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Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age

Cosmonauts confronted the visitor entering the exhibition immediately with an unconventional display of space.

Figure 7

Colour photograph of a section of the Cosmonauts exhibition showing a section of a rocket with images of the rocket projected onto the wall

Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum, September 2015

Yuon’s New Planet (1921), the first depiction of the Russian revolution of 1917, sat beneath a vast, four-chambered rocket engine. The engine was an RD-108 as used on the central stage of all Soviet and Russian R-7-based launch vehicles from the time of Sputnik through to the Soyuz launches of the present. New Planet shows the people in tumult, in celebration, in awe, perhaps in fear, of the new Communist society, one that would lead in the creation of a new world order. It is not clear whether the red planet Yuon shows in the background of his painting is this new Earth or the old Mars. This juxtaposition of genres forewarned the visitor to the exhibition of the type of space displays and narrative that would follow – combinations of the technological and the cultural; a melding of the technological display and the artistic. But it presented also the intellectual grounding of Cosmonauts where ‘imagination and engineering [are] mutable, intertwined and concurrent’. It carried an implicit message too that the events of 1917 were relevant to what happened four decades later when the Soviet Union launched the Space Age with the first Sputnik satellite. This entire first section of the six in the exhibition acted as a historical overture to the space programme that followed later in the century.

This relationship of the rationalistic and the imaginary was emphasised with the nearby design of Georgi Krutikov in 1928 for an orbiting apartment complex. He was thinking of solutions to the Moscow housing shortage of the 1920s. A tear drop-shaped shuttle craft would ferry the citizens to and from their space homes.[11] Alongside the architectural designs of Krutikov were two works from the Suprematist school of early Russian avant-garde. Ilya Chashnik’s Suprematism (1922–23) is an example of the movement’s abandonment of the materialistic in favour of the totally non-objective; where the artist’s feeling is all and expressed in the simplest of forms, shapes and colours. Black represents the immeasurable universe, and white stands for humanity as a source of cosmic energy. Ivan Kudriashev’s Disjunction (1926) gives visual expression to scientific notions of velocity and speed. Kudriashev was influenced by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, his near neighbour in the town of Kaluga and pioneer of cosmonautical theory. His calculations and depictions of space flight predated the space era by decades. Tsiolkovsky, in turn, was rationalising Nikolai Federov’s cosmist philosophy, a belief that humanity’s salvation and destiny lay in space; deliverance for all, living and dead, that could now be achieved with science and technology.

These opening displays in Cosmonauts introduced a far deeper treatment of (Russian) space flight history and one of its key players than had been the norm in previous Science Museum exhibits.[12] Tsiolkovsky was presented to the visitor but rendered more real and accessible: his mystical cosmist influences, his simple drawings of weightlessness, even his deafness (a displayed hearing trumpet one of many he made as his affliction grew more serious). The exhibition did not acknowledge the post-Soviet reassessments of Tsiolkovsky that revealed his far from straightforward relationship with state and, in particular, his posthumous state-sanctioned revival during the 1950s. Space advocates such as missile Chief Designer Sergei Korolev had taken advantage of the ‘prevailing codes of Zhdanovshchina – a period of extreme nationalist sentiment – by canonizing the late Konstantin Tsiolkovsky as a great scientist in the Russian tradition’ (Siddiqi, 2010). His undoubted contributions to cosmonautics were being repurposed, and to a degree rewritten, to further the cause of space exploration as a legitimate and necessary state activity. His hagiography was entirely typical of that afforded other leading members of the Soviet space aristocracy and not least the cosmonauts themselves. Lives and biographies were smoothed and honed in the service of heroic space achievement by the Soviet state and people.

Korolev himself, referred to publically only as the ‘Chief Designer’ during his lifetime, was portrayed subsequently as a remarkable individual who more than anyone steered the Soviet Union towards the stars. Yuri Koroelv’s Chief Designer (1969), occupying an entire wall of the exhibition, epitomises his namesake’s elevation to mythical status; the white-coated Korolev standing proud against a background of industrious technicians working on the Luna 9 spacecraft. Above, a fiery Vostok capsule hurtles back to Earth.

Figure 8

Colour photograph of a section of the Cosmonauts exhibition showing a section of a rocket

Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum, September 2015

There is little doubt Korolev was a remarkable individual able to harness disparate collections of state institutions – including the scientific and political elite – in a drive towards beating the Americans into space. What the officially sanctioned histories of Soviet times did not acknowledge, even after his death in 1966, were the details of his relationships, good and bad, with fellow designers like Valentin Glushko, designer of the RD-108 engine, and with Vladimir Chelomey; the competition and squabbling between them; the political manoeuvring with premier Khrushchev – whose son worked for the Chelomey design bureau; the mutual antagonism of Korolev and Glushko that dated back to the late 1930s when Glushko’s testimony against Korolev contributed to the latter’s arrest and imprisonment in the Siberian Gulag. Near to the massive Chief Designer in the exhibition sat Korolev’s aluminium drinking mug, the only possession he brought with him when he was moved from the Gulag back to Moscow.

