Category Archives: Cosmonauts

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. The foreground is littered with flattened rocks and the horizon is just visible at the tops of the top corners. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

How to land on Venus

On the anniversary of Venera 7’s launch – the first spacecraft to successfully land on Venus – curator Doug Millard reflects on the challenge of exploring other worlds.

Over a 20-year period from the mid-1960s, Soviet scientists and engineers conducted one of the most successful interplanetary exploration programmes ever.

They launched a flotilla of spacecraft far beyond Earth and its Moon. Some failed, but others set a remarkable record of space firsts: first spacecraft to impact another planet, first controlled landing on another planet and the first photographs from its surface. The planet in question was not Mars – it was Venus.

Our knowledge of Venus at the time had been patchy. But as the Soviet probes journeyed down through the Venusian atmosphere it became clear that this planet – named after the Roman goddess of love – was a supremely hostile world. The spacecraft were named Venera (Russian for Venus) and the early probes succumbed to the planet’s immense atmospheric pressure, crushed and distorted as if made of paper.

Venera 3 did make it to the surface – the first craft ever to do so – but was dead by the time it impacted, destroyed by the weight of the air. Venera 4 was also shattered on the way down, but it survived long enough to return the first data from within another planet’s atmosphere. The engineers realised, though, they would have to reinforce still further the spacecraft’s titanium structures and silica-based heat shield.

The information coming in from the Venera probes was supplemented with readings from American spacecraft and ground-based observatories on Earth. Each added to an emerging picture of a hellish planet with temperatures of over 400 °C on the surface and an atmospheric pressure at ground level 90 times greater than Earth’s.

Spacecraft can only be launched towards Venus during a ‘window of opportunity’ that lasts a few days every 19 months. Only then do Earth and Venus’ relative positions in the Solar System allow for a viable mission. The Soviets therefore usually launched a pair of spacecraft at each opportunity. Venera 5 and 6 were launched on 5 and 19 January 1969, both arriving at Venus four months later.

There had not been time to strengthen these spacecraft against the unforgiving atmosphere, so instead the mission designers modified their parachutes so that they would descend faster and reach lower altitudes, sending back new data before their inevitable destruction.

Venera 7 descent module, (engineering model, scale 1;1), 1970  This descent module with parachute lanyards clearly visible was used for drop tests on Earth in 1970

This Venera 7 descent module (engineering model) with parachute lanyards clearly visible, was used for drop tests on Earth in 1970. Credit: Lavochkin Association/Photo: State Museum and Exhibition center, ROSIZO

Launched on 17 August 1970, Venera 7 made it intact to the surface of Venus on 15 December 1970 – the first probe ever to soft land on another planet. Its instruments measured a temperature of 465 °C on the ground. It continued to transmit for 23 minutes before its batteries were exhausted.

Venera 8 carried more scientific instruments which revealed that it had landed in sunlight. It survived for another 50 minutes. Venera 9, the first of a far stronger spacecraft design, touched down on 22 October 1975 and returned the first pictures from the surface of another planet. It too showed sunny conditions – comparable, the scientists reckoned, to a Moscow day in June.

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. The foreground is littered with flattened rocks and the horizon is just visible at the tops of the top corners. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

The surface was shown to be mostly level and made up of flat, irregularly shaped rocks. The camera could see clearly to the horizon – there was no dust in the atmosphere, but its thickness refracted the light, playing tricks and making the horizon appear nearer than it actually was. The clouds were high – about 50 km overhead.

The Soviet Union now had a winning spacecraft design that could withstand the worst that Venus could do. More missions followed, but then in the early 1980s the designers started making plans for the most challenging interplanetary mission ever attempted.

This photograph was taken by the Venera 13 camera using colour filters. It shows the serrated edge of the Venera 13 decent module gripping the soil on the rocky surface of Venus.  Credit: NASA History Office

This photograph was taken by the Venera 13 camera using colour filters. It shows the serrated edge of the Venera 13 decent module gripping the soil on the rocky surface of Venus.
Credit: NASA History Office

Scientists around the world were keen to send spacecraft to Halley’s Comet, which was returning to ‘our’ part of the Solar System on its 75-year orbit of the Sun. America, Europe and Japan all launched missions, but the Soviets’ pair of Vega spacecraft were the most ambitious, combining as they did a sequence of astonishing manoeuvres, first at Venus and then at Halley’s Comet.

