Cosmonautics Day is celebrated on 12 April, the day Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and remains a holiday that people are unsure how to celebrate. Government-sponsored mass celebrations in Russian cities attract only a few bored bystanders. The Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan might seem like a timely and obvious destination for enthusiasts, but a simple Google search might put you off immediately: it’s expensive (from $1000 for a two-day visit), hard to schedule (even for a tour without watching a launch you need to get a special permission to enter) and unreliable (launches get delayed and tour groups can be temporarily banned from entering in case of technical malfunctions). The Moscow region’s Star City, which still houses most astronaut training centres offers a slightly cheaper version of Baikonur, but you can also only get in with a guided tour. If being stranded outside Almaty or getting into a bus with 15 other tourists doesn’t sound like your kind of adventure, read on for a list of space-themed sights you can work into your schedule in Moscow and elsewhere.
Yuri Gagarin monument (Moscow)
Of the numerous monuments to Gagarin in Russia, this is probably the most famous. Despite being tucked slightly out of the way on Leninsky Avenue, by the Leninskiy Prospect metro station, it was designed to be seen from afar – a 42.5 metre-high column topped with a statue of Yuri Gagarin in a Christ the Redeemer-like pose. At the foot of the monument is the space capsule of the Vostok-1 ship that brought Gagarin down to Earth after his historic 108-minute space journey. Symbolically, the construction is made from titanium, the material used in spaceship construction, and was revealed in 1980 in time for the Moscow Olympics. This statue, together with the Monument to the Conquerors of Space, are featured in the Pet Shop Boys 1993 video for Go West.
First Sputnik monument (Moscow)
Situated just outside the Rizhskaya metro station, this monument was originally installed in 1958, a year after the first Sputnik launch. Now it is surrounded by shopping malls and roads, which ironically contrast with the message of the sculpture: a male worker in an apron holding a sputnik above his head, as if launching it into outer space, and an inscription declaring that it was the proletariat that was the moving force behind Soviet space exploration. The monument’s pedestal reads: “To the creators to the first Sputnik of Earth 1957”.
Buran space shuttle and Vostok rocket prototypes (Moscow)
Situated in the VDNKh exhibition park, this Buran ship is a prototype and serves as a museum. Buran was the first Soviet space shuttle and was meant to be the start of a programme that was cancelled with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It also holds a Guinness world record as the largest spacecraft to orbit and land unmanned in 1988, during the only flight it managed to complete before the programme was shut down. Only several prototypes of the plane exist: the one on display in VDNKh was initially used for training before being redesigned as an interactive museum. Most visitors to the museum agree that reading up on the spacecraft and looking at it from the outside is enough of an experience – you can only enter with a guided tour that is aimed at children. A prototype of the famed Vostok rocket is situated close by on the main alley of the park.
Monument to the Conquerors of Space and Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics (Moscow)
The monument, depicting a rocket rising on its exhaust plume, is situated just metres away from the VDNKh metro station and is a short walk away from the park that houses the Buran and Vostok rocket prototypes. The design was chosen through a competition announced after the first Sputnik launch, and the monument was unveiled in 1964. It is 107 metres tall and, like the Gagarin statue, is made entirely from titanium. The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is situated in the building at the base of the monument and houses an impressive collection of artefacts connected to the history of space exploration – various spacesuits, Soviet moon rovers and space-themed posters and postcards.
Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics (Kaluga)
This museum, situated in the town of Kaluga about 200km from Moscow, is dedicated to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a prominent rocket scientist and one of the founding fathers of cosmonautics, who lived most of his life in the town. Despite the unusual location away from most of the country’s tourist hubs, the museum’s collection is known as one of the best, and is more heavily focused on science. It contains a prototype of part of the Mir space station and an original Vostok rocket that was a standby during Gagarin’s flight on Vostok-1. Many also note the modernist building that the museum occupies — designed by architect Boris Barkhin, the first stone in its foundation was symbolically laid by Yuri Gagarin.
Samara Cosmos Museum (Samara)
Samara, a city situated on the Volga River, is an important research and industry hub for the Russian space industry. This museum is the newest one of the bunch – it was only opened in 2007 – and because of that the collection is not as impressive as other museums that focus on the history or science of space flight. A large part of the museum’s collection is made up of engines and other parts – an obvious choice given the museum’s proximity to all the country’s leading rocket industry plants. But what makes the museum unique is its location: the collections are housed in the base of a giant memorial Soyuz R-7 rocket pedestal. The rocket used in the memorial was produced in the town’s space rocket factory but was then stripped and gifted to the museum. There’s also a vending machine that sells Russian cuisine in cosmonaut-friendly food tubes.