Go back to article: The Cosmonauts challenge

2. Cosmonauts: the challenging exhibition

In this section we reflect on the turbulent genesis of this project, with a number of false starts before a strong central exhibition concept was agreed.  Once that ambition was clear, the project team then encountered a remarkable array of problems in locating authentic objects and overcoming some surreal obstacles.

2.1. Solving the ‘Russian’ space problem

The curatorial team spent many years trying to solve the ‘Russia’ problem. The Museum aspires to present an accurate and international account of scientific achievement through displays and exhibitions; the neglect of Russian achievements has been a long- standing concern.

The Museum’s interest in staging an object-rich temporary exhibition on the history of space exploration with important Soviet and Russian content can be traced back to 1990. The lack of Soviet-era space technology in the Museum’s galleries had been highlighted and the idea of borrowing items for a temporary exhibition explored. A proposal for an International collaboration in space exhibition was considered for our 1992 exhibitions programme. The Museum’s Collection Information Department holds the records of the curatorial exhibition proposal and correspondence related to possible loans from Russia[1]. Doug Millard, assistant curator at the time, recalls that difficulties in bringing the equipment from post-Soviet Russia prevented the project from proceeding, but in 1992 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova visited the Museum. Keen to explore new possibilities for collaboration, Millard went to Moscow in 1995 to view the collection of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics (MMC) and the remaining exhibits of the Space pavilion at the former Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy. Still, Russian representation in the Museum has been poor owing to the challenges of securing loans of real space technologies from the former USSR, compared to those from Western Europe and the USA[2].

A second attempt to address the issue was made in 2008 when the Museum was approached by a private British enterprise – Science Connections (SC) – with a collaborative proposal for a 2011 event to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin’s historic mission. The initial idea was to bring Gagarin’s historical spacecraft Vostok 1 to the Museum. The Vostok descent modules have never been seen in the West before and, clearly, displaying the spacecraft of the first manned mission at the Science Museum would have been a highlight event of the 2011 festivities. The Museum’s former director, Chris Rapley, supported the proposal and in September 2009 the Museum curators’ were granted access to Russia’s space industry enterprises for the first viewing of the artefacts. Such visits certainly whetted the appetite of the curators involved.

Unfortunately, the goal of staging such an ambitious and costly project within a restricted timeframe was always going to be difficult. The Museum then felt it could only be achieved with the commitment of funding secured by SC. The Memorandum of Understanding, signed by the Museum and its partners SC and the Association of Museums of Cosmonautics (AMCOS), stated that the fund-raising, negotiations with Roscosmos and coordination of this complex project were to be undertaken by SC within strict deadlines. With support from the British Council, the Museum hosted the Deputy Director of Roscosmos, Vitaly Davydov, and the President of AMCOS, cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov, at a meeting in June 2010, establishing direct contact with potential partners. But by the end of June, as SC failed to secure the funds, plans for the 2011 exhibition ended.

This false start had some helpful, but mainly troublesome, legacies. On the positive side, the Museum made new connections and achieved access to some of the most elusive of Russian space collections. However, the involvement of a commercial partner proved to be a serious mistake. The failure to secure funding left the Russian side disappointed and annoyed. Indeed, in the early years of negotiating loans for Cosmonauts we had to overcome two serious credibility problems with our Russian counterparts: that the Museum was not sufficiently serious – both in curatorial ambition and leadership – and that its real purpose was simply to make money out of the Russian loans. It added to the odds the newly appointed Director Ian Blatchford had to overcome in the following years leading to the opening of Cosmonauts. It might also be said that the idea that Vostok 1 might ever be lent was always deeply implausible. (The quest for a Vostok loan is dealt with in more detail in section 2.4.)

The final (successful) attempt to stage the exhibition started in 2011. The British Council and its Director of Arts, Andrea Rose, were working in partnership with Roscosmos on plans to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first manned space mission. A project to bring Gagarin’s statue from the Lyubertsy Technical College (the school Gagarin attended as a teenager) to London for public display was being considered. The 1984 monument by sculptor Anatoly Novikov proved impossible to dismantle and Roscosmos funded production of a copy. The statue was duly unveiled in London on 14 July 2011 near the British Council offices on the Mall[3].

Figure 3

Colour photograph of the unveiling of the Yuri Gagarin statue at Greenwich London

The unveiling of Yuri Gagarin’s statue at its new permanent location in the grounds of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, 2013

On this occasion, a small display of Soviet space artefacts was devised, featuring objects from NPP Zvezda (the world’s first and Russia’s only space life-support design and production company), RKK Energia (Sergei Korolev’s rocket and spacecraft design bureau)[4] and the Gagarin family archive. Formerly classified objects, such as the 1960 dog spacesuit and catapult car and 1961 Vostok descent module ejector seat, never previously displayed in the UK, were exhibited in the British Council Gallery.

