Did you know that the term “Cosmonaut” is derived from the Greek: kosmos (meaning universe) and naútēs (meaning sailor). Quite literally then: a sailor of the universe. That’s opposed to the USA’s “Astronaut”: a sailor of the the stars. Splitting hairs? Well, the universe is composed of more than just stars, so the Soviets “win” then, semantically?
They were the first, by several nautical miles: America’s answer to Sputnik exploding on launch, but by the time the latter troubled years of their rule were running to a close, the Soviets frankly had much more to occupy them on the ground than in orbit. The space rot had set in as early as the 1960’s when their stellar endeavours started running out of funds, and disorganisation took hold. Soon, only the poignant edifices of once-proud monuments would be left, along with idle launch sites and the detritus of discarded, toxic launch vehicles scattering the Taiga. Yes, toxic: rocket fuel is composed of hellishly dangerous substances.
By way of contrast to last week’s street level Bone-Audio antics; we now go orbital (and more) with an intriguing and inspiring exhibition currently being held at London’s Science Museum.
Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age is on display until March 13, 2016 and has received some very favourable reviews. It’s a remarkable feat to have over 150 surviving exhibits from the heyday of Russia’s pioneering space program all in the same room, especially considering that almost all of them were drawn from private collections. Military and aeronautical establishments, collectors and the (current) space hardware manufacturer, RSC Energia, provided artifacts from a former space age future, now long past, that all (somehow) survived the collapse of the system that had created them.
The range on display is wide and eclectic, personal, imposing and poignant – and it even features a space-toilet (every space exhibition has to have a space-toilet)!
Where to start with such an Aladdin’s cave? Sputnik and Laika, featuring the first inorganic and organic space travellers (respectively) from Earth, are appropriate launch pads.The claustrophobia-inducing Vostok and Soyuz capsules are also incredible.
Remarkably, Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok 6 return capsule is present (yes the actual item!), scorched and burnished bronze by the ordeal of re-entry after delivering the first woman in space, safely back to Earth. Across the way squats a Lunakhod unmanned moon rover, resembling a giant, eight-wheeled robot crab, whilst towering above all is the megalithic, cyclopean LK-3: Soviet Russia’s proposed lunar lander – the genesis of the program that would have ferried cosmonauts to and from the moon.
Yuri Gagarin is represented both by his poignantly empty uniform and by the curious Japanese action doll fashioned in his image. Other, very human touches such as paintings by first space-walker Alexei Leonov, also highlight the soft flesh behind the cold steel and electronics.
Much of the technology associated with spaceflight is concerned with the preservation of human life in such a hostile environment. As such, there are generations of space suits and other garments on display, possibly the most impressive being the Orlan DMA-18 extravehicular activity spacesuit, complete with its MMU thruster backpack. It was squeezed into production before the Soviet collapse, but survived the transition and was in use until 1997.
Amazingly, reborn Russia did bounce back as early as 1992 with Soyuz TM -14, whose descendants are currently the only means to physically reach the ISS. Possibly the greatest comeback since Lazarus?
[Photo by WikilImages]