Back in July I had a fantastic opportunity to take over the Science Museum twitter account for their autism friendly morning. Spending my time attempting to keep on top of all three kids and tweet was a bit of a challenge. We were chaperoned by Will, the press officer, and there was a lovely embarrassing moment when, fully ‘scienced-up’ and space enthused he asked my youngest son if he wanted to see Helen Sharman’s space suit. His reply, “NO”.
I dutifully managed to shuffle my more pliant middle child over to take a look. We attempted some appropriate ‘ooo’ and ‘ahhh’ noises, but I am sad to say I just wasn’t feeling it (sorry Will), I had no connection to this weird garment encased in glass. This experience was on my mind on a Thursday evening in September when I found myself stuffing Soviet-themed cupcakes into my mouth, contemplating a date with the ‘Cosmonauts’ exhibition. As you can imagine, although excited, I had not a little trepidation. Would I enjoy it?
I had seen a tweet review of the exhibition, ‘If you love space, you will love Cosmonauts!’. But what if you don’t love space, what if you find it hard to get your head around the science of it, the realities of it? I am slightly worried about this exhibition, least of all trying to hide my ignorance and potential apathy from excited Science Museum staff.
Straight away, with a great introduction by curator Emma Smith, you start to get a sense of the scale of this exhibition. 150 objects have travelled from various museums, institutions and been loaned by individuals. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Emma tell us of her experience accompanying them all the way from Russia. Just her, a Russian driver, a Russian guard, and very little in the way of reciprocal language skills.
Many of these objects have not been seen by the public in Russia, let alone in the UK before. The logistics by themselves are impressive, particularly when you come across the Lunar Lander, 5m tall and weighing in at 3 tonnes. My excitement is beginning to grow. When I walk in I take a deep breath and I am instantly captured, the exhibition design makes you feel like you are caught in a particular moment in time. I am drawn to the information on Sergei Korolev, the genius behind the Soviet Union’s success in space, at the height of the Cold War his true identity was kept a secret and cloaked in the role of the “Chief Designer”.
But it is Tsiolkovsky’s drawings I am amazed at, his depictions of a space walk and what life in space would be like are from 1932 and they are blowing my mind. I can only relate this to my recent work as Blogger in Residence at the RAF Museum. I spend time surrounded by aircraft that were the peak of engineering in 1914-18. The Blériot from around 1910 is made from wood and canvas and that was cutting edge, yet here we are just a few years later and Tsiolkovsky is envisaging unimaginable advances and adventures, not just to our sky but beyond it.
I am hooked and intrigued, but when I see Voskhod 1, Sputnik 3 and the Lunar Lander to be quite honest it all seems so unbelievable. The risks that were taken by Gagarin, by Leonov, by Tereshkova, begin to loom so large. It is the human interest, the fragility of the human life put to the test in what seems such insubstantial and basic technology that really gets to me. I read a section on Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space in 1961, his space suit becoming an image of heroism. I am beginning to wonder how I could have seen Helen Sharman’s space suit and not been impressed.
I am quite taken by the Konvas cine camera, used by Gherman Titov on the Vostok 2 mission in 1961. The camera took the first photograph of Earth from space, it reminds me of another camera I took a picture of at the RAF Museum, used by early aviators. There are so many parallels in this human drive to discover and push boundaries, to study and understand.
It is always in relating what I see to what I already know and understand that gives me the most memorable experience in an exhibition. We come to Vostok 6 and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space in 1963 a the age of 26. She came to the recent opening of Cosmonauts and spoke of her experience, she is now 78. My Mum is 71, now don’t get me wrong my Mum is an amazing woman, but this is putting Tereshkova’s achievements into context for me and I am beginning to see this exhibition and exhibits for what they are, truly amazing.
It is one of the final rooms that cements this for me, a wall of costumes and outfits that look like an action doll accessory kit. They seem so dated and, quite frankly, comical. Behind all this technology and scientific endeavour ultimately rested the life and death of a cosmonaut. It is the final room that beautifully exemplifies this.
But for me my special moment is coming face to face with Helen Sharman’s space suit for a second time. One of only two items in the exhibition that were already in the Science Museum’s collection. I am the last one in the exhibition and I have a ‘moment’. It couldn’t have been more different to the first time I saw this space suit.
Helen Sharman, the 27 year old chocolate researcher who answered a radio advert to become the first British astronaut and went to the Mir Space Station. This space suit I totally get, I am totally in awe. It builds on everything, the inspiration of Jules Verne, the pencil designs of Tsiolkovsky, the genius of Korolev, the daring of Gagarin and the bravery of Leonov and the trailblazer Tereshkova. It is a nation’s hopes and dreams resting on the fragility of human life. That is what this space suit is to me now.
That is the sign of how good this exhibition is, it is not just for space lovers, it is for the uninitiated and the apathetic, it is for those who don’t ‘get’ space.
When I get home, I watch ‘Cosmonauts – How Russia won the Space Race’ on iPlayer, I am reading ‘The Martian’, I am building space rockets with the kids. And I want to go again, right now, because it really is breathtaking. Because I keep thinking of that moment when I was the last person in the exhibition with all those amazing objects all around me and it was literally out of this world.
Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age runs from 18 September 2015 to 13 March 2016. For opening times and ticket prices please see the website Science Museum – Cosmonauts