Tag Archives: Cosmonauts

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

Helen Sharman’s spacesuit

During the preparations for our landmark exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, we reunited Britain’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, with her spacesuit around a quarter of a century after she first wore it for her pioneering mission to the Mir space station.


Helen’s journey began in 1989 when she, then a food technologist, answered an advertisement that she had heard on her car radio:  “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.” With Timothy Mace, she was eventually selected from over 13,000 applicants to represent the British Juno Mission and she spent 18 months training in Star City before she was picked for the launch.

Helen had to endure the centrifuge (to experience g-forces) and hydro tank (for spacewalk training) but was fortunate that her physiology was well suited to these challenges. However, when it came to getting dressed for space she admitted: “Perhaps the greatest discomfort I suffered was doing tests in an off the shelf spacesuit, which was suited to fit a man.”

For Juno, Helen was measured in 54 different places to ensure her Sokol (‘Falcon’) suit was a snug fit and could protect her at the riskiest stages of her mission, where there is a likelihood of cabin depressurization, during take-off, docking, undocking and landing.

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: Science Museum / SSPL

In the Science Museum, we reunited Helen with her spacesuit along with television presenter Dallas Campbell, who is working with filmmaker Chris Riley on a programme about spacesuits. Later I joined them for an event at the Royal Institution, where Cosmonauts curator Doug Millard and conservator Kate Perks also brought along Helen’s radio helmet.

The world’s first spacesuits were developed by the NPP (Research & Development Production Enterprise) Zvezda (‘Star’), which was built in 1952 in the Moscow province of Tomilino and was led for many decades by academician Guy Severin, an expert in developing and creating life-support systems for pilots and cosmonauts. To this very day, every cosmonaut from Yuri Gagarin onwards has passed through this venerable space institution. “The road to the cosmos passes via Zvezda,” explains Severin’s successor, Sergei Pozdnyakov, chief executive and designer.

The world’s first spacesuit, SK-1 – orange, with a white helmet inscribed in red ‘CCCP’ – was worn in the first flight by Gagarin to the sixth by Valentina Tereshkova. Development of the SK-1 by Zvezda began in 1959 but Helen Sharman would wear a later design, the Sokol, which was developed more than a decade later in response to a tragedy.

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard the Vostok spacecraft.

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

Pressure suits had been used on the early Vostok space missions, but when the Soyuz spacecraft was being developed in the mid-1960s the controversial decision was taken not to use them on the new spacecraft. That changed after the death in 1971 of the crew of Soyuz-11, Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsaev, who all perished while returning from the Salyut-1 space station when their descent module lost pressure.

Human space flights were temporarily halted and Zvezda designed the new Sokol-K spacesuit within a year. The spacesuit design evolved from the pressure suits worn by the first jet pilots to help them to cope with low pressure and lack of oxygen at high altitudes by supplying their air to them in a person-shaped‚ pressurized bag.

Zvezda replaced the rigid helmet of these jet pilot suits with a soft, non-removable helmet, including a hinged glass visor which could be lifted. To become a space suit they also had to redesign its basic shape. Pozdnyakov explained that, while an aircraft pilot adopts the same position as a car driver, a cosmonaut sits more like “an embryo in the womb”.

The resulting Sokol-K first came into use in 1973. Since its introduction, Zvezda has tweaked the design, trying various different gusset-openings, lacings, separation of the two halves at chest or waist level, and water-cooled emergency suits. In an emergency it turns out that it is most important to have a spacesuit that can be put on quickly and, by the close of the 1970s, the organisation had essentially settled on today’s model, the Sokol KV-2. “In space travel it is absolutely essential that all the technology and the systems should be 100% reliable, so that most of our time is spent not so much on developing new things, but on optimizing, perfecting and testing the old,” said Pozdnyakov.

The 22 lb suit consists of an inner layer of rubberised material and outer layer of white nylon. The suit includes the cosmonaut’s feet and its gloves attach by means of blue anodised aluminium wrist couplings. There is a pressure gauge on the left wrist and a mirror on the right to help the cosmonaut see things that would otherwise be outside his or her field of view.

