Photo: Galina Balashova Archives

The Soviet Architect Who Drafted the Space Race

Galina Balashova's futuristic illustrations propelled the Soviet space program.

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Aug 18 2015, 12:30pm

Photo: Galina Balashova Archives

During the space race in the 1950s and 1960s, the task of designing the look of the Soviet Union's booster rockets, orbital laboratories, space shuttles, and other masterworks of engineering fell to one woman: Galina Balashova. For the budding architect in the midst of a militarized rush into space, the work was also a chance to bring the principles of architecture into places it had never been before.

"The interiors of spaceship is also architecture, [as] architecture is organisation of space and projecting of interiors is the architectural aim," Balashova, who is now 84, told me by email. "So I never felt that I changed my profession but I [also] never dreamed about space. Never. And my decision to become an architect arose because when I was a small girl I loved to sculpt small houses from loam, so my grandmother said, 'You should be an architect' and I became one."

Design for the typography on a space shuttle from the Buran program, Baikal variant (1978). Image: Galina Balaschova Archives

Her delicate and rich watercolors and pencil illustrations—the design templates for the Soyuz capsules, for the Salyut and Mir space stations, and for the Buran program, the Soviet space shuttle—are testaments to functionality, and have served multiple generations of Russian spacecraft up to the present. But they are also gorgeous works of art, like relics from a nearly forgotten future.

Her own work, much of it once top secret, has itself nearly been forgotten, even within Russia.

But a new book and a retrospective in Frankfurt are bringing Balashova's work back into focus. Philipp Meuser, an architect and the editor of the book, Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Programme, remembers discovering Balashova's spacecraft designs in 2001, in an issue of the Russian design magazine Project Russia. He was awestruck, he said, by the seemingly extraordinary role she played in a military-influenced space program that didn't appear to value excessively creative design.

"[It was an] 'exotic' task for her as an architect within a world of engineers," said. "Exotic in terms of the unique task as the only architect [and] designer in one of the most secret projects of the Cold War. Moreover, exotic as space design for a space without gravity." Surrounded by engineers, Balashova's artistic panache would make her, he said, the "creative mastermind behind the Soviet space program."

Design for the technology module of the Mir space station (1980). Image: Galina Balashova Archives

Balashova began her career as an architect in 1955 in Kuibyshev, modern day Samara, a southeastern city that played a leading role in the development of Soviet aviation, and for a time served as the center of the country's missile defense shield. Her job involved surveying the city's residential buildings so that their ornamental design elements like stucco and sculptures—signs of bourgeois decadence—could be eliminated. In 1956, Balashova accepted the Senior Architect position at OKB-1, the Soviet Union's Experimental Design Bureau.

Study design for a two-family house, 1951. Image: Galina Balashova Archives

Balashova's initial architectural work at OKB-1 was wide-ranging.

"I designed the Palace of Culture [in Moscow], monitored urban development plans and coordinated the renovation of a large firm," she writes in the book. "My areas of responsibility also included green belts and memorials. Thus, among other things I also contributed to the design of a monument to Friedrich Arturovich Tsander which was to be built in the southern Russian city of Kislovodsk in honor of the builder of the first Soviet missile GIRD-X."

Balashova's work on such projects eventually caught the eye of Sergei Korolev, OKB-1's founder and the lead Soviet rocket engineer, who transferred her in 1963 to the department in charge of the design and construction of spacecraft.

"I started to work [on] space [projects] accidentally, because when spacecraft became longer, cosmonauts needed more spaces in the ships," Balashova says. "So engineers made a habitable module, but made it without thinking about comfort and cosiness, and Korolev didn't like it. And one of Korolev's assistants who knew me, recommended me for the interior project. And this design was my first space project."

Design for Soyuz spacecraft's command center with typical bucket seats used to this day. Image: Galina Balashova Archives

The interior would become the living area of the Soyuz spacecraft, which would become perhaps the most reliable rocket and orbital module for human space flight. The Soyuz featured a habitation module, but its re-entry module could also function as living space.

"Balashova was responsible for those issues relating to spatial proportions, the psychological effects of colors or the functional distribution of technical equipment," Meuser writes.

Notably, she integrated a lack of gravity into her design, choosing dark colors for the floor and bright colors for the ceiling. There was an important psychological effect to this, given that astronauts, so accustomed to life on Earth, would be less likely to get disoriented inside the Soyuz's habitation module. Balashova was also responsible for lighting and furnishing design, including living areas, a cabinet equipped with a bookshelf and a folding table, all with a range of colors intended to improve human orientation in zero gravity.

