The London Science Museum, Cosmonauts, and Russians Making History

Introduction: An Alternative History

Under scrutiny from Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the leader of the USSR space program, the Soviets landed the first probe on the moon in 1966. Soon after, in 1968, Korolev applied his innovative approach to space technology to sacrifice a rocket launch to static test the N1 rocket. Thus the Soviets famously landed on the moon on 18 July 1969, two days before the Americans. With a world audience of 650 million, the American fanfare backfired with reports that the Soviets had landed days before them. The American flag, and Neil Armstrongs’ moonwalk, humiliated since a Soviet flag already shadowed the moonscape.

Seemingly confirming the opinions of many intellectuals in the West, the Soviet Union had gone well beyond a mere equal footing with America—after all, the space travel feats beforehand had almost all been Soviet too. The massive resources America put into the space program gave underwhelming results; California alone was a leading economy but the USA managed only another moon landing and a string of satellites! The Soviets meanwhile achieved more with less, a fine example of economic efficiency. The next year they even achieved the first landing on an alien planet, Venus. 

This alternative history is what may have happened had Sergei Palovich Korolev survived, had the N1 rocket launch stages been reviewed, had the Luna team succeeded. Losing Korolev to cancer and the moon race to America, however, may be an indictment of the Soviet system. His illness was exacerbated by years in a gulag. His program was undermined by the pressures of competition with America and his engineer-nemesis Vladimir Chelomei. Thus, an undesirable dictatorship-led rivalry and The Party’s obsession with economic consolidation over innovation are fair criticisims against the USSR system—and its space program failures attributable to both.

Such conclusions though are rationalisations rather than reasons. If a different chain of events had occurred for reasons outside a social model of historical actors amid economic determination (Korolev’s cells were resilient to radiation exposure or he shunned cigarettes so cancer spared him) then we, like the intellectuals of the 1960s before Armstrong’s moonwalk, would leap to causal conclusions about how the tough social system and international competition led necessarily to Soviet victory. 

This post-hoc rationalising is how most in the West think about the space race, yet with America as the winner, not the USSR as in my alternative timeline. American victory is vaunted as symbolic of a greater Cold War win because of historical quirks rather than sober historians’ commentary. (For normative evidence: in the Darwinian Google sorting algorithm, America and Buzz Aldrin come out on top from the searches ‘space race’ and ‘moon race’.) Such historical commentary I deem part of the problem, yet pragmatically provide here in an effort to improve upon it. The history of STEM is woven into self-serving jingoistic narratives which museum visitors and essay readers bring to, and read into, their experiences. It is significant that the first exhibit of Soviet space tech was displayed as late as 2015, and shared the spotlight with an ancillary space power like Britain in lieu of America. The capture of Nazi scientists and rockets, for instance, especially by America with Operation Paperclip, is left out of the rosier cold war narratives which place America on the side of freedom and enterprise. Yet 2200 Nazi subjects, members, and even leaders were coerced into joining US labs to bolster the US space program. A side of the story seldom told by museums serving state narratives. As David DeVorkin says, they “create a symbolic inventory akin to the crown jewels of monarchies and reflecting the power of the state itself.”

Whose Story?

Exhibition and collection objects tell a different story to a simple and heroic American victory promoted in the West. As difficult as it can be to treat objects as artifacts from which to draw inferences from rather than to draw inferences to. The turn to material culture stresses the importance of working from objects-to-stories rather the other way round; valuing induction over deduction. The preposition ‘through’ of Hannah Leonie’s and Sarah Longair’s book History Through Material Culture emphasises that objects mediate history, whereby history emerges or passes metaphorically through them. Thus objects come to play a role in historical inquiry akin to Descartes’ doubt over his candle: taking away narratives and starting from objects and the indubitably obvious, such as the number of objects and their dated chronology for first-principles. Michael Thompson blames Cartesianism for separating objects from ideas, yet overlooks cartesian doubt as fundamental to his own Rubbish Theory project. (His research to understand why we throw what we throw and keep what we keep.) Indeed, working from primary material objects is important because it better resembles the narratives of the past, mitigating hindsight bias. And moreover, offers fewer inferential steps to interfere with developing theories from evidence. If such an approach is taken—the Cosmonauts collection reveals more space objects and associated achievements for the USSR, a relay race victory.       

