From rockets to space toilets: unique exhibition celebrates Soviet cosmonauts

A selection of spacesuits and the TM Soyuz descent module are among the objects at the Cosmonauts exhibition. The Science Museum

“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever,” said the Russian aviation pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1911. The quote, displayed at a new exhibition celebrating Soviet space success, still seems relevant today. After a few missions to planets near and far, there is now talk about manned missions to Mars – and perhaps even colonisation. But for the moment it’s mainly talk, and we are concentrating on important scientific exploration.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age is a stunning new exhibition at London’s Science Museum celebrating Russia’s huge achievements in space. It features a number of unique space artefacts – ranging from historical documents to capsules and space suits. One of the most exciting objects is the rarely-seen LK-3 lunar lander, developed as part of Russia’s manned moon programme in the 1960s, which was held secret until 1989.

Early successes

The early parts of the space race were all won by the Soviet Union, with one dramatic success after another. They launched the first artificial satellite (Sputnik-1), the first living being (the dog Laika), the first man (Yuri Gagarin) and first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova). And it didn’t end there, they also achieved the first spacewalk (Alexey Leonov), first images from the far side of the moon (Luna-1), the first landing on another planet (Venera probes to Venus) and the first landings on Mars (Mars 2 and Mars 3).

Naturally this caused huge consternation in the West, enough that it ignited a fierce space race in the late fifties and sixties, fuelled by the cold war and eventually 5% of the US federal budget. The US eventually took the lead in human exploration with the spectacular Apollo moon landings in 1969. However, Russia remains a key player in human exploration now – and it is the only country that provides access to the International Space Station.

Participation in space is now truly international, and Europe (including the spectacular Rosetta mission), Japan, India and China are all now active in scientific missions. China is also now involved in human space flight too.

Exhibition and narrative

The fascinating and enjoyable exhibition at the Science Museum explores these early successes, both in science and technology, and is a unique collection of large and small space artefacts, narrated by the history and conditions behind the objects. But it’s not just a unique window on the Soviet space programme – it also answers some more fun questions, such as “how does a space loo work?”.

RD rocket engine at the exhibition. Science Museum, London.

We start with early dreams and ideas of spaceflight from pioneers including Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, with his hand-drawn plans for space travel and how to live in space. There’s also an RD108 rocket engine which powers the current Soyuz spacecrafts and many earlier launchers back to the Sputnik satellites. We then progress via a dog ejector seat and celebration of Gagarin through to a set of important unmanned exploration exhibits – Sputnik 3, some Luna models and a model of the Venera 7 spacecraft.

There are two impressive capsules: Vokshod 1, in which three people were squashed despite it being designed for two, with no ejector seats, and Vostok 6, which took Tereshkova to and back from space.

The monumental LK lunar lander engineering model. Science Museum, London.

The exhibition continues via a sixties TV showing videos of the Apollo 11 moon landing through to one of the most impressive pieces of hardware: the LK-3 lunar landing module, which would have landed a Russian on the moon. But after series of setbacks, the Americans got there first. We then see another descent module, and an array of different space suits, as well as artefacts related to living in space including a space toilet, shower and a fridge from the Mir space station.

The final room contains a man-sized doll which in 1969 went to the moon and back with radiation sensors inside to assess radiation levels. This is also where we find that wonderful quote from Tsiolkovsky, expressing just why space exploration took off in the first place.

Cosmonaut context

It’s all very engaging but strikingly, the sixties TV is the only real reference to what was going on elsewhere. It would have been helpful to also have had a timeline of later and current international space exploration programmes to show where the Russian missions fitted in – including the wonderful exploration missions such as Voyager, Cassini-Huygens, Mars missions and New Horizons to name a few.

In particular, it would have been nice to get a glimpse into the current Russian space programme – such as resupplying the space station, and potential plans for to explore the moon and perhaps Mars. Some of this is being done in collaboration with Europe – including the ExoMarsmissions. The 2018 rover has involved significant Russian elements.

All things considered, the exhibition has important and unique insights into the early Soviet manned (mostly) programme. This era is not just something that the Russian technicians and scientists should be proud of – it is something that all of us should treasure. Without Russia’s achievement, space exploration certainly wouldn’t have come as far as it has today.