Defeating Earth's Gravity: It All Comes Down to Money

08/10/2015 16:01 BST | Updated 08/10/2016 10:12 BST

World Space Week, the biggest international celebration of space science, technology and exploration, falls between October 4th and 10th each year, marking respectively the anniversaries of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 and the signing of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967.

Our latest exhibition at the Science Museum, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, also celebrates the launch of Sputnik 1, an event that amazed the world and gave Soviet Russia the first great achievement of the new Space Age.

As well as looking back at this remarkable first in space exploration, Cosmonauts brings us up to the present with a real Soyuz descent module displayed amongst an array of space suits and life support equipment used on space stations. Soyuz TM-14 was launched to the Mir space station on March 17th, 1992 - the first Soyuz to be launched by the Russian Federation. Inside lay Kazakh Alexander Viktorenko, Latvian Alexander Kaleri and Germany's second cosmonaut Klaus-Dietrich Flade - each squashed foetal-like, their knees in front of their chins, into individually tailored Kazbek couches.

Flade's ticket to space had been paid for by the recently unified Germany and was the first example of the cash-strapped Russian space industry trading its spaceflight expertise to earn much-needed foreign currency from the Europeans.

By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more and the Russian Federation was born into a world of massive economic reform, with the ruble in very short supply. This was one of the main reasons the United States and Russia ended up collaborating on first the Mir and then the International Space Station; Russia had unrivalled experience of living in space - two decades of orbital space station operation - while the US had an alternative means of launching heavy payloads into space (the Shuttle) and all-important dollars.

A quarter of a century later, in 2015, the Shuttle is gone and the Russian Soyuz is now the only way to get to and from the International Space Station - the latest stage in a decades' long seesawing of space power capabilities. Back in the 1960s, it was President Kennedy who committed the USA to land a man on the Moon that decade and enabled the necessary funds and organisation to be put in place. Despite this there were many who still assumed the Soviet Union would make it to the Moon first. After all, the triumph of Sputnik had been followed by a run of Soviet firsts: first dog in space (Laika, 1957); first pictures from the Moon's far side (Luna 3, 1959); first human in space (Yuri Gagarin, 1961); first multiple crew (Voskhod 1, 1964); first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, 1963); first spacewalk (Alexei Leonov, 1965); first robotic landing on the Moon (Luna 9, 1966).

In reality, the Soviet and American achievements of the 1950s and 1960s were built on command economies with access to vast sums of state funding. The United States reached the Moon when its previously dispersed space programme was given first some focus by President Eisenhower (created NASA, 1958) and then clear instruction and the funding to carry it out by President Kennedy (project Apollo).

Today, we still send humans into space, but the next big challenge will likely have to do without the big bucks of the first space race: whether the mission is to send people to Mars or perhaps to reconnoitre an asteroid.

At the close of the Cosmonauts exhibition we encounter a single figure, a golden painted mannequin that was sent around the Moon in 1969 to measure the levels of radiation in space. This inert android was sent on a mission considered too dangerous for humans at the time and in the exhibition it helps us to question the future of human space exploration.

Today we can land robotic spacecraft on comets and asteroids and send back the most sublime images of Pluto. Do we need to go to Mars when our artificial emissaries can explore the solar system at a fraction of the cost?