By Elspeth Houlding, PR Officer at the British Science Association


This blog is part of our series of space blogs for World Space Week.Explore the evolution of spacesuits, listen to an audio tour of the active missions in the solar system, hear the soundtrack for space exploration or discover what flowing water on Mars really means for space exploration.

The very thought that there is a gigantic stretch of space beyond the visible sky has always sparked an intrigue in my mind. Recently, the New Horizons probe has returned beautiful images back to Earth of Pluto, and I started to wonder how the history of space exploration began. As part of a series of space-themed blogs I was curating for World Space Week, I visited the Cosmonauts exhibition and interviewed the curators.

I met with Doug Millard, Senior Curator of the Space Gallery and Cosmonuats exhibition, and Alexandra Smirnova, Curator of the Cosmonauts exhibition, ready to write a story about the trials and tribulations of putting together this fascinating exhibition. However, Doug and Alexandra opened my eyes to the volume of beautiful art intertwined in Soviet space history, and displayed throughout the exhibition.

The Soviet space program was responsible for a greater amount of space exploration than I originally thought, including; launching the first earth satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, launching the first animals into space, and, in 1961, sending Yuri Gagarin on a single orbit as the very first human in space. They launched the first women into space in 1963, beating NASA by almost 20 years, and these are only just a few of their ‘firsts’.

Throughout the exhibition, whenever a major space event occurred, a striking piece of art was produced in celebration. The Russian people were encouraged to exchange ideas about space exploration, creating posters, pamphlets, articles sculptures as space fever swept through the nation.

Looking at the pieces, it’s clear to see the sheer pride the Russians have for their space advances. Depicted in the style of heroic realism, with bold, vibrant colours and powerful slogans, these posters capture the intensity of an era which was modelled by dramatic competition and secrecy, but immense pride and great scientific advances.

I was surprised and delighted to find out that this was the first time that art has actually been displayed at the Science Museum, a big step for the Museum.

Walking into the exhibition, you're greeted with ‘New Planet’ by Konstantin Yuon (above), a stunning depiction of Russian revolution of 1917, showing the revolution as a cosmic event, the birth of a new world. The painting features people in commotion, laced with wonder, fear or astonishment at the marvel before them.

Many high-profile people were recognised in the space race paintings. Sergei Korolev was the chief rocket engineer responsible for the Soviet Union’s achievements in space exploration, and the genius behind Sputnik 1 and Yuri Gagarin’s space capsule, Vostok 1. He was immortalised in a portrait, also featuring the Luna 9 space probe which he designed. Korolev was a key missile engineer during World War II, and went on to build launch Sputnik 1, Luna 9 and many other satellites and interplanetary probes. 

One thing I found particularly astounding about the exhibition was the story of Alexei Leonov. Leonov was an accomplished artist and pilot, and had to choose between his two passions. He decided to pursue his love of flying and on 1st March, 1965, he became the first man to walk around in space. He was famous of taking colouring pencils into space, sketching a sunset whilst in floating in space. When he was back on Earth, he painted a stunning self-portrait (image on the left) where he's mid-spacewalk, orbiting over the black sea, encapsulating his excitement and the sheer vastness of space.

Many young people are often forced to choose between science and the arts, but Russia may have this sussed. It’s clear to see that art has been key in Russia’s scientific history, influencing science, maths, engineering and technology through different art forms. 

I think that’s what we need to do in the UK. Let's show the public that science is as creative as art, and take a lesson from the Russians. 

Celebrate World Space Week-  Take part in a space-themed CREST project or discover more about deep space with our space blog series.

Image 1: A painting by Yuri Korolev. Chief Designer, 1969 © The State Tretyakov Gallery
Image 2: A painting by Alexei Leonov. Over the Black Sea, 1973 © The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics