img383There’s something essentially MidCentury about the space race. Kicking off in the aftermath of the Second World War and building on the work done on all sides to pursue new rocket technology for weaponry, the sense of urgency and optimism seems to typify the 50s and 60s, culminating in the Moon landing in 1969. In the UK, our perception of space exploration throughout that period has been largely informed by the American NASA programme, with anyone born in the early 60s or before able to remember just where they were when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon (in my case, bouncing a power ball up and down the hallway and wondering why everyone was so glued to the telly). What little we knew of ‘the other side’ boiled down to the most public achievements of the Russians, with words like Sputnik and Vostok, and names like Leika the Dog and Gagarin the only elements to enter the mass consciousness.

img388The new exhibition at the Science Museum sets out to put that record straight with an in-depth look at the ground-breaking Soviet space programme, with its roots stretching back to before WWII and visionaries like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Whether intentional or not, the exhibition builds on a superb BBC4 documentary first shown last year which told the fascinating story of how the post-war Soviet programme was driven forward on the shoulders of Sergei Korolev – known throughout his professional life only as ‘The Chief Engineer’ to protect him from the real or imagined threat of assassination, abduction or seduction by the West. It was his success in putting successive missions into space, beginning with Sputnik, then with living creatures, and then not only Gagarin as the first man in space but also a string of ‘firsts’ building on that: the first woman in space, the first crew and the first spacewalk. It was Korolev’s achievements that spurred President John F Kennedy to commit to putting a man on the moon, and Korolev’s untimely death in 1966 that signalled a reigning back of the competing Soviet Moon programme. Ceding the lead in the race to the Moon, however, marked a change in focus for Russia towards the concept of a long-term presence in space and the creation of the first space stations. From this, and encompassing the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, grew an era of international cooperation and scientific and medical research.

img384All this is told through a unique collection of artefacts that have not only not been seen outside Russia before but have only recently been declassified in Russia itself. To be confronted by the very capsule in which the first woman in space returned safely to Earth is quite breathtaking. The detailed scale models, all demonstrating classic 50s and 60s electro-mechanical technology, would have been inaccessible for most of their existence to even the most cunning spy, and the personal items from the Cosmonauts themselves bring home that these were pioneers breaking boundaries not in the name of a political system but out of a sheer drive to go somewhere the human race had never been before.

img387Of course, being a reflection of post-War Soviet Russia, there’s also a superb collection of graphic art and design reflecting the space programme as part of the inexorable march of Communism. Gagarin’s selection as the first man into space was secured not least because his peasant background and good looks gave him the edge over equally capable colleagues, and this plays through the wonderful images of heroic Cosmonauts – and very cute dogs – setting off for the stars in stylised rocket ships (which of course could not be made to look anything like the real thing for security reasons, even if the lumpy bits of machine could have been made to look more pleasing to the eye.

Typically foimg390 - Copyr the Science Museum, the legends on the displays are unobtrusive, but clear, succinct and informative. Our only suggestion on the exit survey was for some ‘optional extra’ boards for thosewhose interest was piqued as we drew heavily on the additional background that the BBC4 programme had given us. The quality of the exhibition extends into an extremely well-stocked shop, with copies of some of the graphic art and a tempting stack of books not just about space exploration but also more widely on the Soviet experience. We had to be very abstemious but still came out with an armful of stuff!
The exhibition runs until mid-March 2016. Full details, along with photos of some of the exhibits, can be found at the Museum’s website.