Category Archives: Gagarin

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: Grandfather of Soviet Space Travel

Ulrika Danielsson, Content Coordinator for the Cosmonauts exhibition, reflects on the life of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the grandfather of Soviet space travel, 157 years after his birth.    

Look closely at this picture from the Russian module of the International Space Station and you will see two images of a man with a white beard. Known as the grandfather of Soviet space travel, this man dreamt of international space stations as early as the 1890s and cosmonauts still pay homage to him today. Born on this day (17 September) in 1857, the man’s name is Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Tsiolkovsky’s contribution to the science of space travel is diverse and astonishing, with his work ranging from robust science to science fiction. Citing the work of Jules Verne as a personal  inspiration, Tsiolkovsky believed science fiction was a valuable tool in advancing and popularising  serious scientific ideas. Subsequently, Tsiolkovksy himself produced three sci-fi novels, and towards the end of his life acted as technical advisor on the production of the Soviet sci-fi film ‘Cosmic Voyage’ (1936).

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Sciences

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Sciences

However, Tsiolkovksy’s prominence in the field of space travel is due to his work on the mathematics and mechanics of  how to reach outer space. He famously calculated the possibility of doing so by using liquid-propellant rockets. In addition to developing concepts on launch and orbital dynamics, Tsiolkovksy considered devices that would allow a human being to survive in space, including space suits and space food.

Drawing by Tsiolkovksy for the film ‘Cosmic Voyage’ showing a cosmonaut exiting a rocket via an airlock, 1932. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Science

Drawing by Tsiolkovksy for the film ‘Cosmic Voyage’ showing a cosmonaut exiting a rocket via an airlock, 1932. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Science

Tsiolkovsky’s achievements are even more extraordinary in light of his circumstances. Growing up in a large family of limited means and suffering from severely impaired hearing after contracting scarlet fever as a child, Tsiolkovsky was self-educated. After a brief period in Moscow where he taught himself mathematics, physics, astronomy and chemistry using public libraries, Tsiolkovsky returned to the provinces to become a school teacher and start a family.

Fleeing a bleak existence, he immersed himself in a world of inventions, struggling to get his work published – he was essentially founding a new field of science – but doggedly self-publishing when possible and gaining local followers intrigued by his ideas of metallic air ships, extra-terrestrial life and the colonization of other planets.

Tsiolkovsky’s work was driven by the idea that space travel would allow the human race to abandon Earth in the face of overpopulation and natural catastrophes, thereby securing the continued existence of humanity. He envisioned a species of super humans, a form of eugenics drawing on the likes of Nietzsche that does not tend to sit comfortably with those eulogizing his life and work in modern times. These super humans would use Earth as a source of energy and raw materials and cosmic evolution would eventually allow them to shed their physical “shells” and develop into energy, becoming immortal and boundless.

Despite receiving minor recognition from the state following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Tsiolkovsky’s situation remained relatively unchanged until he neared the end of his life in the 1930s when he was officially hailed as a hero.

Following the launch of the Soviet space programme in the 1950s, he went on to achieve cult status. To this day, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky remains a key inspirational and spiritual figure in the cosmonautical movement, alongside Chief Designer Sergei Korolev and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.

Discover Tsiolkovsky’s story and the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening 18 September 2015.

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 18 September 2015.

Science Museum stars in UK-Russia Year of Culture

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, reveals a remarkable new exhibition opening in 2014.

A landmark exhibition of the Russian vision and technological ingenuity that launched the space age is to be the centrepiece of the largest ever festival of Russian and British culture.

Under the working title of ‘Russia’s Space Quest’, the Science Museum exhibition will bring unknown stories of space endeavour to life through a unique collection of space artefacts, many of which have never before been seen either outside Russia or in public.

The exhibition will be the headline attraction of the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, a year-long programme of events that will celebrate the rich cultural heritage of both countries, according to the British Council and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Announcing the UK-Russia Year of Culture at the Science Museum

Announcing the UK-Russia Year of Culture at the Science Museum

Olga Golodets, the Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs of the Russian Federation, said the year of culture ‘will lay a solid foundation for long-term cooperation in the future in various areas.” Rt Hon. the Baroness D’Souza, Lord Speaker, said it was a delight to launch the initiative.

