In pictures: Soviet cosmonauts and the birth of the space age

From the launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957, to the sending of the first human into space just four years later, Soviet scientists were pioneers in space travel in the 20th century...

Yuri Gagarin before the first space flight, 12 April 1961. (Credit: RIA Novosti)

From the launch of the first dog into space in 1957 to the successful attempt at circumnavigating the moon in 1959, Soviet science helped transform space travel. In 2016, an exhibition at the Science Museum in London documented this unique period in Soviet history, with artefacts such as a cosmonaut-flown spacecraft, a dog ejector seat, and Sputnick – the first ever satellite to be sent into space.

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Here, we take a look at some artefacts relating to Soviet space travel and explain their significance…

Iraklii Toidze, "In the name of peace", 1959. Published by IZOGIZ. (Credit: The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.)
Iraklii Toidze, “In the name of peace”, 1959. Published by IZOGIZ. (Credit: The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.)

In the past, Soviet posters typically promoted national successes. Soviet artist Iraklii Toidze created the above poster to celebrate one of the Luna missions, possibly Luna-1 – this was the first spacecraft to reach the Moon, in January 1959.

Dog ejector seat and suit as used on Soviet suborbital rocket flights, c1955
Dog ejector seat and suit as used on Soviet suborbital rocket flights, c1955. (Credit: Research, Development & Production Enterprise “Zvezda”/ State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO) 

On a number of occasions in the 1950s, dogs were launched into the atmosphere on high altitude rocket flights. Upon the rocket’s descent, the dog was ejected with a parachute and would fall back to the Earth.

A page from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Album of Cosmic Journeys, 1932–33
A page from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Album of Cosmic Journeys, 1932–33. (Credit: The Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences / State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO)

Soviet scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky sketched his theories of space travel for Vasilii Zhuravlev to use in his film Cosmic Journey (1936). The above page shows how a cosmonaut could exit a spacecraft through an airlock. A number of pages from Tsiolkovsky’s book will be on display in Science Museum exhibition.

Sputnik 1 satellite, 1957.
Sputnik 1 satellite, 1957. (Credit: The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics / State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO)

In 1957, the Soviets were under pressure to launch Sputnik – the first artificial satellite to ever be created – amid rumours that the US was also developing its own satellite. It is believed that the chief designer on the Sputnik project, Korolev, insisted the satellite have a shiny exterior, as he was convinced that it would be displayed in museums in the future.

The first Soviet cosmonaut squad, 1961.
The first Soviet cosmonaut squad, 1961. (Credit: RIA Novosti)

A team of 20 was whittled down from 3,000 possible candidates to create the first ever cosmonaut team in 1961. Yuri Gagarin – the first human to be sent into space – is sat to the left of chief designer Sergei Korolev (centre) in this photograph.

Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 descent module, 1963
Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 descent module, 1963. (Credit: Rocket and Space Corporation Energia after S P Korolev / State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO)

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to be sent into space, flew in the above craft in 1963. The exterior of the craft was burnt by the atmospheric pressure after hurtling to Earth at a speed of around 27,000 kilometres per hour.

Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Yuri Gagarin before the first space flight, 12 April 1961
Yuri Gagarin before the first space flight, 12 April 1961. (Credit: RIA Novosti)

Yuri Gagarin’s helmet had the letters CCCP (the Russian abbreviation for the Soviet Union) printed on it at the last minute before his first mission into space, in case he was mistaken for an American upon returning to the Russian landing site.

Alexei Leonov, 'Over the Black Sea', 1973
Alexei Leonov, ‘Over the Black Sea’, 1973. Oil on canvas. (Credit: The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics)

In 1965, Alexei Leonov became the first man to perform extra-vehicular activity (EVA) in space, after exiting the Soviet spacecraft Voskhod 2. His remarkable spacewalk lasted 12 minutes. After his time in space, Alexei Leonov painted this self-portrait of him orbiting over the Black Sea.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991
SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by Zvezda. (Credit: Science Museum / SSPL)

Helen Sharman, Britain’s first cosmonaut‚ was fitted with this spacesuit for her flight to Mir space station as part of the Soviet Juno Mission in 1991.

A 'tissue-equivalent phantom mannequin' flown around the Moon on Zond-7, 1969. (The Polytechnic Museum/State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO)
A ’tissue-equivalent phantom mannequin’ flown around the Moon on Zond-7, 1969. (The Polytechnic Museum/State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO)

The intention of the Zond mission in 1969 was to assess the levels of cosmic radiation that was absorbed by the human body during space travel. This mannequin includes small sensors across its body in order to estimate how this radiation could affect the body.

‘Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age’ ran at the Science Museum in London from 18 September 2015–13 March 2016.

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