Despite having no aptitude for science, I have been fascinated by space travel and the stars since I was a teenager. So I had to borrow a friend's son for an excuse to visit the Science Museum's nostalgic tribute to the Soviet space programme – Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age (on until March 2016).
As Cosmonauts thoughtfully points out, the Russian Revolution of 1917 challenged people to imagine not just a new way of living on Earth, but the prospect of colonising entirely new worlds. Space travel became a frequent motif in Russian literature, I learned, long before defence against fascism required the development of the ballistic missiles that fathered extra-atmospheric rocketry.
It is hard to imagine in 2015, but sixty years ago Russia was the first nation to launch a satellite, and put both animals and humans into space. The technology on display at the Science Museum looks primitive to the twenty-first century eye, but the space programme designed by rocket-engineer, Sergei Korolev, was both efficient and imaginative. Sputnik, the world's first human-made satellite, was designed to be beautiful as well as functional. The replica in the Science Museum is still awe-inspiring and the adjacent room full of cosmonaut space-suits could easily feature in an art gallery.
When Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961 the rest of the world was shocked, but despite cold war rivalry he became an international hero (a response captured on Public Service Broadcasting's wonderful 'The Race for Space' album, a markontour Album of the Week in April). The warm smile that gained Gagarin global affection was also a factor in his success at being chosen as a cosmonaut in the first place, although another attribute seemed more useful to me, namely his short stature. Spaceships, unsurprisingly, make narrowboats look roomy and I defy anyone to peer into the first 3-person capsule (pictured below) without feeling claustrophobic. Not a place for long legs.
Korolev's premature death was probably the deciding factor in enabling astronauts to beat the cosmonauts to the Moon, but JFK's generous funding of NASA was in any case exerting uncomfortable pressure on the much tighter budgets of the Russian space programme. And yet it was still the Soviets that created the first permanent human outpost in Earth orbit, the Salyut space station, and when hundreds of thousands of people in Britain watched Tim Peake arrive at the International Space Station last week, they saw their compatriot docking at the Russian end of the International Space Station.
Sadly the tale of NASA spending millions developing a pen that would write in space, while the Russians used a pencil turns out not to be true, but otherwise this was a dream come true exhibition and my teenage desire for space travel has been well and truly resurrected.
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