From Tverskaya Street to the Moon: How people in Moscow signed up for a space flight in 1927

August 14

The Museum of Cosmonautics is hosting an exhibition, For Peace and Progress, dedicated to the Soviet Union’s cooperation with other countries in space exploration. One of the sections is devoted to the first experience of international cooperation in the space industry, the World Exhibition of Interplanetary Vehicles and Mechanisms, held in Moscow in 1927.

Check out an account of the legendary exhibition, its organisation and participants, and the connection between scientific thinking and works of fiction prepared by and Mosgortur (Moscow Recreation and Tourism Agency).

From fiction to real science

The rapid development of technology, which began in the 19th century, gave an impetus to a new genre in literature, science fiction. The term “science fiction” was not coined until a little later, at the beginning of the 20th century, and was first used by the American publisher Hugo Gernsback. “By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story,” he explained.

Those names were on everyone’s lips among the reading public in various countries. But their fantasies concerning space exploration perhaps aroused the greatest interest: Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon: A Direct Route in 97 hours, 20 minutes was a bestseller in 1865; The First Men in the Moon by Wells was a top book in 1901.

H. G. Wells

In Russia, one of the pioneers of this genre was scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who wrote several fiction stories in his spare time – On the Moon, Dreams of the Earth and the Sky, Outside the Earth and others. But, of course, Russian science fiction flourished in the 1920s – the time of Yevgeny Zamyatin, Alexander Belyaev, and Alexei Tolstoy. Their works had a great influence on more than one generation of readers and writers: the Strugatsky brothers said it was Soviet science fiction of the 1920s that had the greatest impact on them as authors, not H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.

One of the top Soviet science fiction works of those years was the novel Aelita by Alexei Tolstoy, first published in the Krasnaya Nov magazine in 1922. The success of the story about a journey to Mars where people meet an alien civilisation was consolidated by its screen adaptation. Produced in 1924 by the legendary Soviet director Yakov Protazanov, it was the first Soviet science fiction film.

Frame from Aelita directed by Yakov Protazanov. 1924

Dreams of interplanetary travel captured minds. Many inventors and scientists became inspired by fiction to create their own drawings and models of space rockets. Most of them remained on paper, but apart from the romantic pursuits in the 1920s, real steps were also taken. The first international show of achievements in the nascent space industry was the World Exhibition of Interplanetary Vehicles and Mechanisms held in Moscow in 1927.

Exhibition in Kiev

Yet, before the Moscow event, there was the Exhibition for the Study of World Spaces that opened at the Kiev House of Communist Education on 19 June 1925. It was initiated by young enthusiasts led by mathematician Dmitry Grave.

The exhibition comprised five sections: astronomy, radiotelegraph, aeronautics, meteorology and interplanetary travel. The last display, dedicated to the exploration of outer space, contained drawings and projects by engineer Alexander Fyodorov. The main exhibit of the interplanetary section was a three-metre model of his cruise nuclear missile ship (it was later brought to Moscow).

Alexander Fyodorov with a model of his rocket. Museum of Cosmonautics

The Kiev exhibition remained on display for more than two months and closed on 1 September 1925. Incidentally, one of its visitors could have been Sergei Korolev, who went to the Kiev Polytechnic Institute in 1925, but there is no reliable evidence of that.

The success of the Kiev exhibition showed Alexander Fyodorov and his associates from AIIZ (an Association of Inventors) the public’s keen interest in outer space and the exploration of interplanetary space. Shortly after the Kiev exhibition ended, the AIIZ members began to prepare for a more ambitious and high-profile event that was to showcase the works of Soviet scientists, engineers and enthusiasts, as well as their foreign colleagues. Letters with offers to participate in this event were sent to all corners of the world, and many got a positive response.

Participants from all over the world

Hermann Oberth, a pioneer of global cosmonautics, was among the first to confirm his participation in the exhibition. He was happy to send copies of his works to Moscow. Oberth was one of the scientists inspired to study space by Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon. At the exhibition, the German scientist represented Romania: back at that time, he was a professor at the universities of Romania’s Cluj and Medias.

Austrian Max Valier, a follower of Hermann Oberth’s ideas, was fascinated by rocket cars and planes, was another notable participant of the Moscow exhibition. In his letter to the exhibition’s organisers, he wrote: “Unfortunately, I have no rocket ship yet that could cover the distance from Moscow to Munich in an hour, but I hope this wonder will happen in several years.”

Just three years after the exhibition, in 1930, tragedy struck: Valier was killed while testing a new rocket.

Max Valier’s stand. Museum of Cosmonautics

Several scientists who were reluctant to share their discoveries and achievements also sent their works to the Moscow exhibition. Robert H. Goddard from the US, the inventor of the first liquid-fueled rocket engine, regarded other scientists not as colleagues but competitors who wanted to steal others’ ideas. There were not many exhibits at his stand. By the way, if Jules Verne’s book influenced Hermann Oberth’s future, H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds decided it for Goddard.

Robert H. Goddard’s stand. Museum of Cosmonautics

Anticipated opening of the Moscow exhibition

The opening of the Moscow exhibition was scheduled for 10 February 1927, the 10th anniversary of the February Revolution, but time ran out on the preparation. At the end of January 1927, the organisers, who defrayed all the expenses, wrote to potential participants:

“The Association of Inventors is aware that you are working on space flights and perhaps will agree to take part in the exhibition we are organising by sending your works such as copies of manuscripts or printed material as well as sketches, blueprints, models, diagrams and tables.”

The first International Exhibition of Interplanetary Vehicles and Mechanisms opened in Moscow on 24 April 1927 at 68 Tveskaya Street. Visitors could see the first exhibit, a three-dimentional panorama of the Moon’s surface, in the window. This installation was a real advertisement for the exhibition: a lot of people came in simply because they were curious about the unusual sight.

The organisers envisaged the stand of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who marked his 70th birthday in 1927, as the pivotal point of the exhibition. This section showed copies of Tsiolkovsky’s works and blueprints as well as a model of his rocket. In addition, visitors received free leaflets with his works. Tsiolkovsky also wanted to visit the exhibition, but couldn’t due to his poor health. However, he wrote a letter to the organisers thanking them and expressing confidence that a person of their generation would fly to space.

Tsiolkovsky’s stand. Museum of Cosmonautics

After touring the exhibition, visitors were able to sign up for a flight to the Moon: there was a special book in one of the halls. Some people took this as joke, but still many were enthusiastic about signing up. Those who predicted such journeys in literature were also commemorated: there was a section dedicated to Jules Verne and H. G. Wells next to the scientists’ stands.

The organisers recalled that 300–400 people came to the exhibition every day, and 10,000 visitors toured it in just two months.

“I cannot express my surprise that you, with so little money, managed to organise such an interesting exhibition full of material,” Soviet scientist Konstantin Rynin wrote to the organisers soon after the opening.

Learn how international space cooperation started and developed at the exhibition For Peace and Progress held at the Museum of Cosmonautics until 6 September.


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