The opening ceremony, attended by Mr Davydov and Sergei Krikalev, Head of Cosmonauts Training Centre, provided an auspicious occasion for the Science Museum’s new Director, Ian Blatchford, to meet key Russian officials and to repair some of the credibility damage arising from the abortive 2008 project. One should also respect the role of personal friendship and collegiality. Andrea Rose and Elena Gagarina, who is Yuri Gagarin’s daughter and also the Director of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, are long-standing artistic collaborators and friends, and Mr Blatchford had worked with Dr Gagarina on a number of joint Kremlin-V&A Museum exhibition projects in his previous role as Deputy Director at the latter.

As further markers of the Museum’s seriousness about the subject, the Science Museum hosted two Russian space-themed talks by Natalya Koroleva (daughter of Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer of the Soviet Missile and Space Programmes) and Sergei Krikalev, the famous Russian cosmonaut and then world-record holder for the longest time spent in orbit of any human being[5]. The British Council had brought both individuals over for the unveiling of the Gagarin statue.

With the benefit of hindsight one might see the 2011 British Council project as being two things: the perfect appetiser for the feast that is Cosmonauts, and as the creative spark that inspired the Museum to make its third and serious attempt to deliver its long-cherished exhibition idea. Very considerable credit is due to Ms Rose for provoking the Museum to build on the British Council legacy.

2.2. Cosmonauts – endeavour to tell the story of space longing

As the Cosmonauts project vision states:

This exhibition will be revelatory. It will bring to the Science Museum the largest and most significant collection of space artefacts ever to leave Russia. Cosmonauts will use real, historic objects – spectacular, intriguing, poignant – to tell the remarkable story of Russia’s pioneering exploration of space. Our visitors will be astonished, fascinated, moved and inspired by the material evidence of humanity’s first steps into the cosmos. Cosmonauts will be a story of Russia and its people. It will show how the Russians that launched the space age in the 1950s drew on a deep, national longing for space – a passion whose form was shaped by the tumultuous decades of Russia’s twentieth century[6].

When the plans for such as exhibition were revisited in 2012, it became obvious the project must be conceived in line with the Museum’s new ambitions for staging major, object-rich exhibitions, emphasising the social and cultural contexts of science, technology and engineering and fostering active collaborations with international science museums and institutions (Strategic Ambitions, 2012). The new exhibition proposal, submitted to the Museum’s Exhibitions Board in October 2012, was to present a broader story and to place the history of Russian and Soviet longing for space in a cultural and historical context.

As a result, Cosmonauts is the first attempt outside the former Eastern bloc to showcase the story of space exploration by Russia and the USSR, interpreted through an object-rich exhibition. It will help correct an unbalanced perception of the Space Age and reveal the breadth and depth of Russia’s remarkable space activities. Amongst other stories the exhibition highlights the remarkable work behind the pioneering Soviet missions of the 1950s and 60s, reveals hitherto unknown histories of the USSR’s manned lunar landing programme, and presents the story of the space stations programmes while asking visitors to contemplate on the future of manned space missions.
In the late nineteenth century, Tsiolkovsky, a seminal theorist of cosmonautics whose calculations and spacecraft designs at the turn of the twentieth century anticipated reality by decades, was heavily influenced by the philosophical Cosmist movement and the thoughts of its founder Nikolai Fedorov. The name chosen for the first pilots of Soviet spacecraft – ‘cosmonauts’ – reflects on the early spiritual roots of the Soviet space programme.

Figure 4

Pencil drawing with notes in Russian of an astronaut exiting a space module in zero gravity

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky drawing illustrating his vision of spacewalking 33 years before it took place. From The Album of Cosmic Journeys, 1932

The USSR opened the Space Age when it launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, outdoing the USA by only a few months. In the late 1950s the Soviets launched a flotilla of spacecraft into orbit, to the Moon and even towards the surface of Venus[7]. In 1961, Gagarin became the first human in space. Over the next few years the world witnessed a number of pioneering manned space missions, including the first woman in space, Tereshkova (1963), and the first spacewalker, Leonov (1965). While the USA was prolific in publicising its space programme, providing information on both achievements and failures, the Soviet Union was reticent; its ‘civilian’ space activities were subsumed within the Soviet military apparatus with its codes and rules of secrecy, where only record missions and achievements were presented to the public.