Granted, the US landed men on the moon and Nasa launched Voyager probes to beyond the heliosphere in the 1970s. Those are impressive feats. At the start of the race, however, the British Press proclaimed ‘Russia wins Race’. Thus the notion of a single race, such as the moon victory, is misleading. As events unfolded there were in fact multiple races, which now are reduced to one race to the moon. Yet the metaphor of ‘the’ race between the two powers is tenuous. Actual races tend to have a timeslot and finish line for victory. Whereas the terms of the space races were constantly changed without a limit on time but on resources. In the early days, America was not even a tangible competitor, despite its promise to launch satellites speeding-up sputnik’s launch. Sputnik launched in October 1957; Nasa launched in July 1958. And if the Soviet Union rover on the moon in 1966 got the same number of viewers as Apollo 11 it would likely hold similar reverence in viewers’ eyes. The Soviet rover story is a tale without an entertaining human interest angle or literal steps, however, the automated example is arguably impressive enough. By the standard definitions of a race, as well—the USSR is first on the moon, to automate sample gathering missions, drive across the moonscape. And land on Venus in 1969. The first spacewalker also, remember, had all the danger and human interest to ignite a romantic imagination down on Earth were it given sympathetic marketing and screen time.  

The Soviet list of achievements, alongside its associated objects, allows a more comprehensive picture of who ‘won’ overall in the terms of sheer number of scientific and technological milestones. Reconsider, now, the Soviet list alongside its associated objects. Imagine how an outsider, as earnest historians try to be objective outsiders, would judge such a record. 

An early portrait of Korolev after a rocket launch and RD-107 engine (the first intercontinetal ballistic missile), Sputnik replica (the first satellite in space), Laika dog model in ejector seat (the first creature), the Vostok VZA seat (the first man Yuri Gagarin), the Vostok 6 descent module (the first woman Valentina Tereshkova), the first space rocket formulae (Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s manuscripts), the enthused theft of Nazi rocket tech (Korolev standing on rocket rubble), a lunar globe (the moon mapped by a Soviet probe, indicative of flyby missions to Moon, Sun, Venus and Mars), the Luna 1 and Luna 9 (the first probes to the moon with images and discovery of solar wind), the LK-9 lunar lander (a moon lander), the Lunakhod 2 (the first landing with robot rover on the moon) the Luna 16 lander robot (first automated lander to bring samples back to Earth), the Venera 7 lander (the first landing on an alien planet, first atmospheric recordings), the colour pencils Alexi Leonov used aboard Voshkod 6 (first spacewalker), space suit from Solyut 39 mission (the first spacestation), and the images captured by Venera 9 (first images of another world). Did America, then, win the space race? It depends on who you ask. The Russian national tourist office, for instance, titles its history as ‘winning the space race’. 

The stories these objects provide is arguably evidence for updating Western-centred narratives. David DeVorkin argues that space historicism favours “the written and spoken word, images, pictorial representations, and the like” yet still maligns objects as primary evidence. Fewer than 15 per cent in the journal Technology and Culture used “material evidence”, and they, DeVorkin explains, for earlier periods than space scholars. But DeVorkin overlooks why space scholars might leave out objects from their narratives and arguments—proximity in time. Unlike forensic anthropologists who piece together past events, the study of space feels ineluctably contemporary and secondary evidence from dynamic sources, like broadcast video and the heated press, competes with other primary material, artifacts, language and technical barriers. 

The mindset and culture of space commentary, moreover, bears its own biases in favouring obviously frontier-orientated tech which associates with present dialogue (like claims of ‘a new space race’ with US-China) more than studying past artifacts for themselves. The trouble with space scholarship, DeVorkin claims, is too little interpretation of objects. This practice is desirable in the Cosmonauts exhibition because it provides accurate insight, new insight, into the orthodox history of STEM. Curator Doug Millard asserts:

“The displays have dwelt on the technological and, sometimes, the scientific, with little consideration of the social, let alone of any cultural contexts in which the technology might be located. Cosmonauts challenged this trend with an exposition that, while including uniquely historic space artefacts, situated them firmly and visibly within a far broader treatment of a nation’s interest in space”. (Emphasis added) 

For an audience to an exhibition which includes the tangible evidence of gradual progress and jerk steps forward the narrative which lauds American victory is doubtable. The ratio between Soviet and US achievements tilts toward the Soviet side; the difference between the fact of written evidence and displayed evidence is stark though. As the idiom runs ‘seeing is believing’, and seeing Soviet objects allows visitors to believe a new narrative and update their own to match real achievements in STEM regardless of red flags or biased Bayesian priors or acculturated expectations. 

