Home » London Book Review - Non Fiction » Book Review – Cosmonauts : Birth of the Space Age , edited by Doug Millard ( Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers Ltd)

Book Review – Cosmonauts : Birth of the Space Age , edited by Doug Millard ( Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers Ltd)

Cosmonauts_FC hi-res

This book accompanies a landmark exhibition at the Science Museum, London which opened 18th September 2015 and runs through until 13th March 2016. The exhibition is a major collaboration with The State Museum Exhibition Centre ROSIZO, the Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos. The exhibition features rocket engines, actual craft that carried humans into space, and the spacesuits, equipment and personal items of cosmonauts. The book includes a series of essays by cosmonauts, space historians and family members of space pioneers.

This is a book that charts the birth of the space age and how a nation turned the dreams of space travel into reality. This story is all the more remarkable because for decades the Russian space programme was shrouded in mystery and secrecy, even now much of the information is still classified.

In the first chapter space historian Asif Siddiqi explores some of the origins of Russia’s fascination with space, Russia in the inter war years underwent a space fad which inspired thousands of Russians to turn science fiction into reality. The Russian Revolution turned the nation from a predominately peasant society to a society which saw science and technology as the vital ingredients for creating a ‘brand new world order’. Ordinary Russians were encouraged to discuss and learn about modernisation, one person who was inspired by developments in space exploration was a the village school teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Tsiolkovsky’s great-granddaughter Elena Timoshenkova discusses how the school teacher’s obsession with space led to a series of writings that went beyond science fiction and offered some practical ideas of the potential and problems of space travel.

Whilst Tsiolkovsky was one of Russia’s great thinkers on space, there were many others inspired by the potential of space. Art historian John Bowlt considers how many  artists, writers and scientists began to illustrate the Soviet dream with a cultural movement that allowed people to see hope that the new Russia can create the new worlds both on earth and in space. However in the 1930s, utopian ideas were being discarded for more practical solutions to real world problems, Sergei Korolev was to play a pivotal part of the practical application of new technologies for rocketry. Nataliya Koroleva writes of her father Sergei Korolev, the ‘Chief Designer’ who led the Russian programme to develop rockets and satellites in the 1950s and 1960s. She also writes about how her father suffered greatly during Stalin’s purges but managed to return with the triumph of the launch of Sputnik and, later, helping to launch the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.

Valentina Tereshkova’s daughter Elena tells the remarkable story of her mother who after Gagarin’s famous flight, wrote a letter asking to be taken on as a cosmonaut. After overcoming a number of obstacles, she finds herself on the night before her famous journey being visited by Sergei Korolev and Yuri Gagarin. Becoming the first woman in Space in 1963, changes Tereshkova’s life forever as she becomes one of the most famous women on earth.

Tereshkova has a malfunction on the return to earth and this and following articles, Saving a Space Station and Emergency on Mir illustrate that the pioneers in the Space age were often faced with considerable dangers. The interview of Vladimir Dzhanibekov by Natalia Sidlina recalled the mission in 1985 when the Soviet orbital station Salyut-7 station stopped responding to calls from the ground and all contact with it was lost. The decision to send a crew of two experienced cosmonauts to carry out repairs led to one of the most difficult and dangerous manned space missions ever undertaken.  After an extremely hazardous manual docking, the cosmonauts were faced with a frozen space station with no systems working. Once they got some solar panels working another problem arose,
Dzhanibekov recalls ‘Once the station had thawed out, there was water everywhere… Water and electricity together are very dangerous.’ This was a bit of an understatement, but remarkably they managed to get the space station back into working order.

The next chapter Emergency on Mir explores another accident on a space station which could have been fatal, Cosmonaut Aleksandr Lazutkin relates from his diaries how his 1997 mission to Mir was disrupted by a terrifying fire that threatened to the whole space station. Once again the bravery and ingenuity of the crew prevented a disaster.

The next chapters concentrate on some of the innovations that were vital to space travel but are often overlooked, Natalia Sidlina interviews Sergei Pozdnyakov, Director General and Chief Designer of the Scientific-Production Enterprise Zvezda, which develops Russia’s spacesuits and other life-support technologies. Sidlina also investigates Star City the secret facility just outside Moscow that housed training facilities and was home for many cosmonaut families. Julia Tcharfas explores the important world of the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) with Mark Belakovskiy. For decades the IBMP has conducted research into how humans respond to life in space – from early questions of basic survival to recent experiments on the likely physical and psychological effects of longer manned missions.

The final chapter looks at some of highlights of the Cosmonauts exhibition which include exhibits and collections of Russian space objects and images that have never seen outside of Russia and tell the extraordinary story of the early Russian space programme.

This remarkable book presents an unprecedented collection of historic objects, photographs and artworks from the Russian space programme. It places the Russian space programme in its historical context and allows some of the pioneers of the programme to tell their own stories. In many ways it is a story that has been suppressed for decades due to the secrecy of the Soviet period and offers genuine surprises. For anyone interested in the creation of the space age, this intriguing and informative book is a valuable reminder of a time  when  science, politics and pioneering individuals come together to write a new page in human history.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information or to buy a copy of the book, visit the Scala publishers website here

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