The fundamental design of any spacesuit ultimately depends on its use. For the Buran (‘Snowstorm’) spaceship, cosmonauts would take a more active role, demanding a new kind of spacesuit. The Soviet manned lunar programme required the development of the Krechet (‘Gyrfalcon’) space suit, which had a rigid body with soft sleeves and soft trouser legs.  This led to the Orlan (‘Sea-Eagle’) series of semi rigid spacesuits, used for spacewalks.

The Sokol holds a special place in space culture, remarks Pozdnyakov. Hundreds of these suits have been made over the years. The Sokol “has become a symbol of man’s flight into the cosmos,” he explained in the book to accompany the exhibition. “As the developers, we find it very nice to hear Sandra Bullock, the star of the Hollywood film Gravity, saying that the Russian space suit is a work of art.”

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, Science Museum Group.

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (in foreground) and Cosmonaut Alexey A. Leonov make their historic handshake in space on July 17, 1975. © NASA

How do you like your coffee, comrade?

By Doug Millard, Senior Curator, Cosmonauts exhibition. 

Forty years ago today (17 July) the Soviet Union and the United States shook hands in space during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project – the first time the two space superpowers had collaborated on a space mission. The Soviet director of the project – Konstantin Bushuyev – reckoned the only significant difference of opinion between the two teams had been that his American opposite number – Glynn Lunney, “drinks black coffee and I drink mine with cream”.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: An Orbital Partnership Is Born. © NASA

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: An Orbital Partnership Is Born. © NASA

Of course there had been plenty of disagreements and arguments over the three years of intense planning and negotiation required for the mission. Each side had to learn about the other’s spacecraft; how Soyuz and Apollo worked, how they could be joined together in space and what new techniques and systems would need to be developed to do this. And there was the language problem; how to accommodate two teams that spoke different languages. In the early days it had not been easy:

American Translator: Good evening!
Soviet Party: Hello!
American Translator: This is the Manned Spacecraft Center speaking. May we speak to Professor Bushuyev?
Soviet Party: Hello!
American Translator: Hello, can you hear me?
Soviet Translator: I hear you well.
American Translator: Good! This is the MSC NASA USA, may we speak to Professor Bushuyev?
Soviet Party: Professor Bushuyev to the telephone? I will ask him.
American Translator: Oh! That is you.
Soviet Party: Yes.

The Apollo crew – Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand – were given intensive courses in Russian and Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov, their Soyuz crew-mates, were each assigned a personal English tutor. Stafford, veteran commander of the Apollo 10 mission around the Moon, put his newly acquired command of Russian to good use one July 4 evening at the cosmonaut training facility near Moscow. He and his astronaut colleagues had been letting off fireworks and crackers that “sounded like a machine gun”. To a suspicious policeman that approached he said “Dobryy vecher. Kak dela? Eto den?’ Nashey revolyutsii!” (Good evening. How are you? It is the day of our revolution!).

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (in foreground) and Cosmonaut Alexey A. Leonov make their historic handshake in space on July 17, 1975. © NASA

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (in foreground) and Cosmonaut Alexey A. Leonov make their historic handshake in space on July 17, 1975. © NASA

Leonov and Stafford’s handshake in orbit was transmitted around the world – the first time that Soviet citizens had seen live TV pictures of cosmonauts in space. Previous Soviet space missions had been reported mostly by radio and the newspapers – and then only once successfully underway or completed, or stitched together into films shown later at the cinema. While Soviet and American engineers and managers laboured over the technologies of joining two spacecraft in orbit the respective media teams had had to conduct long and protracted negotiations to ensure each side reported the mission to their own satisfaction.

Forty years on it may seem as though Apollo-Soyuz has become a footnote in space history, a one-off event that struggles against the dazzling space race of the 1960s. And yet, the mission demonstrated that two fundamentally different cultures could work together through a common language of space exploration. Twenty years later the US Space Shuttle docked for the first time with the Soviet’s Mir space station. And today the International Space Station continues to host astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world.  The vital agreement between the Russian and US space agencies for its operation has now been extended to run until 2024, despite political differences between the two nations.

