Cosmonauts at the Science Museum

This week a new exhibition about the Soviet space program opened at the Science Museum. Offering a different perspective of the well worn space race.

Like most modern museum exhibitions, it’s costly weighing in at an astronomical £14. I understand the need for museums to make money. But £14 for one exhibition is a touch expensive in my opinion. Especially when you also can’t take any photos while in the exhibiton with a large shop selling you the photos you could have taken for free (and some pretty great Soviet posters!)

The exhibition tells the story of the Soviet space programme up to the fall of the Soviet Union. It starts in an interesting way with science fiction inspired Soviet art and literature. The pieces demonstrate the sociopolitical drive behind the space programme and the national pride it subsequently would generate with a vision of a chance to create the ideal communist off planet communities. It’s also a highlights how similar the aspirations of creative thinkers were to their Western counterparts. Both imagining the opportunity to create new fairer societies. 

It then spends some times exploring the many great early Soviet victories. With Sputnik, first animals in space, Gagarin, the first women in space, The first space walk, the first photos from the dark side of the moon, the first Luna rover, etc.

The Science Museum has managed to borrow some fantastic pieces. From Volstok 6 – the capsule that Valentina Tereshkova orbited the Earth in, to some amazingly pristine engineering models of some of the most important Soviet missions. All impressive. But it’s at this point the exhibition starts to lose its way. The great victories are only one aspect of the space race. There’s no real exploration of why the Soviets struggled to keep pace with the USA and ultimately missed the opportunity to land a man on the Moon first. So although they have the full size Engineering model of the Russian lander. There’s not much in the way of explanation of why their programme failed

After this the exhibitoon then moves into the Soviet’s work with long term space occupancy. There’s another lost opportunity with only a passing mention of the Soviets own ‘Apollo 13’, Salyut 7 where a dead space station was brought back to life through an amazing rescue mission. There’s also nothing about the Soviet space shuttle. I might be wrong. But I suspect as part of the negotiations to get access to so many exhibition items, there was a promise not to focus on the negative side of the Soviet space programme. I’m not sure an equivalent ‘astronauts’ exhibition would miss out the big failures and I think it’s a big loss. The failures led to successes and it’s important to remember the sacrifices astronauts and cosmonauts made.

But in many ways this reflects the Soviet programme. It’s failures went relatively unnoticed both at home and abroad and as the fantastic constructivist propaganda art work the 60s displayed throughout the exhibition illustrate, the continual successes of the Soviet programme over the USA was a considerable source of national pride, one which the Soviet system wasn’t going to undermine by talking about failures.

But despite a few negatives, the exhibiton is a great opportunity to see some amazing historical items from the other side of the space programme. It will also give you an appreciation of the US Space programme. The next time you look at an Apollo or Mercury capsule you’ll marvel at how scary the Russian programme must have been compared to the US. From cramped capsules, to antiquated control systems. It was definitely better to be an astronaut than a cosmonaut. But exciting nevertheless.

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