The National Space Centre’s Most Spaceflown Artefact

The National Space Centre’s Most Spaceflown Artefact

16/09/2021Written by Dan Kendall

The National Space Centre's most spaceflown artefact.

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The National Space Centre's Apollo 17 Moon rock, on loan from NASA - Credit: NASA

Have you ever wondered what the most space-flown object in the National Space Centre collection is? If not, why not? I mean, it’s a good question, right?

You might argue that our Apollo 17 Moon rock sample spent quite a long time in space, it having been part of the Moon and all that. Or maybe the Barwell meteorite, which spent billions of years orbiting the Sun before landing in Barwell on Christmas Eve 1965 – some of which was done before the Earth had even formed into the loveable planet we now know. And rely on.

But I’m not talking about things that spent a long time in space; I’m talking about objects that have been in and out of space several times. And that’s rare, as most of what we send into space doesn’t come back. Even fewer things come back and then get launched into space again.

Helen Sharman at the National Space Centre, March 2020. Credit: Stuart Hollis
ESA astronaut Tim Peake reading a book from Helen Sharman on the ISS. Credit: ESA

Back in 2020, we put an object on display that has been into space twice – Yuri Gagarin’s signed autobiography. The book was taken into space by Helen Sharman, who was given it as a gift at Star City during her training to become the first British astronaut in 1991. Or cosmonaut, seeing as she launched in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Fast forward to 2015 and Tim Peake was preparing to become the first British ESA astronaut on his Principia mission to the International Space Station. Recognising the significance of his flight and its connection to Helen’s historic mission, Tim contacted her to see if there was anything she would like him to take to space.

Helen offered the book, making this a twice-flown space artefact. It almost didn’t make it. The ground crew for Tim’s flight was not happy with him putting something flammable into his personal kit underneath his seat. However, when this Russian team found out it was Yuri Gagarin’s autobiography Tim was talking about, any safety concerns they had simply melted away!

The Kazbek couch with Helen Sharman's Sokol suit from her training - Credit: NSC

Two spaceflights is good, but four is doubly good! And four spaceflights is what our Kazbek couch can claim. If it could. It’s a seat, so it doesn’t have much to say on the matter.

If you’ve visited the National Space Centre, then I’m sure you will have seen the Kazbek couch. It is proudly displayed in our Into Space gallery, with Helen Sharman’s Sokol KV-2 rescue spacesuit, which she used during training. And when she lifted-off into space, she was sat in that very same Kazbek couch. Yes, this special seat was the one used for that historic moment in British spaceflight history. But it wasn’t the first time it had left the planet.

In total, our Kazbek couch has been used on four missions. First, Oleg Atkov sat in it as he launched into space in 1984, before Muhammed Ahmed Faris flew in it in 1987. Helen’s flight was in 1991, before Norman Thagard used it on its last flight in 1995. Over the course of more than ten years, it flew millions of kilometres around the Earth inside four different Soyuz spacecraft.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson sitting in a Kazbek Couch during test fitting - Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov
Mount Kazbek

The reason all this recycled use was possible, was that each person sitting in it had their own purpose-built liner that fitted into the couch. Liners were moulded to the individual, to ensure they fitted perfectly into this important part of the Soyuz spacecraft. Each Kazbek couch provides shock absorption and safety restraint, to help protect the astronaut from the g-force experienced during launch and landing.

Now that I’ve captured your interest in this incredible Kazbek couch, you might wonder about the name ‘Kazbek’?

Well, like many Russian pieces of space hardware it is named after a thing. For example, the Sokol spacesuit means ‘Falcon’, the Orlan spacesuit translates to ‘Sea Eagle’, whilst the Forel hydrosuit, used for water safety in case of emergency, is fittingly named in honour of the majestic ‘Trout’!

For Kazbek couches, they are named after Mount Kazbek, a dormant stratovolcano in the Caucasus Mountain range. After all, nothing quite says ‘safety and comfort’ like a stratovolcano…

So, the National Space Centre’s most frequently flown artefact is probably our Kazbek couch. Although once the next round of ESA astronauts is selected, we hope more Brits might return Helen’s copy of Gagarin’s autobiography into space – it would be nice to see the Kazbek couch’s record broken one day!

About the author: Dan Kendall is the Curator at the National Space Centre.