"Balashova's designs reflect the Soviet understanding of technology: lots of experiments and creativity," Meuser said. He called her "the first architect ever to create something that we can identify as a theory for designing space with no gravity."

Design for the cabin of the Mir space station, final variant of the interior fittings (1980). Source: Galina Balashova Archives

When making illustrations for the Soyuz spacecraft's habitation module, "I approached my designs as follows: first I produced sketches that created the basis for a watercolour drawing," Balashova writes. "This watercolor was then presented. When drawing objects, I used dimension plans at first before presenting three-dimensionally in watercolor."

"The plans served workers in the model factory as a basis for the production of full-size models," she continues. "These models matched these spacecraft in even the smallest detail and were also manufactured from metal instead of wood."

Illustration study of the Soyuz-M living area. Image: Galina Balashova

By 1964, Balashova had risen to a senior engineer position in the Soviet lunar programme, charged with overseeing and designing spacecraft interiors, from layout to colors and furnishings.

Balashova even painted the murals for the interior of the Soyuz habitation module. She chose a winter landscape from her home city of Lobyna, the view from her apartment, and the summertime beach in the Black Sea city of Sudak, among other scenes. Sadly, these murals no longer exist, as they were incinerated in those parts of the module that burned up during re-entry.

Balashova wasn't only the lone architect and illustrator at OKB-1: she was also the only woman at the design studio. Despite that Balashova said she didn't feel that gender was an issue at OKB-1.

"I worked there like an ordinary architect. The difference was only in the technical condition, and I never had some problem because of my gender," she said. "I had to study lots of new technical things, but I worked together with good engineers and they always helped me."

Design for the name placement on the outer shell of the Mir space station (1980). Image: Galina Balashova Archives

In the years following 1964, Balashova was tasked with designing the lunar orbital spacecraft. Unfortunately, the design—finished in 1969—was never used, because the Americans beat Russia to the moon that same year. After this disappointment, Meuser explains that the Soviet space program—now conducted by the RKK Energiya Space Corporation—began to emulate its American counterpart. But Balashova's influential design work would pop up again: in the Soviet flair of the space shuttle clone Buran, and in the interiors of the Soyuz T and Soyuz TM carrier rockets, and in the International Space Station to this day.

Balashova's most widely-seen work began as the motif for lapel pins distributed at the Aerosalons exhibition in Le Bourget, Paris in 1973. This design featured an illustration of the spacecraft used in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight, launched at the height of the Cold War.

The design proved so popular that it became the official emblem of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, later appearing on U.S. and Soviet stamps, in addition to collectibles like chocolate boxes and tableware. Balashova benefitted little from the exposure: Moscow patented the emblem and refused to give her authorship credit.

But the existing Russian space program owes a debt to her, said Meuser. "One can even say that she is the only professional person in the USSR who ever thought about space technology as a design issue," he said. "There have been many artists working in that field, but their contribution was more [in] contemporary art, not space travel."

Balashova's most widely-seen work began as the motif for lapel pins distributed at the Aerosalons exhibition in Le Bourget, Paris in 1973. This design featured an illustration of the spacecraft used in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight, launched at the height of the Cold War.

The design proved so popular that it became the official emblem of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, later appearing on U.S. and Soviet stamps, in addition to collectibles like chocolate boxes and tableware. Balashova benefitted little from the exposure: Moscow patented the emblem and refused to give her authorship credit.

But the existing Russian space program owes a debt to her, said Meuser. "One can even say that she is the only professional person in the USSR who ever thought about space technology as a design issue," he said. "There have been many artists working in that field, but their contribution was more [in] contemporary art, not space travel."

Details on a control panel in the Soyuz orbital model, 1964 – 1965. Image: Galina Balashova Archives

Balashova continued working as a space architect for the Soviet Space program up until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. She still loves to make watercolour paintings, but now her scenes are set on the Earth, never in space. As much as Balashova helped visualize and realize the spacecraft that would help carry humans upwards, she says she's had no desire to ascend to such orbital heights herself.

"Even if I have been associated with space travel for almost three decades and have continued to follow the development of this daring human discipline from the very beginning, I myself have never wanted to fly into space," she writes. "I love my job since striving for harmony and determining the correct dimensions—still to this day—fascinated me, but to put it briefly, space has never appealed to me the same way architecture does."

Top: Balashova working on the prototype of the Soyuz 19 space capsule which she designed in 1975.