At a launch event in the museum, Ed Vaizey, UK minister for culture, stressed the importance of the year for UK-Russia relations and  said it would be a “flow of ideas”. This point was echoed by Mikhail Shvydkoy, President Putin’s special envoy for international cultural cooperation, who hoped the project would create “new trust” between the two countries.

Paul de Quincey, director of the British Council in Russia, also announced BP as the first UK Founder Sponsor of the UK-Russia Year of Culture, represented by Peter Charow, VP of BP Russia.

Among the star objects on display in Russia’s Space Quest will be cosmonaut-flown spacecraft, pioneering rocket engines, space suits and other life support systems. There will also be examples of the personal and poignant – memorabilia belonging to some of the biggest names in spaceflight.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by 'Zvezda'.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by ‘Zvezda’. Credit: SSPL

The director of the Science Museum, Ian Blatchford, said such an exhibition, the equivalent in impact of the British Museum’s landmark Tutankhamen exhibition, had been a dream of Deputy Keeper, Doug Millard, for more than two decades.

‘Russia’s Space Quest’, which is being led by curators Doug Millard and Natalia Sidlina, represents a major collaboration between the Moscow State Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, and draws on the support of many institutions and individuals in the UK and Russia.

Mr Blatchford said that it was important to have this exhibition to capture the excitement of the early years, while scientists, engineers and technicians from the Russian quest were still alive: “It is imperative that we do this exhibition now, before their stories are lost – as that would be a terrible blow.”

‘Russia’s Space Quest’ will also explore the science and technology of Russian space travel in its cultural and spiritual context, revealing a deep rooted national yearning for space that was shaped by the turbulent early decades of the twentieth century.

The dream of the Cosmists became a reality between October and November 1957, when Sputnik and then Laika the space dog were launched, and 1961 when the rest of the world watched in astonishment as  a Russian man became the first human to look down on our fragile blue world.

This week Intandem Films and Russia’s Kremlin Films joined the Russian Embassy to host a special screening in the Museum’s IMAX of the $10 million budgeted biopic Gagarin: First in Space.

The movie, directed by Pavel Parkhomenko, is produced by Oleg Kapanets and Igor Tolstunov and stars Yaroslav Zhalnin, Mikhail Pilippov and Viktor Proskurin.

The film dramatizes the story of how Yuri Gagarin was selected from over 3,000 fighter pilots across the USSR to take part in his country’s space program, that culminated in him blasting off in a Vostok rocket on April 12, 1961, after several failed unmanned launches.

The screening at the museum was hosted by the Russian Ambassador Alexander V Yakovenko, who praised Russia’s Space Quest as one of the  most important cultural events staged and supported by the U.K. and his country, and attended by Culture Minister Maria Miller.

The biopic was introduced by Yuri Gagarin’s daughter, Elena Gagarin, who said the world changed forever after her father made the first manned flight into space.

The Moon

Exploring Space – The Moon

With less than a week before our Space trail opens our curator Doug Millard is here to tell us about the six destinations you will journey through and what you will see along the way.

Read Doug’s first post where he tells you about his own trip from SW7 London to Houston Texas where he journeyed to pick up a piece of the moon which you will see on the trails first destination – the Moon.

Not long ago I couriered a/the piece of Moon rock across the Atlantic to London SW7. My son and I flew to Houston, Texas (we didn’t have a problem) to collect it and bring it to the Museum

Its one small piece of almost half a tonne of rocks brought to Earth by the Apollo astronauts between 1969 and 1972. Our sample is part of one of the largest rocks collected: Great Scott, named after astronaut David Scott picked it up off the lunar surface on August 2nd, 1971 during the Apollo 15 mission.

How cool is that, but how difficult is it for us Earth-bound mortals to picture what the Moon is really like? Before going to the States I started to read up on the mission and in particular the EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity, which in this case combined Moon walking with driving the lunar rover) which Scott performed with his crew mate, the late Jim Irwin, when they collected this and other lunar specimens.

What gradually started to dawn on me was really, I mean REALLY how old the Moon is. How dead it is. How it’s blasted and pummelled landscape reflects hundreds of thousands of millennia of volcanic bombardment from within and meteoroid attack from without. Scott and Irwin drove, bounced and clumped over the dust and debris of eons.