Today’s Russian Soyuz launch vehicles are used by its own cosmonauts and American astronauts as the sole means of reaching the International Space Station, now that the USA Space Shuttle programme has ended. While the subject of Russian space exploration was extensively researched by both Russian and international scholars, there was no attempt beyond the former Soviet Union territory to represent its visual history through an exhibition dedicated solely to the history of the subject from its roots in the nineteenth century philosophical and spiritual movement of Cosmism to the current programmes.

Finalising the exhibition narrative went in hand with the content team’s search for exceptional objects to tell the story.

2.3. Space objects race

The objects are centre-stage in this project, ranging in size, type and material – from cosmonauts’ food, to posters, art works, space suits, rocket engines, satellites and spacecraft. The aim was to enable visitors to the Museum to appreciate the uniqueness and complexity of each piece, while gaining a sense of how it fits into the bigger picture, both physically and intellectually. This aim determined the strict criteria for content selection.

Whilst the curatorial team identified their ‘dream list’ of objects in the early stages of the project, their task proved far more formidable than persuading sister museums to lend from their collections. Since the fall of the Soviet Union international museum loans have been the lifeblood of large-scale exhibitions and the protocol for such loans is well established, enabling hundreds of objects to be borrowed from Russia every year. With the growing demand for new shows and broader interest in Russian history a new previously unexplored range of objects has come to the attention of specialists. These range from the 42,000-year-old infant mammoth Lyuba, shown at the Mammoths: Ice Age Giants exhibition, held at the Natural History Museum (Lister, 2014, p 79), to a gold and silver inlaid eleventh-century axe head (Williams, Pentz, Wemhoff, 2014, p 88).

However, the aforementioned objects belong to the category of artefacts traditionally collected by museums. Collecting and borrowing space technology is much more challenging. Most space equipment is not reusable and of a disposable nature – not designed to return back to Earth: from launches and engines to satellites and probes, its either stays in orbit or gets burned up on launch or re-entry. Learning about Russian space technology is particularly difficult. Whilst the most significant artefact in the story of USA space exploration, the Apollo 11 command module, is on display at the heart of the National Air and Space Museum, its Russian counterpart, Vostok 1, is kept at the military-style restricted access plant on the outskirts of Moscow.

Figure 5

Colour display of a number of spherical soviet descent modules

Vostok and Voskhod descent modules on display at RKK Energia, 2012

The curators had to venture well beyond the museum sector and private collections in search of unique exhibits fit to narrate the story of human endeavour. The content team found itself in unchartered territory in its search for original space equipment. The sealed doors of laboratories of technical universities, studios of forgotten artists and warehouses of classified enterprises had to open to enable the team to explore, identify and negotiate prospective loans – rare survivals returned from space.

Whilst an art historian might deploy a catalogue raisonné to establish the core attributes of a proposed loan, for this exhibition the curators had to identify, locate and research prospective objects, as well as establish their status, ownership and provenance in order to bring them to public attention. This has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the project. Whilst an art historian might enjoy the luxury of a ‘point of view’ on the objectives and inspiration of an artist or an artistic movement, they do so on the reasonable assumption that the works in that canon are known and agreed. In the case of Cosmonauts, the curators have created and described a subject ab initio.

2.4. Going ‘East’ – in search of Vostok

The Science Museum’s visitors are enthralled when close to real, historic artefacts. They are mesmerised when standing next to the actual Apollo 10 spacecraft on permanent display in our galleries. We aimed to allow them the same experience with the Soviet spacecraft that marked an age-defining moment in the history of space exploration. That meant the exhibition could only take place if we were successful in negotiating the loan of key technical artefacts. One pivotal issue to be resolved before the exhibition might make any claim to be definitive was the need to identify an iconic Vostok descent module and secure it on loan.

Figure 6

Colour photograph of the Apollo 10 command module on display in the Science Museum London

Command module of Apollo 10 on display at the Science Museum Making the Modern World gallery

Vostok (‘East’ in Russian) was the first spacecraft to carry humans into space. The dual (space and military) use spacecraft was derived from the Zenit spy satellite that carried cameras and was designed to return to Earth. Its spherical shape provided maximum strength and enough room for a cosmonaut, but no ability to translate orbits. Six historic missions of the first Soviet manned spacecraft were launched between 12 April 1961–16 June 1963, but the whereabouts of only three of the descent modules bringing cosmonauts safely back to Earth could be publicly identified. One of them was to become a star object of the Cosmonauts exhibition.

In the case of Vostok it is easy to forget what is so unique about it: it was designed to return to Earth. It has been through the trauma of launch and re-entry, and so finding an outstanding and authentic Vostok – with all the ‘battle scars’ of burning in the Earth’s atmosphere – would be a dramatic scientific and visual highlight in the exhibition. This contrasts with the launched satellites orbiting the planet, burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry; and robotic probes which stayed on the planets and other celestial bodies to collect and transmit data. This makes the descent modules of the Vostok series of a wholly different order than rare paintings by artists such as Vermeer.

