Cosmonauts: How Russia gave birth to the space age

Although America’s Apollo 11 mission took the first man to the moon, it was Russia who achieved the majority of man’s first off-planet adventures. 12 years before Neil Armstrong took his famous first steps, Russia had launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. Only four years later they were able to send the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin. This sent a strong message to the Americans – they were determined to dominate the space age.


Gagarin spent less that two hours in space, but became an international celebrity after his voyage to the great beyond


The Soviet Union launched Sputnik into an elliptical low Earth orbit on 4 October 1957. It was a 58 cm polished metal sphere, with four external radio antennas to broadcast radio pulses


The first man to perform a space walk was also a Russian. His name was Alexei Leonov, and his incredible feat took place on 18 March 1965. It was marketed as a huge success by the Russians, but in actual fact Leonov’s walk very nearly ended in catastrophe. Eight minutes into his walk his space suit ballooned to an alarming size; he could no longer feel his hands and his legs had begun to shake uncontrollably. He disobeyed a direct order from Sergei Korolev (the Soviet Union’s lead rocket and space craft engineer at the time) and opened a valve on his suit to bleed some of the pressure.

This allowed the suit to shrink in size, but still made his reentry into the space craft incredibly difficult and put him in danger of getting ‘the bends’ as the pressure level was now unsafe. He was forced to enter head-first rather than leg-first as he had been trained to do, and had to contort his body just to get into the airlock safely. This was unfortunately not the end of his difficulties, as the module’s hatch failed to reseal properly, causing the craft’s automated systems to flood with oxygen. This made returning to Eearth incredibly challenging and resulting in the cosmonauts landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan, in polar forests inhabited by wolves and bears. They jumped out of their space craft, Voskhod 2, and ended up neck deep in snow. They were eventually rescued by ‘comrades on skis’ the next day.


One of the few images taken of Alexei Leonov’s space walk in 1965


The Science Museum currently has a Cosmonaut exhibition, which is now open! Explore the historical, cultural and spiritual context of Russian space travel, shaped especially by the turbulent early decades of the twentieth century. See poignant testimonies and memorabilia belonging to some of the biggest names in spaceflight and discover the deeply personal stories of the pioneers who kick-started the space age.

Click here for more information!

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