Both craft were international in their own right, with many nations contributing to their array of scientific instruments. They arrived at Venus in June 1985.

Each released a descent probe into the Venusian atmosphere. Part of it released a lander that parachuted down to the surface while the other part deployed a balloon, with a package of scientific instruments suspended underneath that first dropped and then rose through the atmosphere to be carried around the planet by winds blowing at well over 200 miles per hour.

Meanwhile, the main part of each Vega spacecraft continued on past Venus, using the planet’s gravity to slingshot itself towards an encounter with Halley.

A little under a year later both arrived a few million kilometres distant from the comet. Both were battered and damaged by its dust, but their instruments and cameras returned plenty of information on the ancient, icy and primordial heavenly body.

A golden age of Russian planetary exploration had come to an end.

Russia plans to return to Venus, but meanwhile its Vega spacecraft, their instruments long dead, continue to patrol the outer reaches of the Solar System, relics of the nation’s pioneering days of space exploration.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our upcoming exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

The First Woman in Space

Ulrika Danielsson, Content Coordinator for the Cosmonauts exhibition, reflects on the first woman to travel into space.  

On this day (16 June) in 1963, the spacecraft Vostok-6 thundered off into space, joining Vostok-5 in orbit. Shortly afterwards, the commander of Vostok-6 could be heard excitedly calling out over the radio:

“Ya Chaika, Ya Chaika [I am Seagull]! I see the horizon [...] This is the Earth; how beautiful it is. Everything goes well.”

26-year-old Valentina Tereshkova from the Soviet Union had just made history by becoming the first woman in space.

Tereshkova became an instant celebrity as images of her on board Vostok-6 were transmitted to Earth. In fact, due to the mission being shrouded in secrecy, Tereshkova’s own mother only found out about her daughter going to space when seeing the television broadcast.

Tereshkova on-board Vostok-6

Tereshkova on-board Vostok-6, credit: Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation

Returning to Earth after 2 days, 22 hours and 50 minutes in orbit, Tereshkova was feted as a heroine. Her spacecraft, kept for posterity, will be displayed in the exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age which opens at the Science Museum in November 2014.

The mission was not a flawless success but this was hushed up by Soviet leaders who recognised her propaganda value. Joining a small group of flown cosmonauts, Tereshkova soon travelled the world as a cultural ambassador and political spokeswoman.

Within the Soviet Union the cosmonauts were idealised as heroes of a new era that the population should seek to emulate, while abroad they became the public face of the regime. Consequently their schedules were gruelling, and their image and behaviour carefully controlled; private lives ceased to be private.

Tereshkova, fellow Cosmonauts and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow

Tereshkova, fellow Cosmonauts and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow

Like the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, Tereshkova wanted to fly again but was considered too important as a propaganda tool. Gagarin and Tereshkova’s value partly lay in qualities identified already at their initial selection; both came from modest backgrounds, were diligent students, model workers, politically loyal and personable. They were now celebrated as the communist dream come true.

Tereshkova’s public image differed from Gagarin’s however and was strictly gendered. While Gagarin was portrayed as a military hero in uniform, Tereshkova was shown with immaculate hair and make-up, wearing feminine dresses and high heels. In this way she came to embody the civilian, peaceful aspect of space travel.

In the early 1960s Soviet women were also encouraged to combine good work ethics and political commitment with femininity and a sense of style. Official accounts of Tereshkova consequently tried to reconcile her aptitude for science and technology with being feminine and chic.  To quote R.P. Sylvester, “[...] drab was out and Dior was most definitely in”.

Tereshkova and Gagarin

Tereshkova and Gagarin, credit: RIA Novosti

While Tereshkova’s accomplishment was held by many as living proof of gender equality under Communism, it soon became apparent that there was a lack of real commitment to continued female participation on the Soviet space program. Not until 1982 would another woman make it into orbit.

Over 50 years after her own space flight, Valentina Tereshkova describes it as the most bright and wonderful experience of her life, and maintains that given the opportunity she would fly into space again.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening in November 2014.

The first spacewalk

Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant for the upcoming Cosmonauts exhibition, celebrates Alexei Leonov’s 80th birthday.

