First picture drawn in space to appear in cosmonauts show in London

Sunrise sketch by Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, is part of ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ Science Museum exhibition on Russian space programme

The first artwork created in space, a small yet remarkable view of a sunrise drawn as Alexei Leonov was hurtled around Earth on board a tiny Voskhod 2 spacecraft, is to leave Russia for the first time.

Leonov’s coloured pencil drawing will be among 150 artefacts going on display at the Science Museum in London when it opens a major exhibition on cosmonauts later this month.

Leonov was awarded a Hero of the Soviet Union distinction after becoming the first person to walk in space in 1965. On the same mission, Leonov, an enthusiastic and talented artist, drew the view of the sunrise. Given his circumstances, it was astonishing.

“Imagine,” said Natalia Sidlina, curator of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, “you are fully dressed in your warmest clothes, then you have skiing gear on top of that, a motorbike helmet and you are strapped to a chair in a tiny, tiny circular spacecraft, which is orbiting the Earth at a very high speed.”

Then there is the fact that the craft was designed for one person but contained two. And the problem of using pencils and paper in zero gravity. “You can imagine it being a bit of a nightmare … but he wanted to stop the time and share this moment with other people,” Sidlina added.

The pencils were adapted to deal with weightlessness – though not in a particularly hi-tech way. A rubber wristband was attached to the packet and individual threads to each of the pencils.

Sidlina said it was a joy to have the drawing in the show. “Delighted doesn’t come close, we are absolutely thrilled.” She described the pencil sketch, made on 18 March 1965, as “a personal view, from an unprecedented vantage point”. She added: “It is also a symbol of the relationship between art and science and, in particular, the importance of art and artists in bringing the Earth and the cosmos closer together.”

Alexei Leonov’s Over the Black Sea, 1973.
Alexei Leonov’s Over the Black Sea, 1973. Photograph: The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Leonov went on to draw portraits of his colleagues while in space and views of the Earth and has continued to make art inspired by his experiences. As well as the sunrise sketch, the Science Museum will feature his 1973 oil painting Over the Black Sea, a self-portrait depicting his space walk in 1965, when for 12 minutes he floated above the planet tethered to his ship by a 16ft cable.

It was a hugely important breakthrough, albeit one that almost ended in disaster as Leonov’s Golden Eagle space suit expanded so much that he could not re-enter the spacecraft. That forced him to open a valve to lower the suit’s pressure beyond the safety limit, risking the bends. He exhausted himself as he contorted his 1.9-metre length into the 1.2-metre diameter airlock.

Leonov, who trained with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space in 1961, is the last surviving cosmonaut from the Voskhod programme.

The exhibition is groundbreaking in many ways. “We are bringing exceptional objects from Russia for the first time,” said Sidlina. “Most of the objects have never left Russia and most are coming from restricted access institutions. Some of them had to be declassified.”

The show will examine what was behind the deep-rooted Russian yearning for space travel and how it was shaped by its turbulent history in the early decades of the 20th century.

Among the exhibits will be the 1933 drawings by rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, which show space flight, weightlessness and life in orbit three decades before it became a reality.

The exhibition will also explore the role of the Russian space poster in bringing public attention to an industry shrouded in secrecy.

Star exhibits include Vostok-6, the capsule that carried Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel into space, on her mission in 1963.

Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum, said: “Cosmonauts is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition that has taken years of dedication and skill from the Science Museum team to make a reality. The Russian space programme is one of the great intellectual, scientific and engineering successes of the 20th century and I am thrilled that we have been able to bring together such an outstanding collection of Russian space artefacts to celebrate these achievements.”

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age is at the Science Museum in London from 18 September-13 March 2016.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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