Russian Cosmonauts and American Martians: just another afternoon in London

If you are into space travels and want to have a themed week-end, London might just have your thing. It certainly did for us.   Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age A temporary exhibition at London’s Science Museum, in Exhibition Lane right next to that glorious institution that is V&A, Cosmonauts brings together memorabilia from the Russian […]

If you are into space travels and want to have a themed week-end, London might just have your thing. It certainly did for us.


Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age

A temporary exhibition at London’s Science Museum, in Exhibition Lane right next to that glorious institution that is V&A, Cosmonauts brings together memorabilia from the Russian race to space. From Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, to Yuri Gagarin, first man ever to survive a launch into space. From Vostok 6, the capsule flown by Valentina Tereshkova, the first ever woman in space, to Alexei Leonov, first man to walk in Space. From Laika, first dog to be sent into space, to Gypsy and Dezik, who actually returned unharmed. the LK-3 Lunar Lander, which eventually lost the race with Apollo 11. And then stories about visionary artists and philosophers, who in the early 60s theorized life in space, together with graphically beautiful propaganda posters.

 cosmonauts - soviet space program propaganda poster (1) cosmonauts - soviet space program propaganda poster (2)

1. First visionaries of space
The Russian race to space didn’t start from laboratories, but from an intellectual Russian movement of the early 20s. Calling themselves Cosmopolitans, they followed Konstantin Tsiolkovsky‘s pioneering work in rocketry, and set the root for what was to be a thrilled answer to the astonoshing event of the first rocket designed by German scientist Werner von Braun, which entered into space on October 3rd, 1942. In those twenty years, from the theorization of space flight to the actual event, Russian intellectuals did not remain idle: in 1923, the newspaper Izvestiia had published an article on spaceflight theories of Hermann Oberth and Robert Goddard, entitled ‘Is Utopia Really Possible?’, prompting a flourishing of articles, nonfiction books and science fiction novels, such as Alexey N. Tolstoy‘s Aelita. Soon, Cosmopolitans were replaiced by Cosmism, a less universal and more nationalist philosophy developed by Tsiolkovsky himself and Nikolai Fedorov. The idea that Soviets were to be masters of the cosmos started to take roots. Cosmists goals were simple enough: colonizing space, populating the universe with Russians and achieving eternal life by understanding the secrets of time itself. They became an institution and, after requisitioning a shop in Moscow, they set up a shop later known as the World’s First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Apparatus, Mechanisms, Instruments, and Historical Materials. The exhibition had a huge impact on popular culture and set the stage for what was to become a national fever upon the succesful launch of Sputnik.

2. Sputnik: the first artificial satellite
On October 1957, Soviet Russia launched its first satellite into space. It was called спутник, Sputnik, and it was a sphere of 58 cm of diameter, built in aluminium. Its shape rapidly entered popular imagination as much as it entered Western fashion, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev elected it to his symbol of a new, progressive, science-driven Russia. Sputnik chandeliers are still named after the satellite.

 Hermes Sputnik Style Clip sputnik samovar Stilnovo Sputnik Chandelier Tiffany and Co. Sapphire Diamond Sputnik Brooch

3. Laika: first dog in space
After the succesful launch of Sputnik, Khrushchev put pressure on the space program and requested three goals to be achieved in the next decade: they had been first in launching a satellite, by beating US’ Explorer 1 launched on January 31st 1958, and they would have been the firsts to launch a living being in orbit, to execute a lunar flybys and to launch a probe to Venus. The first of these races was won by technicality, as NASA launched drosophilae (seriously) but URSS launched dogs. The first dog to enter space was Laika, a month after Sputnik, in what was designed as a one-way trip just to find out if a living being could sustain a launch into space. The dog was given enough supplies to last a week, even if they had no mean to bring her back, but she died a few hours after entering orbit, of overheat. Belka and Strelka followed her three years after, and in 1960 they completed their journey: 18 orbits after which they returned to earth safely, though a little shaken. The dogs became a tremendous force in PR: one of Strelka’s puppies, Pushinka, was given by Nikita Khrushchev to Jacqueline Kennedy in June 1961, as a token of space rivalry, two months after URSS had won the race to send the first ma into space.

4. Yuri Gagarin: first man in space
On April 12th, 1961, the now famous spacecraft which carried the first man in space, the Vostok 1, was carried in orbit on top of an adapted intercontinental ballistic missile, the Semyorka. On board, former Air Force pilot Yuri Gagarin, choosen for the mission from a group of 20 other Russians, mainly for his charisma and working class background. Vostok 1 departed from Baikonur Cosmodrome, currently Kazakhstan, and entered orbit on April 12th, 6.18 a.m., 11 minutes after launch. Gagarin mission lasted 108 minutes and, though his landing was not without incidents, he returned on Earth unharmed. His mission had tremendous impact on PR relationship as he became a cultural ambassador, but by 1962 he had returned to Russian Air Force attaining the rank of Colonel. He died six years later, in 1968, during the crash of a MiG-15UTI jet je was piloting for a routine test. His name is still celebrated, both in Russia and in the former Soviet countries: every April 12th is Cosmonautics Day, and celebrations include a Yuri’s Night with film screenings and parties.