Alexei Leonov recently visited the Science Museum as part of the launching ceremony for Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. This major exhibition, which opens on 18 September 2015, will reveal the most significant collection of Russian spacecraft and artefacts ever to be shown in the UK. Leonov spoke proudly of his involvement in the Apollo-Soyuz project, a diversion from the Cold War that demonstrated how opponents could still work together. But he still chuckled mischievously when recalling how ‘Every day we spoke on Good Morning America’ as the Soviet passed overhead small town America.

The blog was first published on the Huffington Post. Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age opens on 18 September 2015, you can discover more about the exhibition and buy tickets here

UK backs human space exploration

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

A few months ahead of the launch of the museum’s pioneering Cosmonauts space exhibition, the UK Space Agency has published its first National Strategy for Space Environments and Human Spaceflight.

 

Major Tim Peake visits the Exploring Space gallery at the Science Museum to mark the announcement that Tim Peake is to be first British astronaut in space for more than 20 years.  The Former Apache helicopter pilot will visit the International Space Station © Science Museum

Major Tim Peake visits the Exploring Space gallery at the Science Museum to mark the announcement that Tim Peake is to be first British astronaut in space for more than 20 years. The Former Apache helicopter pilot will visit the International Space Station © Science Museum

The report’s promise of greater involvement in crewed missions shows that Conservative Government thinking has shifted light years since 1987, when Roy Gibson quit as UK space chief after his spending proposals were vetoed, and the then Trade Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, declared the Government did not want to contribute to a mission to put a Frenchman into space.

Until now, the UK has preferred to focus on the commercial and scientific aspects of spaceflight through its satellite-building industry and its membership of the European Space Agency (ESA).

However, at the 2012 ESA Ministerial the UK Space Agency, established in 2010, made the UK’s first contribution to the International Space Station and ESA’s European Life and Physical Sciences Programme.

Last year the Agency pledged £49.2 million, which gives UK researchers access to the $100 billion International Space Station programme.

The new Strategy hints at even greater ambitions for UK manned missions: “The Agency will also consider its role in human exploration missions beyond Earth orbit.”

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s maiden voyage, which was announced at the Science Museum, is expected in December of this year and this six month mission will mark the first time that a British astronaut has visited the ISS in what will be a highly-visible demonstration of UK ambition for human spaceflight.

However, Peake will not be the first Briton in space: that honour goes to Helen Sharman, who was launched in 1991to spend a week in the Mir space station.

Dr Helen Sharman OBE PhD, (who became the first Briton in space) and Alexei Leonov prior to his talk in the Imax. In March 1965, Alexei Leonov stepped out of his Voskhod 2 spacecraft and into the history books as the first human to walk in space © Science Museum

Dr Helen Sharman OBE PhD, (who became the first Briton in space) and Alexei Leonov prior to his talk in the IMAX. In March 1965, Alexei Leonov stepped out of his Voskhod 2 spacecraft and into the history books as the first human to walk in space © Science Museum

Sharman was present a few weeks ago for the launch of Cosmonauts by the first spacewalker, twice hero of the Soviet Union, Alexei Leonov.

Cosmonauts opens at the Science Museum on September 18 with the most significant collection of Soviet era spacecraft and ephemera ever assembled in one place, including the single cosmonaut moon lander, which was used for training and was kept secret for many years; the first spacecraft to carry more than one human into space; and the descent module of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.

Helen Sharman will join me and television presenter Dallas Campbell in the Royal Institution on July 30 to discuss the story of the spacesuit.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by Zvezda © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by Zvezda © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Her Zvezda spacesuit will be among the 150 exhibits on display in Cosmonauts, which celebrates a wide range of space firsts.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age opens at the Science Museum on 18 September 2015.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

Space pioneer Alexei Leonov on the birth of the space age

As Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov celebrates his birthday this week (30 May), Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, spent a day with the pioneering cosmonaut for the launch of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

With the help of chalk and blackboard, Alexei Leonov recently gave a vivid personal account of the first seventy years of practical cosmonautics, from the birthplace of modern rocket science in Nazi Germany to his first ‘step into the abyss’ and the prospect of asteroid apocalypse.

