Saturday, 16 January 2016

Cosmonaut's Exhibition - Science Museum

At precisely the time I walked into the Cosmonauts exhibition hall on Friday 15 January 2016, the small steps for me coincided with Tim Peake's giant leap into the cosmos - as Britain's first 'official' astronaut conducted his first space walk, or Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA), from the International Space Station.  A month earlier, Tim Peake launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Russian Sozuz rocket bound for to the International Space Station (ISS), on 15 December 2015, the coverage of which  was beamed live by the BBC from from the Science Museum in London.  This coincided with a major exhibition staged by the Science Museum celebrating Russia's achievements in space.

The Cosmonauts Exhibition opened in September 2015, having been announced at a press conference in May which was attended by Alexei Leonov not long after the 50th anniversary of the anniversary of his space walk - the very first such EVA in March 1965, and Valentina Tereshkova - the first woman in space.

I grew up with the excitement of the space race, especially the lunar landings, space shuttle launches as well as Skylab and the Sozuz-Apollo mission.  Like most kids I knew, I was obsessed with space flight and wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.  I had an old cine projector on which I would frequently watch a silent, black and white film of the first lunar expedition.  While us in the West were brought up on NASA's achievements in space during the 1970s, and we talk of Astronauts rather than Cosmonauts, I did have a collection of Brooke Bond tea cards which charted mankind's achievements in space - both American and Russian and was often puzzled at the odd lettering, eg CCCP, on the equipment.

Of course at the time, I had no idea as to the political realities influencing or motivating the superpowers during the space race.  I think I had the naive presumption that space was not primarily a military endeavour, but rather a joint exploration arising from mankind's curiosity.  This view was in part reinforced by the Soyuz-Apollo mission whereby Soviet and American modules docked in orbit (such cooperation occurred at the height of the Cold War).  Alexei Leonov, incidentally, was a member of the Russian crew for that mission.

Although the childhood obsession with space exploration waned over the years, some interest remains; the memories of the excitement of those times remain; long forgotten facts endure - locked deep in memory only to resurface when prompted by some external stimulation such as a well curated exhibition like the one at the Science Museum.

Now, I have probably seen many of the exhibits before in Moscow - at the Space Pavilion in Moscow's exhibition park VDNKh or the Cosmonaut Museum housed in the plinth of the titanium Space Explorer's monument near the VDNKh metro station.  However, this was well over 25 years ago, and the last time I was in the Space Pavilion, in 1993, it had been turned into a second-hand car lot selling US cars - such a disappointment, typical of the plunder of the country and cultural insensitivity by the US in the wild 90s.

Anyway, this was so long ago and I can barely recall the artefacts I have seen exhibitions.  The exhibits in Moscow  were so numerous - row upon row of satellites which had the appearance of the innards of a gas boiler bolted onto diving equipment and looking no more sophisticated - that it was hard to absorb any meaningful information.

This is the beauty of the Science Museum's exhibition.  It is a well curated exhibition, with carefully selected artefacts, presented in an imaginative, attractive, and informative way - it manages to capture the excitement of the early years of the space race and the impact it had on the rest of the world.  Of course, the enthusiasm and the knowledge of the volunteer guides adds to the overall experience.  For me, Cosmonauts did evoke memories, unearth long-forgotten facts, re-acquaint me with the familiar, as well as providing much which was new: Helen Sharman's spacesuit from the 1991 Project Juno mission to the Mir space station (Helen Sharman was the first UK-born person in space whereas Tim Peake is the seventh), Valentina Tereshkova's return module (Tereshkova was the first woman in space), lunar lander, lunar rover, space food, and memorabilia relating to Gagarin's 1961 flight and the world's reaction to it.

From the Science museum blog, one of the volunteers sums it up perfectly: "For me there is paradox at the heart of this exhibition. You look at the hardware and you can’t help wondering at how primitive it all looks, as if it was simply bashed together in a workshop. However, you look closer and you begin to see just how awesome and sophisticated it really is. I am captivated by the personalities and the stories, and when you match the stories with the hardware, you begin to understand what true pioneers these people were."

Exit through the gift shop

Last but not least, there was the gift shop.  I was almost as excited by this as I was the exhibition itself - there was a fantastic array of products for sale: posters, books, t-shirts, badges, hats, fridge magnets, even a replica Sozuz 39 cosmonaut flight suit jacket.

I could have spent a fortune.  I passed on the jacket and the Laika shawl, although I did get a t-shirt and a few other nick nacks.

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