The Great Scott rock had probably lain there where the astronaut found it for millions of years – since before humans became human. It was formed over 3 billions years ago – when life was little more than scatterings of single cells. If our night-sky neighbour could think, he might wonder what these upstart beings are up to – late arrivals at the party and already getting restless.

Don’t miss Doug’s next post where he talks about his favourite object in the museum and the spaceships that have taken astronauts like Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong into space!

Summer in Space

Spend your summer holiday in space

This summer, from 23 July – 31 August, we’re inviting families to spend their summer holiday in space.

Summer in Space

Our new space trial will take you past some of the gems of our space collection. See the original Apollo 10 Command Module – the capsule that travelled around the Moon as a dress rehearsal for the Moon landing. Plus you can see a full-sized replica of the Apollo 11 Lunar Lander that took astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon in 1969.

Kids can also play games about space tourism and decide if they would actually like to spend a holiday in outer space. They’ll collect some codes to grab a special souvenir at the end.

Another destination on the journey is our huge IMAX cinema. Immerse yourself in the incredible mission to service the Hubble space telescope in Hubble 3D, or witness the building of the International Space Station in Space Station 3D.

Find out all the things you never knew about what astronauts do and meet our Yuri Gagarin drama character, who’ll give his entertaining account of what it was like to be the first man in space exactly 50 years ago. You can find out more and plan your trip to space at

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook to stay up to date on everything at the Museum. Check back for exclusive updates from our space curator Doug Millard.

Yuri Gagarin – Back to Earth

We left him in orbit but now it’s time to come back to Earth. Our own version of Yuri Gagarin is back to finish the story of his historic space flight.

Yuri Gagarin (c) RIA Novosti

Yuri Gagarin (c) RIA Novosti

Things are happening very quickly and already I must prepare for my return to earth. As I pass over Africa, the retro rockets begin to fire.

For 79 seconds, they slow me down, allowing gravity to drag me down once more into the clutches of the atmosphere.

Now the retro pack is jettisoned, twisting Vostok around as it goes and I begin to think of the people on earth. My parents, my wife – what will they think when they hear where I’ve been? I had to tell them a lie about a business trip. Ha - some business trip this is!

I am distracted from my thoughts by the twisting of the spacecraft. This should have stopped as soon as the retro pack was released, but something is obviously wrong. The cables that join the pack to the re-entry module are still attached and the two parts begin to spin around each other like children on a playground carousel.

There is a crackling sound as the heat builds up and I am pushed harder against my straps as the spinning increases. Will the heat shield cope with this unexpected turn of events? Will the cable break free? No one can tell me, as the hot atmosphere stops any radio signals from reaching me.

Then, bang! It’s gone. The heat of re-entry must have severed the cable.

The view begins to change, as the black of space becomes the purple, then the blue of the atmosphere. I am almost home. At 7000 metres I eject from the capsule and begin my final decent into the quiet countryside.

The ground rushes towards me. As I prepare for impact, I am aware or three pairs of eyes looking at me in fear and disbelief.

Bang! I hit the ground, rolling in the way I have been taught. The earth smells so good after the stale air inside of the spacecraft.

Gathering my parachute, I am aware once more of those eyes. They belong to a woman, a girl and a dappled cow and I quickly realise why they look so frightened. What a sight I must be to these poor people!

I try to put them at their ease. Taking off my helmet I say

‘I’m a friend comrades, a friend!’

The woman swallows hard.

‘Can it be that you have come from outer space?’

‘As a matter of fact . . . I have!’

My journey has been short - just 108 minutes - but the world will never be the same again.

We will be celebrating Yuri’s achievement all through the Easter holidays – check out our programme of special events.

Russian to Space show

Russian to Space show

Yuri Gagarin (c) RIA Novosti

Yuri Gagarin – The launch

Fifty years ago today Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Our version of the great man is here to blog about that life-changing lift-off…

Yuri Gagarin (c) RIA Novosti

Yuri Gagarin (c) RIA Novosti

The moment has come. The rocket is stood on the launch pad and I’m strapped tightly into my ejection seat.

