Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Conquering Space Has Transcended Political Differences; the Science Museum's New Exhibition Tells the Russian Side of the Story of Humanity's Greatest Achievement

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Conquering Space Has Transcended Political Differences; the Science Museum's New Exhibition Tells the Russian Side of the Story of Humanity's Greatest Achievement

Article excerpt

Byline: Roger Highfield

WHEN another millennium or two has passed there's no doubt in my mind about what historians of the future will highlight as the most significant event of the 20th century, one that sent out shockwaves across culture, from art and science to politics and technology too.

It is that gravity-defying moment that humans first ventured beyond the confines of their home world to launch the next great phase of exploration. Our efforts to capture and record that moment perfectly illustrate the profound role of culture to soar above politics, along with the enduring legacy of the Cold War.

The space age dawned on October 4, 1957, with the "beep-beep" of a little silver sphere, the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1, and was followed by the launch of an assortment of stray Moscow street dogs, before the first spaceman and spacewoman, Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, made headlines around the world in 1961 and 1963.

Those epic events will be celebrated next month at the Science Museum with our autumn blockbuster exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, which will recount this greatest of human adventures through original spacecraft, memorabilia and works of art.

I don't want to downplay the significance of America's Apollo programme. If I could name my favourite inspirational object currently on show in the museum it would be the Apollo 10 command module, launched in the dress rehearsal for the Moon landings. Every time I look at this brown, burnt and cracked spacecraft it seems even more amazing today, in 2015, that it got within a few miles of the Moon than it did to short-trousered me back in May 1969, when it blasted off.

But there's a much deeper, richer narrative to be found in Cosmonauts. Many trace the ancestry of modern rocketry back to Peenemunde in Nazi Germany, where the first long-range guided ballistic missile, the V-2 rocket, was developed and used to attack London, falling out of the sky at more than twice the speed of sound.

However, the real story dates back much further than this harbinger of the Cold War missile age, to the late 1800s and the rise of the Cosmists, a Russian movement that meditated on the origin, evolution and future of the cosmos and humankind. Their roots can in turn be traced back much further, to Ancient Greece.

One Russian who was gripped by this philosophy was the polymath Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who is often portrayed as the grandfather of Soviet space travel. He was inspired by a dream that still strikes a deep chord: that space travel would allow humanity to abandon an Earth that has been ravaged by natural catastrophes. He dreamt of international space stations as early as the 1890s and in 1903 was the first to calculate it was possible to reach outer space using liquid-propellant rockets.

Russia's October revolution of 1917 not only saw the revitalisation of its literary and artistic scene but a renaissance of sciences too. A decade later, in Moscow, on Tsiolkovsky's 70th birthday, the Association of Inventors and Inventists opened "The World's First Exhibition of Interplanetary Equipment, Mechanisms and Historical Materials". …

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