But the rarity of the Vostok also meant that the team faced a big battle; with only three currently on display, our chances of obtaining permission to borrow were very slim. Gagarin’s Vostok 1 and Tereshkova’s Vostok 6 are held by RKK Energia, which had consistently turned down our repeated requests to borrow them. The public museum sector in Russia holds only one original Vostok descent module – Valery Bykovsky’s Vostok 5 (launched on 14 June 1965), on display in the K. Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics, in Kaluga. Following several curatorial trips and discussions with Museum director Mr Kuzin, it was confirmed that the removal of such a large-scale object would involve demolition of one of the Museum’s walls. Even the curator had to concede that this was a loan request too far.

Figure 7

Colour photograph of an early soviet spacesuit next to a spherical descent module

Vostok 3 descent module and reconstructed ejector seat with SK1 spacesuit on display at the Kaluga State Museum of History of Cosmonautics, 2013

Thus, other options had to be considered. The team examined the evidence that Adriyan Nikolayev’s Vostok 3 (launched on 11 August 1962) was held by the ‘Memorial Museum Complex of the USSR cosmonaut A.G. Nikolayev’, Shorshely village, in the Chuvash Republic. Alas, it transpired that the one displayed is one of the refurbished unmanned Vostok spacecraft. The Russian museum sector holds a number of such descent modules from unmanned missions. Among others, a refurbished descent module of the artificial satellite Intercosmos 6 from the MMC and a privately owned Vostok 3KA-2 on display at the Moscow Planetarium were considered and rejected as potential exhibits.

In late 2012 the curators found themselves seated in the Director’s office looking at the list of identified manned Vostok descent modules in the former Soviet Union, and facing something of a crisis. The final selection of the artefact to tell the story of the pioneering missions of the 1960s had to be made: either Vostok 1 or Vostok 6, both at RKK Energia, and at that point a reluctant potential partner. The Director decided that requesting Vostok 1 would never succeed but that he would commit personally to arguing at the highest level for Vostok 6. Indeed, it was also agreed that the exhibition would be seriously diminished without Vostok 6 and a small number of other crucial objects held by Energia – the ground testing model of the first satellite Sputnik 1 (1957), complete with radio transmitter; the ground testing model of Sputnik 3 (1958), the first scientific laboratory in space; the descent module of the first crewed missions of the Voskhod series and a descent module of the Soyuz series. None of these five key exhibits have ever been seen in the West before.

The negotiation for the loan of those five objects proved the most complicated and complex stage in the process of exhibition preparation. We deal later (subsection 4.3) with the central role of key players such as Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs Olga Golodets who provided crucial support in securing these lynchpin loans.

Thus, by the mid-2013 all key exhibits were identified, loan requests had been submitted and negotiations were underway. At this stage another aspect that caused unexpected complication had surfaced, the inherent problem of dual-use technical equipment: its classified status.

2.5. Lunar Lander – unclassified story

For most visitors to Cosmonauts, their encounter with the Lunar Lander will probably be a key moment in their exhibition experience, due to its dramatic physical presence and that fact that it opens a door to part of the Russian space story that is so little understood.

The curatorial team secured key loans from the cultural sector and from various commercial enterprises, but also discovered the important role played by technical universities since some important space technology has been transferred there as educational tools for future engineering students and designers. One such object, discovered and secured as a loan by the curatorial team, was the LK-3 lunar lander.

The lander LK-3 is particularly fascinating because the circumstances of its survival are historically important and poignant. It survives due to the private initiative of an eminent engineer keen to preserve the legacy of Sergei Korolev and to prevent its destruction by factional fighting from various internal agencies involved in the space programme. However, we were to discover this generous but unauthorised act created a minefield of legal complexities – unresolved for decades but finally resolved due to our loan request.

LK stands for ‘Lunnyi Korabl’, a lander designed to carry a single cosmonaut to the surface of the Moon and back to rendezvous with the orbiting mother spacecraft LOK (‘Lunnyi Orbitalnyi Korabl’). As a response to the US commitment to land a man on the Moon by the end of 1960s, the Soviet manned lunar programme with its launcher-spacecraft-lander N1-L3 project was conducted in secrecy. It suffered greatly from many factors, including the sudden death of Korolev, Chief Designer of the country’s entire space programme, as well as rivalry between different research institutes. The programme was abandoned in 1974 (Siddiqi, 2000, pp 832–33). A number of engineering models of the landers were devised and launch pad tests carried out before the programme’s closure.