On my headset I hear the voice of the Chief.

‘Yuri, 15 minute mark’.


There is no countdown.

The spacecraft is coming to life now as pumps begin to whirr and circuits click on. The conversation is professional, to the point.

‘Launch key to go position’.

‘Air purging’.

‘Idle run’.

And then . . .


In my imagination, the moment of launch would be obvious. But really, it is hard to tell if I have left the ground or not. There is a lot of noise, vibration and shaking but am I really on my way? Urging the spacecraft on as though it is a living thing I call out.

‘Let’s go!’

No doubt now, as I feel the rocket push me it the back. I am pushed harder and harder into my seat as I accelerate away from the earth. A voice again.

‘T plus 100. How do you feel?’

How do I feel? I feel good. I feel very good!

My heart misses a beat as the rocket seems to stop dead in the sky. The straps dig into my flesh and I am flung forward. For the briefest moment, I fear disaster but I realise that it is the boosters shutting down and separating from the rest of the rocket – I’m still on my way.

And now . . . orbit. I am in orbit! The motors have shut down and there’s the most amazing sensation – it’s not unexpected, but I am floating. Little pieces of dirt, a pencil, drift about and the straps of my harness float lazily in front of me. I report back.

‘I am weightless. It’s not unpleasant and I’m feeling fine.’

What a sight!

Looking through the window, the view takes my breath away. There is very little sensation of speed even though I know I am travelling at 28,000 km/h. The sea is the most beautiful blue and the clouds, so far bellow are tinged with pink from the setting sun. I must report! I try to be calm and collected for this is a serious business. But it’s hard not to show my excitement -

‘The flight continues well. The machine is functioning normally. Radio reception is excellent. Am carrying out observations of the earth.Visibility good, I can see the clouds, I can see everything. It’s beautiful!’

The Earth from space

The Earth from space (still from First Orbit film)

He’s gone up and now he must come down. Yuri will be back later today to finish the story in another blog post. In the meantime check out the Gagarin-related events in the Museum.

Yuri Gagarin (c) RIA Novosti

Getting ready for lift off

In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the first man in space our very own version of Yuri Gagarin has blogged about how he was selected and trained for his mission.

Yuri Gagarin (c) RIA Novosti

Now, you’ve probably read books or seen films about the American space programme. You’ll know that their plans were announced in the press and ambitious military pilots tried desperately hard to get selected. That is the American way – but in the Soviet Union things are different.

One day, a mysterious group of people arrived at my air base. They interviewed pilots and then a few weeks later they returned and spoke to a smaller number of us. More probing questions but still we did not know what they wanted us for. Until the question–

‘Lieutenant Gagarin, how would you like to do something very different – a whole new type of flying?’

Now I knew! They wanted me to transfer to helicopters.

‘With respect comrade, I am a fighter pilot and would rather continue to fly fast jets.

‘We’re not talking about helicopters. Listen, how would you feel about flying in space?’

‘Oh . . . yes. Yes Comrade!’

So began my training – although sometimes torture might be a better word. The medical tests – x-rays, lights shone into the eyes, hammers to test reflex, probes in the ears, twisting, stretching…

Then there was the isolation chamber – a steel box with no windows, no clock, no books, no music, no night and day, nothing but work – and boredom. Our tormentors would change the temperature and pressure without warning or suddenly turn the lights on or off. Try ten days of that.

Oh, and the ‘maths’ tests. We would be given difficult maths problems to work out and as we struggled with the problems, a comforting calm and friendly voice whispered the answers into our headphones. The wrong answers of course.

And the centrifuge… A great spinning arm, with us on the end. As the arm went faster, we would be squashed further into our seats 2, 3, 4, –12 times normal gravity. Breathing hard, face twisted, eyes pulled open, heart pounding and blood as heavy as mercury. We knew that we had to endure all this with no complaint but a smile, if we were to get to space.

But it wasn’t all bad. At the end of all this we would be cosmonauts – space travellers. You see, our name for someone who goes into space is much better than the name that the Americans decided to use. Astronaut means star traveller and that’s nonsense. No one has ever travelled to a star and they never can.

Yuri will be back on 12 April to talk us through his incredible journey. You can also meet him in the Museum.