At an event organised by the Starmus Festival, Leonov was introduced to a celebrity-laden audience in the museum’s IMAX theatre by Director, Ian Blatchford. Earlier that same day Blatchford and Leonov had sat in front of a reproduction of Leonov’s painting of his pioneering spacewalk to announce the most ambitious exhibition in the history of the museum, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, supported by BP, when many Soviet spacecraft will be gathered together for the first time.


As Mr Blatchford thanked the twice-hero of the Soviet Union, whose character is every bit as bold as his space feats, Sputnik 3, Soyuz and a Lunokhod 2 rover were being lifted through the museum into their temporary home on the first floor. Vostok 6 and Voskhod 1 had arrived the day before, the first wave of around 150 iconic objects that hail from the dawn of space exploration.

Leonov began by recounting Nazi Germany’s attempt ‘to destroy London’ in the Second World War, when modern rocketry was launched with the V-2, the first long-range guided ballistic missile. When the Russian Army entered Peenemünde, among them an expert group including Sergei Korolev, who would come to be known as ‘The Chief Designer’ in the Soviet Union), the Germans had left only 10 minutes earlier. ‘The coffee was still warm’, said Leonov.

The German rocketeers who had already fled included Wernher von Braun, who would become the father of the US Apollo moon programme, and had by then surrendered to the Americans in Austria. Von Braun had wanted to defect to the Americans but later told Leonov that he would have worked for the Soviets too, claiming he wanted to use rocketry for exploration, not murder. ‘He was very sincere, very frank,’ said Leonov, ‘though you may chose not to believe his words because these were weapons, after all.’

The USSR captured a number of V-2s, including one from the marshes of Peenemünde, and German staff. This paved the way for the manufacture of a Soviet duplicate, the R-1. By August 1957, a descendant, the R-7, was capable of launching a satellite into orbit.

The space age dawned with the launch of Sputnik 1, which was ‘just a sphere with a transmitter…beep beep, beep beep,’ said Leonov. ‘That was sufficient for people to get very excited, now we are in an era where there is an artificial object floating in space. This was only the beginning.’

The Soviet Union followed Sputnik by launching the first animal, man and woman into orbit in just six years, feats that will be recorded by the Science Museum’s Cosmonauts exhibition with objects ranging from a dog ejector seat from a sub-orbital rocket to a model of Vostok 1 (Russian for ‘East’), which carried Yuri Gagarin into space, and Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 descent module.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

After chalking the outline of a Vostok, Leonov moved on to the Voskhod (Russian for “sunrise”), which he said was part of a lunar programme that began with a directive in 1962 and was officially sanctioned by the Politburo two years later.

Voskhod 1 launched on October 12, 1964. Even though there was not enough room to wear space suits, or time to develop a launch escape system, it successfully took the first three-man crew into orbit years before the US Apollo’s three-man crews.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in front of Vostok 6 and Voshkod 1 in the Cosmonauts exhibition. © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in front of Vostok 6 and Voshkod 1 in the Cosmonauts exhibition. © Science Museum

Voskhod 2 featured more powerful propulsion, TV and had been adapted to allow Leonov to carry out the first ever spacewalk. The spacecraft carried a ‘genius invention’, he said, an airlock that could be inflated through which a cosmonaut could step into open space. ‘That was me,’ said Leonov.

Earlier, Korolev had told him, ‘as a sailor should know how to swim in open ocean, so a cosmonaut should be able to swim in space.’

But Leonov’s ill-fated mission almost did not take place. An earlier automated unmanned test flight - Voskhod 3KD – had been destroyed after ground controllers sent a sequence of commands that accidentally set off a self-destruct mechanism designed to prevent the craft ending up in enemy hands.

At a meeting in a hotel, Korolev told Leonov he hoped to adapt his Voskhod 2 to complete the unmanned mission to test the airlock and spacesuit. ‘We were set dead against it,’ said Leonov. He protested to The Chief Designer: ‘We have personally worked through 3000 emergency scenarios’, which was greeted, understandably, with scepticism. ‘Yeah, of course you did,’ said Korolev. ‘You are sure to come across the three thousand and first. And, of course, Leonov ‘would know what to do.’