In the ghostly black and white footage of the first ever spacewalk, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov floats in and out of frame. It is a haunting sight, especially when you learn Leonov did not think he would be able to climb back inside the spaceship.

Leonov, who celebrates his 80th birthday today (May 30), is a former fighter pilot, artist and one of the first Soviet cosmonauts (along with Yuri Gagarin). Leonov flew on two historic missions in the Russian space programme: the first spacewalk in 1965 and the first joint flight between the USSR and US in 1975.

It was a momentous day on 18 March 1965 when Leonov performed the world’s first spacewalk. However, Leonov struggled to fit back through the airlock as his spacesuit ballooned due to excess pressure during the walk. In the end, he opened a valve in the suit to let some of the high-pressure oxygen out, the suit deflated and Leonov squeezed through the airlock head first.

In that instance, Leonov’s brave decisions helped him escape unharmed, but the crew also had trouble with the spacecraft’s brakes upon descent. Leonov and the pilot of the craft, Nikolai Belyaev, made their final landing off course, in the depth of the Taiga forest.

Minutes earlier, the cosmonauts had orbited the Earth, becoming part of the new space age. Back on Earth they had to fight to survive in a different kind of wilderness. After two nights in sub-zero conditions, the two cosmonauts made it out of the woods on skis, chaperoned by a rescue crew.

Alexei Leonov, In Free Flow (1965). Oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

Alexei Leonov, In Free Flow (1965). Oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

The stories of these first men and women to venture into the wilderness of outer space will be told in a new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, which opens at the Science Museum in November 2014. Natalia Sidlina, curator of Russian Space at the Science Museum, recently met Alexei Leonov to hear his story.

Natalia Sidlina, curator of Russian Space at the Science Museum, with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Natalia Sidlina, curator of Russian Space at the Science Museum, with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Leonov’s achievement was momentous – one of many historic milestones for the Russian space programme –  beating the US Project Gemini spacewalk by three months. But it was not the heated competition between the USSR and US space programmes that launched the next phase of space travel. Rather, it was their collaboration.

Beginning in the 1970s, an unprecedented partnership began between these two space superpowers. It was this spirit of cooperation that launched the first joint USSR and US flight: the 1975 Soyuz-Apollo mission, with Alexei Leonov as the commander of the Russian crew.

The mission began with Russia’s Soyuz launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 15, 1975, followed by Apollo launch seven hours later from the Kennedy Space Centre. Differences in language, technology, and politics were set aside. The mission brought together the engineers from both nations, who collaboratively designed a petal-shaped universal docking system – the first of its kind.

The rendezvous of the two spacecrafts, the Soyuz under command of Leonov and Apollo under command of Thomas Stafford went smoothly. The two crews – two cosmonauts and three astronauts – exchanged flags and gifts, participated in collaborative scientific research, and shared dinner together. They also explored each other’s crafts, describing the technologies to the eager audiences back home.

Alexei Leonov, Soyuz-Apollo (1976) oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

Alexei Leonov, Soyuz-Apollo (1976) oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

Leonov is not just a cosmonaut; he is also a talented artist who has reflected on his own exploration of space through numerous paintings and drawings, images of which will feature in the upcoming Cosmonauts exhibition. He has taken his coloured pencils on missions and drew portraits of his international crewmates as well as ‘landscapes’ of the Earth from above.

Also sharing a birthday with Leonov is another space pioneer. Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space and first woman to travel to the Mir space station was born on 30 May 1963. Helen’s spacesuit from voyage to the Mir space station aboard the Soyuz spacecraft will also be on display in the Cosmonauts exhibition.

From the early days of the space programme, when every mission seemed to belong to the realm of science fiction, through Cold War rivalry to the era of the International Space Station, these stories are proof that once hostile nations are capable of cooperation towards a shared goal.

Discover more of Leonov’s story and the beginnings of the space age in the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition opening November 2014.

Happy Cosmonautics Day!

Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant for our upcoming Cosmonauts exhibition, reflects on over fifty years of manned space flight.

I am thrilled to be part of the Science Museum team working on a new exhibition celebrating the achievements of the Russian space programme. Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age will bring together many unique artifacts that have never before been seen outside Russia, exploring some of the most remarkable and important stories from the dawn of the space age to Russia’s present leading role in space science and exploration.

