Page last updated at 01:00 GMT, Friday, 18 March 2011

Treasures of the Soviet Union's space industry

Yuri Gagarin's capsule
Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth at more than 17,000 mph (27,000 km/h)

By Richard Hollingham

Nearly 50 years ago, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space when he orbited the Earth for 108 minutes before landing.

As historical artefacts go, it is not much to look at - a charred cannonball, 2m (6ft 6in) across, its centre hollowed out to - just about - allow a man to fit inside.

In 1961 this Vostok capsule carried Yuri Gagarin around the Earth. Considering the importance of the spacecraft - and today's nostalgia in Russia for the achievements of the Soviet Union - few people ever get to see it.

The real airlock Alexei Leonov used for the first space walk

The capsule is displayed in a private museum run by the state-owned space company Energia and it can take months to arrange a visit.

I have been obsessed with space exploration from an early age, so once inside the museum, I could barely contain my excitement.

Alongside Gagarin's spacecraft, there is the capsule that took the first woman into orbit, Valentina Tereshkova. There is the first space capsule to carry three people and the spacecraft flown by Alexei Leonov - the first man to walk in space.

And with the Soviet space programme once shrouded in secrecy, only now are the more colourful details of these missions emerging.

Take the three man capsule for instance - Voskhod-1 - it was so cramped that the cosmonauts could not wear spacesuits.

The story goes that one of the engineers warned the chief designer, Sergei Korolev, that the slightest leak of air would kill those on board.

'Smallish elephant'

Korolev's solution was to appoint the engineer as one of the cosmonauts, figuring that this would help motivate him to make the capsule as safe as possible. All three cosmonauts survived the mission - although others were not so lucky.

Inside the Mir training module

Today's Soyuz spacecraft does not look much different from those pioneering designs. It is even launched on a rocket that would not be out of place in a 1950s sci-fi annual.

So what is it like to be stuck in one of those canon balls being blasted into orbit?

"Like having a smallish elephant sit on your chest," according to retired Colonel Belyayev, who has taught countless cosmonauts how to survive the extreme gravitational forces involved.

The colonel was responsible for the enormous centrifuge machine, which cosmonauts use in training. It is the largest in the world - a giant rotating arm that spins around within a drum-shaped building to simulate launch and landing.

As a tutor, the colonel was the first to try it out so he could teach people how to stay conscious at up to 12Gs.

Like most things spacey in Russia, the Soyuz training facility is gloriously retro, if not a little kitsch

And not only conscious but capable of pressing the right buttons in a confined space, in a spacesuit, on top of a noisy, bumpy rocket. I may like space but that is why I have never wanted to be a spaceman.

The centrifuge is at Star City, which sounds much grander than it is.

A complex of crumbling concrete blocks on the outskirts of Moscow, Star City was once the secret training centre for Soviet cosmonauts.

These days you are as likely to bump into an American, Canadian or European astronaut in the canteen. Narrowly avoiding a couple of Japanese astronauts cycling past through the snow, we head into the building where all these space men and women learn their craft.


Like most things spacey in Russia, the Soyuz training facility is gloriously retro, if not a little kitsch.

Controls inside Soyuz simulator
Soyuz simulators at Star City help the astronauts prepare for space flight

The three simulator capsules spread out along an aircraft hangar of a room are raised on platforms reached by carpeted stairs lined with pot-plants.

The capsules are surrounded by instruments with giant levers and dials - the sort of hardware sadly lacking from today's touch-screen world.

To be fair, the rest of the controls are in an adjacent room full of shiny new computers.

But even today's Soyuz capsule is a curious mixture of the old and new - in order to dock to the space station the commander uses an optical periscope which sticks out of the side.

"Why not a camera," I ask?

"Why make it complicated?" replies the colonel.

And that is the great thing about Russian space technology - it may look a bit dated, but it works. I have seen Soyuz launched in a blizzard - the slightest gust of wind delays the Shuttle.

When I first reported on the Russian space industry in the mid-1990s, it was at its lowest ebb.

Space was considered a luxury the country could ill afford - the Buran space plane had been cancelled, space station Mir was a liability, and the official state space museum was being used as a car showroom.

Colonel Belyayev told me that he hoped the Russian space programme was now being "re-energised", and Russia appears to be reasserting itself in space.

The International Space Station is based on Russian expertise, supplied by Russian rockets, and soon to be commanded by a Russian. There is even talk of nuclear powered spacecraft and missions to Mars.

In comparison, with the Shuttle about to be retired and funding cut, the American space programme seems lacking in ambition.

Fifty years after Yuri Gagarin first orbited the Earth could the real winner of the space race be Russia?

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