Figure 9

Colour photograph of a section of the Cosmonauts exhibition showing a painting of one of the Soviet designers

Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum, September 2015

The display was acknowledging both Soviet and post-Soviet interpretations of the Korolev figure by bringing the portrait and the mug together, echoing also Gerovitch as he refers to the boundaries between myth and memory remaining blurred, so much so that there is no longer a choice between the two but rather ‘different versions of the myth’ (Gerovitch, 2011).
Display ambiguities featured elsewhere in Cosmonauts. Just in front of the Voskhod 1 descent module was the mission commander Vladimir Komarov’s woolly hat, loaned to the exhibition, like Korolev’s mug, by Natalia Koroleva, daughter of Chief Designer Korolev.

Figure 10

Colour photograph of a section of the Cosmonauts exhibition showing one of the landing craft

Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum, September 2015

The two items were on the one hand following a well-established tradition in Soviet and Russian space exhibits of displaying relics of the famous and of the heroic; items from their work, sometimes a recreation of the work space itself – Tsiolkovsky’s workshop, Korolev’s office. With Komarov’s hat in close proximity to the spacecraft he commanded – Voskhod 1 – the exhibition presented another blurred message of spectacular spacecraft of triumphant mission and vulnerable person on board. (The three Voskhod 1 cosmonauts had only thermal garments to wear, including the hats, as there was no room for space suits in what was essentially a repurposed Vostok spacecraft, which had been designed to carry one person only.) Nearby some simple text marked Komarov’s death on the Soyuz 1 mission of 1967, and also Valentin Bondarenko’s during a ground test fire in 1961. Above towered Georgy Frangulyan’s Space Brothers (1979), a two-man cosmonaut crew, hands raised in a final wave of farewell before boarding the spacecraft. The heroism is of a dangerous mission; an implicit message of glorious eternity and immortality, two men setting off bravely into the unknown. In the context of its exhibition setting, however, Frangulyan’s monumental sculpture signified the courage and the tragedies of the early space age.

The exhibition’s final room carried one object and further ambiguity. A single human form – a Tissue Equivalent Mannequin, reclining on a metallic framework – was the only object displayed. It had been intended originally for an earlier section of the exhibition (Secret Moon) that looked at the Soviet manned lunar programme of the 1960s and 70s, the USSR’s response to Kennedy’s Apollo challenge, but only admitted to during Perestroika and Glasnost under Premier Gorbachev in the late 1980s. Like the lunar lander displayed in that section – an engineering model used to train the cosmonauts and brought from Star City to the Moscow Aviation Institute in the early 1970s – the mannequin was an authentic object from the Moon programme. It would have been included as material evidence of a previously denied attempt on the Moon.

Figure 11

Colour photograph of a section of the Cosmonauts exhibition showing a mannequin lying inside a spacecraft seat

Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum, September 2015

Yet alternative translations and meaning of such an artefact became crucial in the case of the mannequin. It had been flown around the Moon and back to Earth on the Zond 7 mission of 1969, the mannequin’s embedded radiation detectors gauging the distribution of harmful ionizing particles that would fall on a real cosmonaut travelling on a similar trajectory around the Moon. In the exhibition’s closing room, where it was finally moved to, that description was retained on the accompanying label but now set against the greater ambiguity of its display setting. The scene was intended to move the object from one of fact to one of speculation. In this room the figure was both of humanity yet not. It has limbs and a body, its face is cast in the image of Yuri Gagarin (who had died in 1968). Yet it appeared cold and metallic, a burnished gold. Its arms and legs articulated as if an android. The figure appeared both robotic and human – a Maschinenmensch from the space age.[13] It had been flown around the Moon as an avatar, an emissary, a representative of the human race for whom the mission was deemed too dangerous for a real cosmonaut.

The room’s ceiling held a rectangular, glowing red breach; a feature redolent of Ilya Kabakov’s The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, but also of a red destination in the sky.[14] There were hints about it of Kubrick’s monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. An azure hue washed around the mannequin’s crystalline case, suggesting shades of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.[15] On the wall could be read Tsiolkovsky’s attributed words of 1911 stating, or predicting, that humanity will not stay forever in Earth’s cradle. The room was indeed about going to Mars but, with the increasingly sophisticated robotic craft exploring the Solar System, implying that there was no certainty that humans would ever get to the red planet when vicarious exploration would become so much more capable. Perhaps it remained as a dream of the future, much as it had been for those visionaries, artists and enthusiasts in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160508/004