heroic side of space travel, this exhibition examines what it was actually like for the people who were put through extensive training programmes before being allowed anywhere near a rocket. From the development of life-support systems in spacesuits to packaged food to allow those like Tim Peake to survive for months is considered in the final room where original examples of suits including the one worn by Helen Sharman are on display – it’s tiny by the way, she must be very small. And they don’t disappoint, looking exactly like something that has come off a film set, but again knowing they’ve been in space adds to the excitement of seeing them.
Some of the least successful parts of this show are the final sections around inventions that have developed for space that have been repurposed for life on earth as well. Its attempt is to show us that although the space race dominated Soviet and US thought for a long time, that ultimately it’s through international cooperation on the current space station that will achieve the most for scientific endeavour. But space, like air aces, has always been a story about individuals – at least in the public mind – and the political administration behind it is less successfully conveyed here. There’s a reason that we get so concerned about George Clooney drifting off into space alone in Gravity (although frankly if he hadn’t spent so much time messing about with his jet pack at the start he’d have enough fuel left to save himself) or whether Matt Damon can grow enough potatoes on Mars, and that’s because the people who go into space appeal to us, so more could have been done in this section to think more about the types of individual it tempts.
Nonetheless the extent of this collection and the curator’s work in pulling together so many items from private collections that have never been on public view is extraordinary, a rare, possibly only, chance to see so much material in one place. Throughout the explanatory signs are a bit weak and full of incomplete statements but the content is so richly varied that you can forgive the Science Museum for this. So over the next few months if seeing Tim Peake’s launch on Tuesday or watching the latest Star Wars film gives you a taste for more space travel, then head to the Science Museum and catch this fascinating insight into the birth of the space age.
Cosmonauts: The Birth of the Space Age is at the Science Museum until 13 March. Tickets are £14 and a range of concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.