Exhibition as Experience

John Dewey asserted that art is experience and art is thus defined by and valuable for its affect upon its visitors. This idea is manifest in Cosmonauts. Both in being an entertaining experience and representing the content of the space race in an experiential context with ‘key characters’ per the exhibition script, and with art entwined with science. Cosmonauts’ exhibitors notably took an artistic and scientific approach in exhibiting what is commonly defined as art, paintings, literally before what is commonly defined as science, rockets. Co-curator Doug Millard notes the deliberation behind its arrangement whereby thinking and a space imaginary preceded tech. Before tech achievements came starry-eyed dreamers, and dreamers who made speculation into industry. The literal placement of the objects follows a timeline which places art and the social scene of revolution and fervent change before, and thus requisite to, scientific achievements. Hence space exploration, Asif Siddiqi argues, begins in revolutionary Russia.

What we think about space is indeed configured—and misconfigured—by imagination. An assumed model of a museum is to edify, and to entertain too, with avoidance of fiction and science fiction. For the sake of audience engagement, however, fiction is tolerated. The presentation of Soviet art before Soviet science demonstrates how the science fiction of the day contributed to genuine scientific achievement. Admittedly this can be overstated. There really is a difference on the continuum between fiction and science, between speculated painted rockets—rocket research was top-secret—and rockets which work. Compare rockets below, for instance. 

The transition from fancy to construction has problems, and rarely follows a pattern of neat progression. Yet thought-up formulae implemented in rocket launches follow a neat theory-to-practice timeline. 

Furthermore, just as an audience may come to appreciate how art becomes science, they can appreciate the art within science. The LK3 lunar lander, for example, as an object can be considered aesthetic for its usefulness, what-could-have-been poignance, and its human story. To reinforce my argument here: the object itself and its embodiment can catalyse a new perspective and update errors in perception about the history of STEM. The LK-3 makes a good case study. Because, contrary to Buzz Aldrin decrying it as a risky craft when he visited the Science Museum in 2015, it really could have been in Apollo’s place. As Slava Gerovitch says: “During three tests in Earth orbit, the [lunniy korabl] lunar lander successfully simulated a lunar landing, two liftoff operations with the primary and backup engines, and an entry into lunar orbit. The automatic control system worked perfectly.” Even contemporary China respects the Soviets’ design for inspiration for its own space program. (Its spacesuits have resembled Soviet Soyuz in the past.) Popular Mechanics’ sources claim China commissioned an LK3 styled build, with updated computer software. The specifications of the LK3, too, are comparable to the American Lunar module. (What held it back was lack of static testing for the N1 rocket.) The LK3 was designed by Sergei Korolev and in detail by Mikhail Kuzmich Yangel; it was made in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine by the Yuzhnoye design bureau; it is composed of landing gear, a rocket stage, a cabin, and operator system with thrusters; its materials were steel-alloy and aluminum, helium gas tanks, water tanks, nitrogen tetroxide propellant fuel, chemical batteries, oxygen tanks, two antennae, a control panel and much else beyond numeration. What such a list of traits means now is an impressive engineering design to rival the Apollo mission or a failed model. What it meant was the future and prosperity of the Soviet system against the capitalist West and Nasa which came to mean the opposite – its failure. But more interestingly—beyond the rundown of traits and their connotations suggested by Sarah Longair and Hannah Leonie—is what they leave out: what the LK3 could mean and could have meant. To Buzz Aldrin, when he visited, its meaning connoted failure because of his biased knowledge and intimacy with space race history, whereas to Alexei Leonev it meant a pathos-ridden vindication of what could have been. For education purposes an exhibit seeks to evoke any such responses in a visitor. What is most important is the response itself, even if merely amused or bemused, and the posing of the questions themselves about what the objects mean now, meant, and will mean in future.