Telling the story of the Cosmonauts is an important reminder of the remarkable achievements made by humans in little more than a century of scientific experimentation, cosmic speculation and daring risks. For someone of my generation, these achievements are regarded as an everyday reality. Humans now maintain a permanent presence, living and working in orbit, and so far over 500 international citizens have traveled to space, including cosmonauts, astronauts, taikonauts, as well as engineers, doctors, biologists, teachers, politicians, and even tourists. Every one of these space travelers owe their experience to the early work of the Russian Cosmonauts, and perhaps to one special pilot in particular.

53 years ago, on this day, April 12th, 1961, the Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin inaugurated the era of manned spaceflight when he travelled into outer space in a rocket, completing a single orbit around the Earth in 108 minutes.

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard the Vostok spacecraft.

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard the Vostok spacecraft. Credit: Ria Novosti

Gagarin had been especially chosen from a group of 20 Russian pilots to be the world’s first cosmonaut. The decision was highly symbolic and political, and Gagarin’s working class upbringing and photogenic smile were just as important as his ability to withstand the extreme conditions of spaceflight.

The first 20 Soviet Cosmonauts. Yuri Gagarin is sitting to the left of Sergei Korolev the Chief Designer of the Soviet space programme.

The first 20 Soviet Cosmonauts. Yuri Gagarin is sitting to the left of Sergei Korolev the Chief Designer of the Soviet space programme. Credit: RIA Novosti

He was 27 years old the day of his legendary flight, dressed in a bright orange spacesuit and a helmet inscribed with ‘CCCP’ painted in red. The painted letters were a last minute addition, marking Gagarin as a Soviet citizen so that he would be recognized when found on his return.

He took off with the words ‘Poyehali!’ (Let’s go!).

Gagarin’s rocket was an adapted missile, called R-7 or ‘Semyorka’. The rocket carried his ‘Vostok’ spacecraft, which translates as ‘East’ in Russian. Vostok included a ball-shaped descent module – nicknamed the ‘tin can’, which Gagarin was strapped into and then shot into orbit like a cannon. With the passing years it seems astounding that such a seemingly rudimentary vessel enabled the first man to go to space.

As the news of the launch spread, people poured into the streets to celebrate the epic moment. My parents, who were children in the Soviet Union at the time of the launch, remember the day with great clarity. My mother recalls that the moment the news was announced people jumped to their feet and began to run. ‘Everyone was running and screaming, “We are flying!”’

In a way, the Soviet Union’s achievement turned fantasy into reality, for a moment transcending both the Earth’s atmosphere and the Cold War political climate of the era. Watching the cloud forms through his window, Gagarin told his ground control unit how beautiful the Earth looked.

Despite the worldwide attention, Gagarin’s flight had been shrouded in secrecy, especially his landing, the details of which were not released until the 1970’s. Most of the world was told that Gagarin was inside Vostok-1 in a complete process from take-off to landing. In fact, he came down by parachute separate from the descent module, landing safely on his feet. He famously greeted the first people he encountered with:

‘I am a friend, comrades, a friend.’

Gagarin returned to Moscow as a worldwide celebrity. Everybody wanted to hear what he had seen and felt. Invitations from many countries of the world began to pour in. Gagarin toured the world, always being welcomed with lavish parades and gifts. Along with his personal reputation, the event was commemorated by a myriad of monuments, art works, images, symbols, books, and memorabilia, which proliferated well beyond the Soviet Union. Some of those objects will be displayed in our Cosmonauts exhibition.

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, during his visit to France.

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, during his visit to France in 1963. Credit: Ria Novosti

Ever since 12 April 1961, the anniversary of Gagarin’s first flight has been celebrated in Russia and the former USSR countries as a holiday known as Cosmonautics Day. More recently the anniversary has been declared the International Day of Human Space Flight. The festivities are varied. A traditional ceremony takes place yearly in Russia, but new celebrations are still being imagined. A global event called Yuri’s Night has been organized since 2001 through social media. Such events are organized by people all over the world and include all night raves, film screenings, and other events to mark the occasion of the first human spaceflight.  However you choose to mark the occasion, this anniversary holds a profound meaning for all of us: it is a celebration of peace, cultural cooperation, and most importantly the idea that people can achieve extraordinary things.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening in November 2014.