The more alien we become, the more human we remain

Jon Sutton reports from the Science Museum's 'Cosmonauts' exhibition.

‘Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever’. – Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, 1911

Featuring prominently in the Science Museum ‘Cosmonauts’, that quote, from the Russian physicist and theoretical father of rocketry, captures the sense of escape and maturation found throughout this exploration of the Soviet space race. It’s not a psychological exhibition, nor would you expect it to be. But in amongst the hardware, art and design there are trajectories forged by fuel but truly made in the mind.

‘Cosmonauts’ is, for example, the story arc from dreams to reality; from the first dogs in space (anthropomorphically described here as ‘brave’) to men and women; from solo missions to the cooperation of the International Space Station and Mars 500 project, learning to battle with technical difficulties and not with each other.

It’s also the story of how the ‘race for space’, and the individuals running it, could shape an entire nation. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was a remarkable individual who apparently stood out due to his positive nature and sense of humour, but in fact his working class upbringing and photogenic smile were just as vital in what was a hugely symbolic and political choice. The strategy worked, with the media going ‘Ga-Ga’ over their first cosmonaut. Several triumphalist, chest-thrusting, fist aloft statues are to be found in the exhibition, bringing to mind modern masculinities and a certain Vladimir Putin.

Similar statues of female astronauts are notable by their absence, but to their credit the Soviets were pioneers in equality. Valentina Tereshkova deserves a whole exhibition to herself, and I would have loved to have seen more about her hopes and fears on becoming the first woman in space.

On the surface, this exhibition is all landing modules, control panels and cooling trousers, sophisticated modern technology that somehow looks disconcertingly primitive. Yet in reaching out to alien worlds, our humanity remains core. Mission control is all about managing human experience, mediating everything from crucial instructions to sentimental messages from family. The ISS has been an ongoing experiment in cooperation between once-hostile nations. And if we are to truly colonise our solar system and beyond we will need to call on psychology even more, as shown in Oleg Vukolov’s 1981 painting of the Sevastianov family found towards the end of the exhibition: the cosmonaut’s apparent readiness for a Mars mission contrasting with the lost, lonely look of those left behind.

Recognising the importance of the space race for the psychology of an entire nation, the US threw huge amounts of money and expertise into it and grabbed the initiative with the moon landing. But ‘Cosmonauts’ is a reminder that it was the Russian space programme which launched us into a new era of human experience. The next era, leaving the cradle far behind as we launch on to alien outposts, will remain grounded in what makes us uniquely human.

- Cosmonauts runs at the Science Museum in London until 13 March 2016, and costs £14 (concessions available). For much more on the psychology of space travel, alien contact and more, see our October ‘Out of this world’ issue.

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