‘Insight’ means to reveal, show, perceive, make aware, understand, and appreciate. The Cosmonauts exhibition achieved these, giving a more accurate narrative to visitors, though with flaws. Flaws like its fake apolitical stance, BP sponsorship, ramshackle scarcity. First, the exhibit portrayed the Soviet Union as initiator—in its very title, Birth of The Space Age—without reference to rate or by comparison to other countries’ achievements thereby implying the United States continues in its place—as though the USSR started a fight that the US finished. The US outlasting does not equal winning the space races. True, the exhibit being a Russian cooperation stresses how Russia contributes ‘to this day’ but the exhibit objects weigh to a past USSR-world rather than a present Russian one. Second, the sponsorship by BP is a troublesome public relations move—allying destruction with preservation—outside the scope here. Third, the exhibition itself from the clean script, online tour, and Google Arts and Culture listing is vague about the wider circumstances beyond mere technical STEM achievement. Obviously related to the prior two points, is that the achievements were treated as valuable as science for science’s sake: the objects are interesting because they are interesting. However, the objects’ interest is not circular: the objects are interesting because they are connected to events. Hence a glove and colour pencils were displayed to represent the first space walker – which tacitly makes them worthy of exhibit – and inevitably downplays the spacewalk’s magnificence. The ramshackle exhibiting is fault of medium and reality: getting all the possible objects in hypothetical-space into the exhibition-space is impossible, getting the objects like Soyuz space station parts bafflingly arduous, and organising the objects into a pleasurable narrative hard too. And lest we forget – expensive. The exhibition, for instance, left out the images of Venus and the RD-4 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The exhibition is interesting not just for what it represents, but for what it leaves out. Sidney Brenner calls this Occam’s Broom: leaving out inconvenient facts to suit a favoured narrative, conjecture, or theory. Granted, limited space, limited resources, biased patronship, more than ideological biases will have affected what was represented. Curators would want to show these achievements. Nonetheless, inconvenience is never defined as intentional misrepresentation alone. What reaches the audience through the filters of convenience is ultimately what an exhibit imparts; and always that is biased. Omitting the Venus images and intercontinental ballistic missiles is a shame. Omitting American-Soviet comparisons is suspicious. The discussion of the race is limited to five mentions in the whole exhibit script! ‘Nuclear’ is mentioned once. Given that the space and missile race are interwoven the absence strangely reveals its taboo and power. 

Repression of such details are nice for audience reception; and is a good talking point now for the goal of a museum space. Is its goal to be a filing cabinet, a community centre, a temple, an artistic experience? If the Science Museum itself aims to give insights into STEM and to educate and entertain visitors (what else?) then the picture provided by Cosmonauts could be better. 

Yet, as the confused goals of a museum outline – temple, community centre, teaching-hub? – the differing goals pull exhibits into mutually exclusive directions. Cosmonauts could theoretically always be better. Having, for instance, a clear ideological line about who won what in the space races would hamper getting the objects from Russia or sour American relations. Discussion of nuclear weapons’ role in space and rockets’ origins in weapons to bomb London would hamper enjoyment of technological achievements. Laying out a linear progress narrative to the stars is liable to accusations of a progressivist bias if not ethnocentrism against nations without space programs. A community centre orientation ignores how brief visitors are to the centre and downplays its function as a learning, rather than social catch-up space. Cosmonauts, however, provides insight into STEM in the objects displayed, revealing a different, Russian centred history, and the opportunity for analysis of Cosmonauts working itself, an object albeit bigger. For example, the Science museum works as a community centre not just for London but for tourists and for the international community who collaborate over knowledge as Britain and Russia did. In that consensus giving sense around knowledge, science, and the world the museum works like a temple with authority beyond question (no Google reviews suggest demolishment), a social forum for people to debate, question, and learn (hence school trips and highbrow speechgivers), and in a simple educational role in providing different information to what is currently thought or unknown (telling a different story about space.) Perhaps though an analogy between an understanding of causality in rocket science and causality in history is the best pedagogical takeaway sadly missing from the exhibit. 

History is not rocket science

Rocket science is complex; history is more complex. (History contains all rocket science, its design and enaction.) On the one hand rocket science is predicated on precision and prediction, and on the other the volatility and complexity of engineering tasks is well-recognised to make precision and prediction constantly difficult. Predicting and managing spacecraft is getting better (at a slower rate post space race), but natural engineering noise ensures accidents remain. With minutiae early changes in the lunar project, for instance, the counterfactual soviet moon landing would have happened. The broadcast of the landing reset initial conditions for public widespread knowledge about the space race; and about who shaped STEM. Citizens pressed to recall the space race today envision the American flag on the moon to be definitive victorious proof. Search ‘space race’ and the US wins in the Darwinian Google sorting algorithm: the US flag, the Apollo mission, and Buzz Aldrin come out on top. The 2015 album Race For Space goes from Sputnik-to-Apollo with America-centric samples. Bias runs deep: even in the curtain-close glasnost era of 1989 The New York Times gleefully ran the headline “Russians finally admit they lost race to moon”. The search ‘космическая гонка’ or ‘space race’ in Russian, however, produces egalitarian results, and its media bears its own biases. History, though, is curated by the victors. And while my reader may boast equanimous historical knowledge, the public contains few historians. A lesson for visitors to the exhibit is not about how complex defining winners in the era was but about how contingent, culturally and geographically and economically, each achievement in the history of STEM can be. A counterfactual reading of science and history, for example, exemplifies the contingencies in what did happen by comparison to what could have happened; and arguably provides for a more accurate and predictive model of the world. (Causality researchers like Judea Pearl work with the counterfactual tool as a missing piece in genuine artificial intelligence.) Were the Soviet program to have the same budget as Nasa, say, the outcomes would change; and the achievement of the USSR, despite a budget the fraction of its rival, becomes more impressive with that knowledge in mind and its actual products – like the Vostok or LK3 – before our eyes. 