Leonov admitted to the audience that Korolev’s cynicism was well placed. To carry out his spacewalk above the Black Sea, on 18 March 1965, he and his crewmate Pavel Belyayev came across the ‘three thousandth and second and third and fifth and sixth…all of them were not described in any instructions before.’

Alexei Leonov, Over the Black Sea, 1973 © The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

A painting by Alexei Leonov. Over the Black Sea, 1973 © The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

As Leonov ‘stepped into the abyss’, he was struck by the sound of his own breathing, his heartbeat and a sense of the universe ‘being limitless in time and space’. Given that in the darkness the temperatures plunged to minus 140 deg C and in sunlight rose to 150 deg C his suit was ‘a stroke of genius’ for the way it kept him at a comfortable 20 deg C.

But eight minutes into the spacewalk, he felt that his gloves had expanded so much that he could no longer feel them with his fingers any more. His legs started to shake. Leonov’s spacesuit had by now ballooned in space to an alarming degree. ‘I started feverishly thinking of what I was going to do to re-enter the spacecraft’.

First he had to coil his tether. Every 50 cm dangled a 2.5 cm diameter ring, which he was supposed to hook.’ But he had ‘no support’ and was hanging on by one hand. ‘It was very hard.’

He disobeyed the orders of Korolev – there was no time to wait for a committee to be assembled to deliberate on his predicament – and opened a valve to bleed of some of the suit’s pressure, risking the bends by lowering the pressure beyond the safety limit.

On his back Leonov wore ‘metal tanks with ninety minutes’ worth of oxygen’  but it was clear from his talk that he remained concerned he had not left enough time for the nitrogen from the oxygen/nitrogen mix inside Voskhod to be purged from his blood. ‘There was a danger of nitrogen boiling in my blood and I was feeling this needling sensation in my fingers but I had no choice.’ Fortunately, ‘The feeling went away.’

Instead of entering legs first, as he had trained to do, Leonov went in head first, requiring ‘an awful amount of energy’ to turn around in the confines of the 1.2 m diameter airlock (he measured 1.9 m in his spacesuit). His core body temperature soared by 1.8 °C as he contorted himself. ‘That was the most stressful moment.’ Overall, the spacewalk lasted 12 minutes. By that time, Soviet state radio and television had stopped their live broadcasts.

The mission’s problems were far from over. The descent module’s hatch failed to reseal properly, leading to a slow leak. The craft’s automated systems flooded the craft with oxygen, raising the risk of fire of the kind seen in the Apollo 1 tragedy.

When they turned on their automatic descent systems, the spacecraft did not stop rotating. ‘It was difficult and dangerous to stop.’ Their automatic guidance system had malfunctioned. They asked Korolev for permission to conduct a manual descent, which the craft was not designed to do. ‘It was very similar to driving a car looking out the window from the side.’ From an ‘ancient Soviet radio station’ in Antarctica came permission, along with a note of caution: ‘Be careful.’

‘You know what, let us land in the Red Square, it would be so jolly funny,’ remarked Leonov, who was the mission navigator. Belyayev, commander, replied that they would ‘clip all the stars in the Kremlin so I don’t think we should do it’. Eventually, Voskhod 2 ended up far from the primary landing zone on the steppes of Kazakhstan, in polar forests – taiga – around 180 kilometres from Perm in Siberia. ‘To us, the trees of 30-40 m looked like a manicured lawn.’ Leonov transmitted a call sign with a manual telegraph system – ‘everything is in order’ – but it was greeted by silence.

A gust of cold air entered when they opened the hatch. Belyayev jumped out and ended up neck deep in snow. Leonov was sloshing around knee deep in water in his spacesuit. They stripped in the cold and Leonov wrung out his underwear. ‘Can you imagine this picture – a spacecraft, the taiga, and naked chaps standing next to each other?’

The next day, ‘comrades on skis’ arrived and, after another night and a nine kilometre ski trip, they were picked up by helicopter.