Such an impressive piece of equipment was coveted by the curators as the pièce de résistance of the exhibition, recounting the story of a secret Soviet manned lunar programme. Extensive research helped to trace one of the remaining LK to the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI). Other possible lenders were unwilling to lend: the Bauman Moscow State Technical University due to the poor state of their lander, and RKK Energia, which claimed that the engineering model they owned was unavailable.

Figure 8

Colour photograph of the Science Museum delegation inside a storage warehouse for old soviet space exploration technology

Curators Doug Millard and Natalia Sidlina with the UK Embassy officials Dr Julia Nights and Dr Maria Sokolova and MAI and Roscosmos representatives examining the LK lander, September 2012

This LK-3 lander (1969, measuring 500 cm x 554 cm x 445 cm) from MAI was previously exhibited at Disneyland, Paris in France in 1997, which seemed to indicate the possibility of borrowing the work and permission to take it out of the country. However, it turned out that what had been possible during the turbulent years following the fall of the Soviet Union was very challenging in 2013–14. First, the ownership and the provenance of the object needed to be confirmed. Extensive research established that the LK-3 was brought to the university by Vasili Mishin, from 1966–1974 the Chief Designer of OKB-1 (now RKK Energia), which had developed the lander. Following the closure of the N1-L3 project in 1974, and facing the imminent disposal of the technology developed for it (Mishin, 1992, Vol. 1, p 130), Mishin rescued LK-3 and took it to MAI, his new place of employment. The lander still serves as a teaching tool for students in the rocket department and is held at Laboratory 601, a hangar-style store located on the university’s premises in Moscow. At the stage of the loan agreement preparation, we discovered there was no paperwork confirming the transfer of the lander, nor any ownership documents or declassification papers. 

Figure 9

Colour photograph of various soviet rocket and space exploration technology in storage

View of laboratory 601 at MAI with disassembled launcher R7 and spacecraft, September 2012

Participation in the Cosmonauts project was fully supported by MAI Vice-Chancellor Dr Shevtsov, but to be able to borrow such a seminal (and previously secret) object also required permission from the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation. Indeed, we needed two things: permission to lend, and a commitment from someone to untangle the legal ambiguities. It further transpired that in order to resolve the legal status of the object it would also need to be declassified, both to legitimise its role at the Institute and to allow it to travel to the Science Museum. There was even talk of a special government commission needed to consider the request for such a secret object to travel overseas. We fell into a slough of despond at this point.

Fortunately, these knotty problems were resolved through a series of meetings between the Science Museum Director Mr Blatchford and the Minister of Education and Science Mr Livanov and his Deputy Minister Mr Kaganov. The next step was to establish which of the current space enterprises would take responsibility for processing declassification paperwork. LK is a complex spacecraft. The engineering models of it were devised for carrying out various tests and each one was differently equipped. In practice it meant that designers of various parts of the lander would each have to get involved in the declassification procedure. Finally, one of the design units within RKK Energia, the closed joint-stock company ‘Experimental engineering plant of RKK Energia’, completed the procedure and issued the declassification letter[8].

As a result of the Science Museum’s continued effort, the LK-3 is now legally owned by MAI[9], declassified and made available for showing in London[10]. These procedures guarantee the object’s safety, preservation and availability for research, opening a new page in unveiling the hidden history of one of the Soviet Union’s secret space programmes.

Having overcome these impediments, we should also mention the astonishing array of practical issues that also had to be addressed. The Laboratory 601 hanger crane system was no longer working, the hanger door had rusted shut and a tree had grown outside the entrance doors too. The Institute worked diligently to resolve each hurdle and also found an engineer who actually knew how to disassemble the object!

The LK declassification story is just one example of the problems the Museum faced and overcame whilst trying to secure the exceptional loans for the exhibition. Needless to say, similar issues had to be resolved with every space sector loan. These included: proof of ownership; declassification; permission to export; and dealing with hazardous substances associated with 1960s technology, such as asbestos.

By mid-2013 the Museum had everything in place for its special temporary exhibition: a clear concept, a narrative full of fascinating stories, core objects and even an associated publication in preparation. At this stage the greatest risk was a lack of commitment from Roscosmos, the Russian state agency for space, which suffered from complex bureaucratic procedures and had no clear leadership  One of our key partners, Rosizo (State Museum and Exhibition Centre, it is responsible for large-scale touring exhibitions and museum events organisation within Russia and abroad), as well as senior members of the Russian government, were to play a major role in resolving issues far beyond the Science Museum’s sphere of influence.


Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150406/003