5. Valentina Tereshkova: first woman in space
22 year old Valentina Tereshova was selected after a long round of research and recruitment, began in 1962 by the Soviet Air Force in order to conquer another achievement ahead of the Americans and create a heroine to represent the virtues of the communist system, including gender equality. Tereshova was good-looking, a model worker and from a proletarian background, therefore was chosen in spite of other candidates having slightly better scores, such as Valentina Ponomareva, a pilot and a graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute. Alongside them, the other reserve was Irina Solovyova, member of the Soviet national parachuting team. By president Sergei Korolev‘s own admission, Tereshova was picked for her outstanding personality and ability to influence a crowd, arousing sympathy. After her succesful journey in Vostok 6, she became a cultural ambassador, travelling in Western Europe and US, while the Female Cosmonaut Detachment was disbanded without any further mission.

Valentina Tereshkova stamp

6. Alexei Leonov: first man to walk in space
On March 18th, 1965, Alexei Leonov was the very first man to step outside his spacecraft to take a walk in the void of space. Leonov mission came after a row of unsuccessful missions, such as the unmanned Voskhod Cosmos 57 destroyed by its own self-destruct anti-American mechanism, and wasn’t without perils: his spacesuit inflated while in space, human manouvering mistakes were made,  the descent module’s hatch didn’t seal properly, automatic guidance system failed. Still, he and his crewmate Pavel Belyayev returned safely on Earth after a manual descent the craft wasn’t designed to sustain. They landed in Kazakhstan’s Siberia, about 180 km from Perm, where they would have ironically been eaten by bears. Still, they were saved in time by a rescue team on skiis. Voskhod 2 beated US Project Gemini spacewalk by three months. In 1975, US and USSR launched the first joint flight, the Soyuz-Apollo mission, and Alexei Leonov was the commander of the Russian crew. Leonov is currently 81 years old.

7. Game Over: Apollo 11 lands on the moon
With US succesful mission on the Moon, in 1969, the race was over. By the end of the 1970s space travel had lost its novelty and was no longer pushed forward by cold war. Slowly, Russia’s space program declined, as the Country faced other threats.


The exhibition remains open till March and is certainly worth a visit. The selection of material is amazing and certainly offers a wide range of insights into the equipment used by Russian during their first explorations of space. Also the collateral sections about its impact in politics and popular culture is certainly interesting. Generally, the exhibition could have deserved more space (ironically) and suffers from a certain old-style set up: unfortunately this problem is not unknown to London Science Museum‘s permanent collections. Lack of interactivity and lack of context can sometimes harm what otherwise would be a really good show in town. Still, it certainly is worth the visit.


The Martian

the martian - movie

Should you not have enough with Spacecrafts and Space missions as you step out of Science’s Museum, you can still hit a Movie Theatre and go to see The Martian, while it’s still out. And fear not: it’s certainly worth the view even if you can’t go all the way to London for it.

What is it about? Simple enough.

Mark Watney is a botanic and engeneer from Mars mission Ares 3, and gets marooned on the Red Planet during an accident. Therefore he has to face the threat of certain death and does so with an all-american attitude, by dismantling his huge problem of long-term survival into many smaller problems and solving them one at the time, mainly with duct tape.
It would be wrong to say that The Martian is science fiction, as it appears to be more science than fiction.
Certainly it is fiction, but still it’s a solid fiction, almost Aasimovian, where nothing is left unexplained and long shots are avoided in favour of small, well grounded miracles of technology. In that sense, the movie certainly reflects well the book’s main quality: it’s wit, for instance, and the sparkling personality of its main character. For being a story about a man alone on a hostile planet, doomed to die, and yet it’s succesful in being hilarious with its pop quotes in the face of probable death (Damn it, Jim, I’m a botanist, not a chemist). Soundtrack hits, as it does in the book (yes, the book has a soundtrack), and Matt Damon is surely fit for the role. Ridley Scott does his thing as a director, giving us splendid shoots of Watney on the Red Planet and a wonderful dance in space when Commander Lewis (the same Jessica Chastain of Interstellar) sets out to retrieve her comrade. The movie also starts Sean Bean (who doesn’t die), Kate “Zoe Barnes” Mara from House of Cards, anglo-nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor and Mackenzie Davis as nerdie analyst Mindy Park, who firstly discovers Watney still alive on Mars. Jeff Daniels is Teddy Sanders, NASA’s Chief Director and Administrator, who knows who Glorfindel is.

On a side note, I also recommend the novel by Andy Weir. A book with the occasional imaginary Martian, D&D references and a profound distaste for Disco music.


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