The Soviets had originally planned to orbit the moon in 1967 and had two parallel lunar programmes, one manned and one unmanned (This was a mistake, Leonov conceded). On his blackboard, Leonov drew a Soyuz (Russian for ‘Union’) 7K-L1 ‘Zond’ (‘probe’) spacecraft that was designed to circle the Moon and described how he had even studied the sky in Somalia to decide which stars to use for lunar navigation. ‘Everything was ready.’

Leonov was once the Soviet cosmonaut thought most likely to become the first human on the Moon. But the Soviet lunar programme was starved of resources compared with America’s Apollo programme, the Soviet manned moon-flyby missions lost political momentum and Korolev died in 1966 (‘those who took his place decided this was too risky’). One could sense his frustration when he declared: ‘Six spacecraft orbited the moon without a man on board.’

However, Science Museum visitors will be able to inspect the monumental five metre LK-3 lunar lander, the finest example of its kind, which was designed to take a single cosmonaut to the Moon’s surface.

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Leonov counted himself lucky to be part of the Apollo Soyuz mission, when ‘the cold war could become a hot war at any moment.’ Conducted in July 1975, it was the first joint US–Soviet space flight, and the last flight of an Apollo spacecraft. The mission was a symbol of superpower détente. ‘Every day we spoke on Good Morning America,’ said Leonov. He groaned with mock horror, ‘awwww’, acting out the apoplexy of small-town America at the thought of a cosmonaut orbiting overhead.

Leonov went on to talk about how singer Sarah Brightman had cancelled her trip to the International Space Station, mention the Soviet Buran shuttle, which was delayed by discussions about pilots and automated control (the latter won but ‘we lost three years, launched only one and then nobody commissioned it’) and discussions to allow China to dock with the ISS.

He also discussed the greatest threat to humanity, that of asteroid impacts (now marked by Asteroid Day), which demanded the best of human ingenuity and technology in response. In 2008 the Association of Space Explorer’s Committee on Near-Earth Objects and its international Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation gave recommendations to the United Nations. ‘So far we have not heard back from them. I think they are waiting for the asteroid to hit them’.

Leonov had before him in the Science Museum IMAX an audience that ranged from amateur space enthusiasts to rock legends Brian May and Rick Wakeman, and the world’s best known scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking, who had recently given a highly publicised tour of the Science Museum. Leonov described him as ‘amazingly courageous’.

Sitting in the front row of the IMAX was the UK’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, whose Sokol space suit will be shown in Cosmonauts. Leonov described how he had a ‘very moving’ reunion in the museum with ‘little Helen.’ ‘The best pupil I have ever had,’ said Leonov.

Sharman had been selected to travel into space on 25 November 1989 ahead of nearly 13,000 other applicants. She blasted off in 1991. Leonov encouraged her to stand, and the audience showed their appreciation with a round of applause. ‘She had a special energy, special intellect. You should be proud of this person.’

At the end of the event, Leonov was presented an honorary fellowship of the Science Museum by Hawking and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Dame Mary Archer. In return, Leonov, who had dined with Hawking earlier that day, presented the Cambridge cosmologist with a portrait he had sketched after lunch. ‘Stephen smiled, hooray,’ a delighted Leonov told the audience, who were also addressed by Alistair Scott, President of the British Interplanetary Society, and astronomer Garik Israelian of the Starmus Festival.

Alexei Leonov presents his drawing to Prof Stephen Hawking © Science Museum

Alexei Leonov presents his drawing to Prof Stephen Hawking © Science Museum

At a celebratory dinner in the museum that night, Leonov gave a speech in Russian (he preferred his mother tongue because, as he cheerfully recounted, he once ended a speech given in English by wishing his audience ‘sex for life’ rather than ‘a successful life.’) Leonov also alluded to the prevailing American bias in museum accounts of space history. He praised the Science Museum for containing the ‘wisdom of the world’ that would be an ‘inspiration and lesson for future generations.’ Finally, he wished Ian Blatchford ‘good luck’ with Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age

Space pioneer Alexei Leonov heralds Cosmonauts Exhibition

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Communication, Science Museum

Half a century after he risked his life to become the first person to go on a spacewalk, Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov today joined Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford to announce the museum’s most ambitious temporary exhibition to date, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, supported by BP.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Tickets are now on sale for the exhibition, which opens on 18 September 2015 and will feature the greatest collection of Soviet spacecraft and artefacts ever assembled in once place, including eight that had to be declassified for this project, to provide a vivid insight into how the Soviet Union kick-started the space age.

