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Science in the Spotlight: Cosmonaut

Cosmonaut

Co-commissioned by Edinburgh International Science Festival and supported by Creative Scotland through the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, Cosmonaut from writer Francis Gallop premieres as part of the Science in the Spotlight programme at the Edinburgh International Science Festival 2017. Showing for three nights only (3-5 April), we find out more about the piece from Francis…

What was the inspiration behind Cosmonaut?

Eight years ago my cousin was clearing out magazines, amongst them I spotted a "Fortean Times” with a story about two Italian brothers whose interest in space was sparked by Sputnik. They built probably the only full scale space tracking station in the world run by amateurs. Their activities went mainly unremarked until they released a recording in late 1960. They claimed it was evidence of a failed Soviet manned mission months before Yuri Gagarin was announced as the first man in space. Other recordings followed; heartbeats, the dying breaths of an unconscious man, a woman crying for help as her capsule burnt up on re-entry. Each recording is more dramatic and unsettling than the last. This was the beginning of the “Lost Cosmonaut" conspiracy theory which is still alive today. I was gripped by the story and wanted to know more.

As I deepened my research I found the Italian recordings led nowhere other than an echo chamber of unchallenged and unsubstantiated repetition. The story has been re-exploited by dubious cable channel “documentaries”. Each reposting, each comments thread reduces the story until it becomes simply “Evil Russians mercilessly fire young men to their death”. When I talked about the recordings to friends and colleagues their reaction was often “yeah, I bet that really happened”. I was intrigued by the allure of this ghoulish idea. 

Meanwhile my research on the real history of the Soviet space programme revealed a story as gripping and certifiably true. The “Chief Designer”, Sergei Pavlovitch Korolev was a single-minded visionary who steered the Soviet’s nuclear missile programme to achieve his ambition of taking mankind into space. As a survivor of Stalin’s brutal purges he knew how dangerous his actions were. He was denied two Nobel prizes, firstly for Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, and then for the successful mission which put the first human in space. On both occasions the Soviet authorities refused to name their lead scientist stating that it had been the collective effort of the whole people that had achieved these goals. Here was a figure who truly was a “lost”, and one whose incredible work should be known and celebrated. 

Edinburgh International Science Festival

Who is the performance for?

Cosmonaut is a show for anyone who looks at the stars and wonders. 

In his early 20s Korolev had a group of friends experimenting with rockets. They made their first engine from a converted blow torch. The only way to get the high-grade steel they needed for parts was to melt down cutlery. They had a vision. Korolev was inspired by a scientist of the previous generation, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a reclusive mathematical theorist who lived in a log cabin. Korolev worked from first principles, working towards achieving Tsilkovsky’s concepts of space stations and moon bases. He had it all mapped out; the Moon by '67, the Red Flag flying on Mars by ’75. 

Both men combined in their nature great technical and theoretical ability, along with a capacity to dream vast dreams. So, whether you look at the stars and think about escape velocities and faster than light speed travel, or you picture a child playing on a distant world, you share these qualities with them and with our story. 

The notion of the lost cosmonaut is also at some level a romantic one. It appeals to our taste for doomed heroism. Amelia Earhart and Captain Robert Scott have similarly inspired many hours of screen and stage drama. I decided that the two brothers could become one allowing me to focus on their younger sister, who was their Russian translator. This then also allowed a conduit for an impossible romance to flourish with the Cosmonaut. It’s a love story.

What do you hope audiences take away from Cosmonaut?

Once I’d immersed myself in Korolev’s life story my intension became clear. The play’s purpose is to bring into public view a figure who should be as famous as Neil Armstrong. This is the man who took humanity into space. But I saw that the lurid hook of the “Lost Cosmonaut” story was where to begin. I repeatedly found that people were initially more interested in this seductive hoax than they were in the true facts. However, as the scale of Korolev’s purpose and achievements are revealed the lies are scorched away. 

I believe the reason that conspiracy theories in general flourish, even in the face of directly contradictory evidence, is that they appeal to strong prejudices that the listener already holds. They do not wish to hear the facts, they do not fit their beliefs. We are living through a period where news media itself is becoming a battle zone, and the tag “Fake News” is used repeatedly to achieve a kind of denigration through repetition. 

So, I hope audiences will take two key things away from the play. One is simply a knowledge of who S.P. Korolev is and what he did. The other is an invitation to be sceptical; to question the seductive lie, no matter how well it is told, or how much you want to believe it.

Cosmonaut

What role can theatre can play in bringing scientific ideas to life?

Scientific concepts about the mechanics of space flight and the workings of radio are threaded through the narrative. They sit naturally as part of the telling; one could not tell the story without them. We experience, through the characters, obstacles and solutions in way that allows us to understand the “story” of the science.

Detailed technicalities of Korolev’s work would be hard to stage, however his vision for humanity's future in space is pure drama. So too is the story of his survival and release from the Kolyma Gulag which he barely survived. He attributed this himself to “three miracles” and there, straight away, Korolev the story teller has gifted me with a dramatic spine. 

What do you have planned for Cosmonaut following the Edinburgh International Science Festival?

Our fruitful collaboration with the Edinburgh International Science Festival has always been seen as a first step by both parties. We’re very keen to expand on the opportunity that they and Creative Scotland have given us. We intend to tour Cosmonaut and are currently seeking partners and opportunities with which to take that conversation forward. Site specific theatre is a passion of mine and I would love to see the piece staged in a major cold war site. There’s a gigantic nuclear bunker near our house in Corstorphine I have an eye on. I’d also like to explore weaving back through the piece an original idea to include British Sign Language as a second and equal performance language. 


Cosmonaut performs at Summerhall from Monday 3 – Wednesday 5 April as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Find out more and book tickets.

This article was published on 31 Mar 2017