Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age - space toilets, weightlessness and the cosmos in new Science Museum show

By Rachel Teskey | 21 September 2015

The Science Museum’s new exhibition remembers the characters whose ambition shaped Russia’s space exploration programme

a painting of an cosmonaut doing a space walk
Alexei Leonov, Over the Black Sea (1973). Oil on canvas© The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
It’s impossible not to smile at some of the early 20th century sketches, displayed in the opening section of the Science Museum’s latest exhibition, which imagined what space travel would be like: a spaceship complete with dining table and chairs and neatly lined bookshelves, or a shuttle that looks very much like a giant egg with a sun-lounger inside to ferry people between ‘space cities.’

And it’s impossible not to be astounded when, a little further on, you see the battered and scorched – but unmistakably egg-shaped – capsule that carried Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, safely into and back from orbit in 1963.

A colour photo of Yuri Gagarin in space suit strapped into his space craft cockpit
Yuri Gagarin before the first space flight (April 12 1961)© RIA Novosti
Those space cities might never have materialised, and there is certainly no room for a sun-lounger in Tereshkova’s claustrophobic descent module, but the early Russian thinkers that dreamt of the cosmos laid the foundations for decades of innovation and achievement.

The Soviet space programme would lay claim to the first artificial satellite, the first dog, man and woman in space, the first spacewalk, the first soft landing on the moon and much else besides.

a Russian poster with a cosmonaut and spaceship dated 1961
Boris Staris, "The fairy tale became truth" (1961). Published by The Young Guard (Molodaya Gvardia)© Photo: Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. c. Unknown
Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age charts this remarkable period through 150 remarkable objects, the majority of which have never been publically displayed, even in Russia.

Some were even declassified especially for the exhibition, including the monumental LK-3 lunar lander, part of the Soviet manned moon programme that was kept secret from the world until 1989.

a photo of a contraption containing a dog
Dog ejector seat and suit as used on Soviet suborbital rocket flights (circa 1955) (engineering model). The open joint-stock company, Research, Development and Production Enterprise “Zvezda”’© Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO
Despite this element of secrecy, the overarching impression from Cosmonauts is of hope and humanity: from the dove bearing an olive branch embroidered onto Tereshkova’s ventilation suit and the first drawing made in space (a vibrant sketch of the sunrise from orbit by Alexei Leonov) to the striking collection of Soviet posters which inspired ordinary people with accomplishments of the space age.

a photo of a cosmonaut figure in an ejector seat
Vostok VZA ejection seat (engineering model) and SK Suit as used on Vostoks 1–6 (1961-1963)© The open joint-stock company ‘Research, Development & Production Enterprise “Zvezda”’ / Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO
The imagination, ambition and determination that made Russia’s space exploration so successful are personified in some of the key characters explored in the exhibition. The achievements of some, like Tereshkova and Yuri Gagarin, have become legendary.

Others are less well-known.  Sergei Korolev, once incarcerated in a Siberian labour camp during Stalin’s purges, would become the mastermind of the USSR’s space programme.

Numerous engineering models of spacecraft designed by Korolev and his team are on display, including various iterations of Sputnik and the Venera 7 lander, the original of which made the first controlled landing on another planet, surviving an impressive 23 minutes on the surface of Venus.

a Russian political poster with a red clad figure reaching up to space
Iraklii Toidze, "In the name of peace" (1959). Published by IZOGIZ© The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, c. Unknown
Yet another Russian record-breaker is Sergei Krikalev, a cosmonaut who has spent a total of 803 days in space (his record for the most time in space was finally surpassed in June this year).

One of his missions was so long that he returned to Earth a few centimetres taller because of the effect of continuous weightlessness on his spine. Krikalev was also in space when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, and he returned to a very different world.

a photo of a golden mannequin figures strapped into a metal contraption
Tissue-Equivalent Phantom Mannequin flown around the Moon on Zond-7 (1969)© The Polytechnic Museum. Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO
Krikalev’s career coincided with the start of a new era of cooperation in space exploration. The final section of the exhibition explores Russia’s involvement in international space programmes, and what day-to-day life is like on board spaces stations such as Mir and the ISS.

An impressive floor-to-ceiling display shows the different garments and equipment required simply to keep cosmonauts and astronauts alive and healthy in space, including a Lower Body Negative Pressure Suit from 1971 that will look familiar to viewers of Wallace and Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers.

Other exhibits include a space toilet, a less-than-successful space shower and the dining table from Russian space station Mir.

A photo of an astronaut's suit
SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by Zvezda© Science Museum / SSPL
Replete with compartments, tethers and slots to keep everything in place, it looks a little different to the elegant space dining room envisioned by the turn-of-the-century visionaries and displayed at the start of the exhibition. But it is testament to how, in less than 100 years, we have gone from dreaming about space to living in it.

  • Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age is at the Science Museum, London until March 13 2016. Admission £6-£14 (family ticket £35-£45). Book online.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

a photo of a circular shower cubicle with plastic sheeting
MIR space station shower (circa 1990)© The open joint-stock company ‘Research, Development &Production Enterprise “Zvezda”’ / Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO
Three museums to discover about the history of space in

Join Morph and friends for a journey through animation past and present and become an animator for the day; be awed by icy bodies and cosmic rays; activate the Vein Ray to see your own veins; create your own TV show; and take a trip to outer space with seasonal expert-led star shows.

National Space Centre, Leicester
This award-winning centre is the UK's largest attraction dedicated to space, including the futuristic Rocket Tower and the high-tech full domed Space Theatre.

SeaCity Museum, Southampton
Visions of the Universe, the exhibition launching this winter, shows how we have captured images of the heavens over the centuries, from the earliest hand-drawings to photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and the very latest footage from the Mars Curiosity Rover. Runs October 30 2015 — February 21 201.
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Valentina Tereshkova's capsule didn't return her safely to earth. She had to bail out and parachute down from 7km.
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