Speaking at a news conference this morning at the Science Museum, Leonov told journalists he was convinced the Soviets could also have beaten the U.S. to the first manned orbit of the moon but for the conservatism of those running their highly secretive moon programme following the death in 1966 of Sergei Korolev, the lead rocket engineer and spacecraft designer on the Russian Space Programme.


Leonov told the audience that he and Yuri Gagarin argued for pressing ahead with the manned orbit but were overruled: “Both Yuri and myself went to the Politburo and asked that we go ahead. But our bureaucrats said it was too risky so let us try a sixth (unmanned) probe. And of course it landed a few hundred metres from where it was supposed to….so unfortunately it didn’t work out for me.”

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age will include the monumental five metre tall LK-3 lunar lander that Leonov trained on in Star City. Designed to take a single cosmonaut to the moon, three Soviet lunar landers were tested successfully in space although none ever touched down on the surface of the moon.

Ian Blatchford spoke of the honour of having Alexei Leonov alongside him (see Leonov’s dramatic account of his battle to reenter the spacecraft here) as he announced the “most audacious and complex exhibition in the history of the Science Museum and indeed one of the most ambitious projects ever presented by any great museum”.

He then invited journalists to see the first of 150 objects to arrive from Russia -  including Vostok-6, the capsule that carried Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel into space, and safely returned her to Earth in 1963.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford speak at the announcement of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford speak at the announcement of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

The Science Museum Director described how the exhibition will explore a critical moment in the history of humankind, when people first set forth beyond the confines of their home world: “the Russian space programme is one of the great cultural, scientific and engineering achievements of the 20th century.”

Cosmonauts, which has drawn on the help and support of the first generation of Soviet space pioneers, will 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 20th century. The exhibition will feature rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s extraordinary 1933 drawings of space flight, depicting spacewalks, weightlessness and life in orbit almost thirty years before it became a reality.

Ian Blatchford also thanked all the cosmonauts, partners and funders who have made this exhibition possible. Cosmonauts represents a major collaboration between the Science Museum, the State Museum Exhibition Centre ROSIZO, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos. The support of many other institutions and individuals in the UK and Russia has also been crucial in the development of the exhibition.

The exhibition opens on 18 September 2015 and will run until 13 March 2016 at the Science Museum in London. The Museum will be open until 10pm every Friday evening during this period to allow visitors more opportunities to see the exhibition.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age has had additional support from ART RUSSE (Major Funder) and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

Dogs in Space

By Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technology and Engineering and Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant.

On this day (3 November) in 1957, just one month after the launch of Sputnik, a dog called Laika became the first living creature to orbit the Earth. But sadly, with no means of returning her safely to Earth, she was on a one-way mission. Enough reserve supplies were prepared for Laika to survive one week in orbit inside the Sputnik 2 satellite, but she overheated and died only a few hours after launch.

Dog spacesuit and ejector seat used on suborbital rocket flights launched from Kapustin Yar, Soviet Union, c. 1955. Credit: Zvezda Research, Development and Production Enterprise, photo by Rosizo.

Dog spacesuit and ejector seat used on suborbital rocket flights launched from Kapustin Yar, Soviet Union, c. 1955. Credit: Zvezda Research, Development and Production Enterprise, photo by Rosizo.

Laika’s flight followed earlier stratospheric flights with dogs as crew. These sub-orbital missions were crucial for gathering knowledge of what happens to living creatures in space, as well as testing the equipment, ejection and parachute landing systems that would later be used by cosmonauts. The space dogs were used all the way up until the first manned space flight and after, flying in Vostok-type spacecraft.