A further lesson: the widespread version of events is what is recalled, rather than what was; much as the museological record is what was preserved rather than what was made. 


An axiom of the science exhibit is to inform and entertain but what information do the objects themselves impart? I have argued that a sober look at the objects in hypothetical exhibition and indeed in the exhibition space itself tells a story of a Soviet relay-race victory. But that depends on my reading and my knowledge; were the victory narrative obvious I would not need to argue it; the exhibition itself aimed to show how the Soviets began the space adventure and the imaginary which swept up the Soviet Union and later the whole world. Doug Millard says so. Yet the presumption is that the objects represent the early days and imagination and nostalgic loss in lieu of all days and realisation and nostalgic triumph. This is due to biases, as I have already said but the biases manifest in the intention, object, manner, material and reading of what is represented. The iconic objects, the associated objects, the symbolic objects each have a different affect. In space history the objects themselves are routinely overlooked as primary evidence. Yet that is a disjuncture between the scholarship and the visitor enjoyment gleaned from Cosmonauts. The curator intentions are a mere part of the process. Let us consider the rest in turn—object, manner, material, and subjective reading.  

Iconic representation is resemblance between an original and its re-showing or re-presentation, and fewer steps make for more accurate representation. Hence the original and fuller objects are given prized place and reverence. The Vostok descent module, for example, has pride of place over Leonev’s gloves. Magical thinking abounds in an apparent sacralisation whereby an artefact is valued higher than a copy or a reprint. Walter Benjamin, argued that the sacralisation may be damaged by reproduction and copies, and his thesis manifests in the abundance of art object copies, and middlebrow art and aspirations today. Yet originals flourish in the art market and in the science museum. The embodied experience matters too: seeing in person rather than through a mediated screen is valued higher—hence museums’ ‘information’ on Google seldom diminishes visits; to the contrary, visits are on the increase. Despite virtual tours being widely available and an abundance of information  on Wikipedia,the representation of originals in the space race from the Soviet side also evidences the temporal bias whereby ‘firsts’ are deemed achievements in and of themselves. (Even the marketing for Cosmonauts stressed an appealing exclusivity with ‘shown outside Russia for the first time’) The colour pencils used aboard the Voskhod 2 are a good artifact but represent another step of removal from spacecraft or the spacewalker himself. They are valuable because they are connected indexically to the original first walker (and there is artistic flourish between banal familiar and extreme space tech placed beside each other). The value of space tech firsts is self-evident whereas colour pencils have to be explained into value. Colour pencils on a Kensington street would be ignored; a lunar lander would garner attention. The explanation of the pencils’ association, in the web of nearby objects, assigns them durable value rather than rubbish or transient status. Were colour pencils at the exhibit opening visitors would be confused; yet were they framed or placed by Bansky or enlarged to lander size—humans would lavish attention. Indeed, the attention to detail and minutia in the exhibit represents the Soviets in space in a humanising and comprehensive way. And in doing so represents and changes visitors’ narratives compared to those they entered with.

Reader, perhaps your narratives have altered in reading this. Cosmonauts was educational and entertaining, it taught people what they had never been led to know and did it with an embodied experience which allows beliefs to change more easily than with mere facts or sheets of statistics. Namely, that the USSR contributed more to space exploration than the USA did; that space exploration began in revolutionary Russia rather than the manifest destiny of Californian dreams; that objects can be read for more accurate accounts of history; that science industry has roots in science fiction art, in imagination; that counterfactual narratives and would-be scenarios demonstrate contingencies and fragilities in history and the space race; that small changes in initial conditions have massive impacts in historical timelines, much like a rocket malfunction can hinder Russian humanity walking the moonscape; that most historical beliefs are post-hoc rationalisations graced with hindsight bias; that stories compete amid media and national interests; that biases in culture and feasibility hamper accurate representation; that an exhibition is an artistic experience which weaves some of the functions of a filing cabinet, community centre, and temple; that representation works by objects standing-for ideas and events by resemblance, indexical association, or acculturated custom, variable in object type, manner, material, intention and the ever subject-relative reading and rewriting history plays out.


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