I went on a spontaneous trip to the Science Museum yesterday to look at the Cosmonauts exhibition. I’ve always been a fan of space: my favourite book as a child was the DK Guide to Space; at the time I wanted to be an astronomer (strangely not an astronaut – I wanted to keep my feet on the ground), but then I realised that that should be more of a hobby than a career, so I went into computing instead.

The interest in space never really faded though. In 2012 while I was working at STFC, I helped out at their stargazing event for families. I operated the ‘Magic Planet’ – a spherical projector which would display the surface of planets and moons in the solar system at the click of a button. It fascinated adults and children alike, and inspired them to make comments like “That’s not Saturn, there aren’t any rings”, “That’s not how Uranus spins” and “Jupiter’s not supposed to be that blue”. I was able to answer most of the questions that were asked, reeling off facts I learned from another childhood book about the solar system.

A few years on from there and I’m now living in London, with the aim of getting cultured whenever possible. Yesterday was no exception.

The Cosmonauts exhibition ran at the Science Museum ran from September 2015 and today was its last day. It was focussed on the Russian side of the space race. I’d always thought that the Americans putting man on the moon in 1969 was the biggest feat, but the Russians had done so much more before that which kind of belittles the whole ‘Man on the Moon’ thing. It wasn’t a huge exhibition, but I somehow managed to stay there for 2 hours.

Here are a few photos with a bunch of interesting facts I learned along the way.

Sputnik 1 (1957)

The Russians originally wanted to send a much larger satellite into orbit (this became Sputnik 3, below), but when they heard that the Americans were close to something similar, they launched a smaller thing that just went beep. A radio pulse emitter and nothing more, Sputnik 1 was built so that the Russians could get the first point on the scoreboard. The Americans saw this technological leap with fear that the Russians now had the technology to fire a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world.

Sputnik 3 (1958)

Sputnik 3 is the pointy looking one in the background, far right

Large enough to fit a person inside (except it didn’t), Sputnik 3 was packed full of scientific instruments for studying conditions in orbit. When this 1327kg satellite launched, the Americans became increasingly paranoid about the Russians’ ability to fire nuclear weapons.

The other machines in this photo are 2 moon landers: Luna 9, the first to make a soft landing on the moon; and Luna 16, the first to send samples back to Earth. At the front is Venera 7, a probe designed to land on the surface of Venus. It lasted in those intense conditions for a whole 23 minutes on the ground.

Sputnik 2, which carried Laika the dog, was on display too. Imagine something halfway between Sputnik 1 and 3, with relative levels of American paranoia.

Cosmonaut themed Russian Dolls

I also saw a Sputnik-themed teapot – it looked really impractical.

Vostok 6 (with the first woman in space, 1963)

Vostok 6 was the first mission to put a woman, Valentina Tereshkova, in space. A problem with the control system made the spaceship continue ascending after it reached orbit, but a software update applied by Tereshkova fixed the problem and she safely returned to Earth.



LK-3 Lunar Lander

The lander was much smaller than the American one, and only designed to hold one person. The manned mission was due to take place in 1968, before the Americans landed in 1969. However, the chief designer, Sergei Korolev, died in 1966 and the programme was cancelled to concentrate on the development of space stations.

Vacuum Trousers

When you’re on Earth, your blood is pulled by gravity towards your legs, and your heart needs to work quite hard to pump it around the body. In space though, the lack of gravity makes blood collect around the torso and the heart doesn’t need to work as hard. These trousers are worn before the astronaut returns to Earth. Unlike other pressure suits, these trousers actually reduced the air pressure around the legs, pulling the blood towards the legs to make it easier for the astronaut to adjust to life with gravity.

Luckily they can’t be programmed for evil.


Recommended listening: The Race for Space, by Public Service Broadcasting.

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