On 22 July 1951, after six months of training, two small dogs nicknamed Tsygan and Dezik were launched from the site of the first Soviet cosmodrome in a region called Kapustin Yar. At a height of 110 km, the head of the rocket containing the dogs separated and began to free-fall back down to Earth. They experienced intense G-forces during descent, but after a heavy jolt from the parachute, the cabin containing the two four-legged pilots slowed and touched down safely. The trip, which lasted 15 minutes from start to finish, made Tsygan and Dezik the first animals to experience space flight and to emerge from the craft unharmed.

The completely new field of space biology was asking many questions about whether humans and other animals could survive an extended trip into outer space. The scientists involved needed to test the boundaries of endurance on actual living creatures. Was it possible to survive the extreme accelerations and decelerations of launching and landing? How could basic life-support needs – such as air, water and food – be supplied away from the home planet? And finally, would the experience of weightlessness inside a small capsule be harmful? Scientists needed to test life-support equipment, develop a training regimen for crews and perform tests in space. All of this had to be completed before human crews could embark on space exploration.

By the time of the first Soviet space dog crew, American scientists had attempted a number of launches using monkeys in V2 and Aerobee rockets, and all of them ended in the death of the animals. But the information collected during the flights demonstrated that the animals could cope with the intense G-forces and stresses of the rocket launches.

Chief Designer Sergei Korolev decided that the Soviet space programme would, on the other hand, work with dogs. The choice of dogs, ‘man’s best friend’, over monkeys, among our closest genetic relatives, was based on rational reasoning springing from emotional attachment. The Russian scientists believed they could build stronger bonds with the animals and so ensure their obedience. They also believed that the dogs eking out an existence on the harsh streets of Moscow would possess a survivalist temperament.

Belka and Strealka in the arms of Oleg Gazenko, following their day-long space flight, 1960. Credit: Institute of Biomedical Problems, Moscow.

Belka and Strealka in the arms of Oleg Gazenko, following their day-long space flight, 1960. Credit: Institute of Biomedical Problems, Moscow.

There were strict criteria for scouting the first star squad of dogs. They had to be female, because the specialised clothing and toilet technology was easier to tailor to them. And they needed to be small in size: 6 to 7 kg each to accommodate the strict weight limit for the rocket. These dogs also needed to have light-coloured fur, in order to show up clearly in front of the on-board camera. The scientists had even attempted to bleach the fur of one of their favourite darker dogs without success.

In the six years of stratospheric dog flights only a few launches ended in tragedy. But through these sacrifices enough information was gathered on whether living beings were likely to survive a trip into space. After the launch of an untrained puppy called ZIB (a quick replacement for a runaway dog), Chief Designer Korolev was ecstatic. At the landing site, when greeted by the happy puppy, he announced to his colleagues:

‘Space travellers will soon be flying in our spaceships with state visas – on a holiday!’

These early tests, conducted in secrecy, culminated in the final question: could a living creature survive a prolonged stay in zero gravity?

The most successful canine mission was perhaps the one performed by Belka and Strelka in 1960, who completed 18 orbits and returned to Earth in perfect health. They were greeted by an international press corps at a news conference in Moscow and their friendly faces were broadcast around the world. Belka went on to have a litter of puppies, one of which was given to the American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy by Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev.

White House dog Pushinka, a puppy of the Soviet space dog Belka. Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

White House dog Pushinka, a puppy of the Soviet space dog Belka. Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

At the time of this gift, Korolev already knew the name of the cosmonaut who would be the first to fly into space. By the time of Gagarin’s flight, 48 dogs had been to space and 20 had perished.

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

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 new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening 18 September 2015.

Tereshkova on-board Vostok-6

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. Her spacecraft, kept for posterity, will be displayed in Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, which opens at the Science Museum in September 2015.


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.

Returning to Earth after 2 days, 22 hours and 50 minutes in orbit, Tereshkova was feted as a heroine. 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 18 September 2015.

Featured image: Tereshkova on-board Vostok-6. Credit: Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation.

The First Spacewalk

Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant, 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 on 18 March 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.

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 is on display in the Exploring Space gallery.

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 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.