The cosmos in a cup: a vision of space travel in the Soviet Union

Sputnik-1 satellites (engineering and display models) at Cosmonauts exhibition. Copyright: Science Museum

Replicas of Sputnik-1, the first satellite launched into space, at the Cosmonauts exhibition. Image: Science Museum

One of the most striking objects in the Science Museum’s recent Soviet space exhibition was a modest aluminium mug.

The Soviet Union produced these cheap, durable mugs on an industrial scale – but this one was special.

It belonged to prisoner number 3957, and had one word scratched roughly into its handle: “Korolev”.

Its owner, Sergei Korolev, was swept up in Stalin’s paranoiac purges and sent to a labour camp in 1938.

Sergei Korolev - pictured in February 1940, after 18 months' imprisonment

Soviet rocket scientist Sergei Korolev – pictured in February 1940, after 18 months in prison. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

After six years’ imprisonment Korolev went on to be the Soviet Union’s most important and successful rocket engineer.

Korolev designed Sputnik-1, a part-aluminium orb that in 1957 became the first artificial satellite launched into space.

Cosmonauts exhibition poster. Image: Science Museum

The exhibition celebrated Soviet space exploration. Image: Science Museum

Korolev is said to have insisted that Sputnik-1 be elegant and shining, believing that one day it would be displayed in the world’s museums.

He was right: from September 2015 to March 2016 a replica of Sputnik-1 graced the Science Museum in London as part of its exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

The Science Museum described the exhibition as ‘the most significant collection of Russian spacecraft and artefacts ever to be shown in the UK.’

Iconic exhibits included the LK-3 lunar lander, a five-metre tall craft that was designed to take a single cosmonaut to the Moon.

The LKs, as they were called, never made it to the Moon and their existence was kept secret until 1989.

Rosie Wilson, of the Science Museum, described the LK-3 as an ‘alternate history of what could have been.’

Vostok-6 descent module. Image: Science Museum

Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 module. Image: Science Museum

Carefully stored in a translucent red box was Vostok-6, the spherical craft in which Valentina Tereshkova, the first women in space, flew into and out of orbit in 1963.

Vostok-6 is scarred from atmospheric re-entry – peeling, worn and battered like an old cricket ball.

Prescient sketches

The exhibition opened with pages from Album of Cosmic Voyages, by Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Published in 1933, two years before Tsiolkovsky’s death, the book contains eerily prescient sketches of weightless cosmonauts tethered to a spherical craft.

Tsiolkovsky’s book was displayed against a back-drop of airy music played on the flute; under this were the faint, quiet ripples of the adjacent hall, of what was to come (the beep beeps of Vostok-6); and beckoning into a new room, and a new future, was a looped excerpt of Neil Armstrong’s famous quotation about steps and mankind.

The whole purpose of the exhibition’s sound design appears to have been to render the visitor weight-less, floating through the modern history of space.

Finally, the exhibition ended where it started – as if the weightless visitor no longer knew up from down – with the imaginings of Tsiolkovsky:

‘The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.’

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