Natalia Ryabchikova
Road to the Stars: Pavel Klushantsev’s Space Odyssey

V–A–C Sreda online magazine completes its three-month programme devoted to space and its reflection in the culture, art, and utopian dreams of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In this issue, we publish a text by Natalia Ryabchikova, a film historian and translator, on the Soviet director Pavel Klushantsev’s film Road to the Stars. A science fiction film about human flight into space released in 1957, a month after the launch of the first artificial satellite of Earth, Road to the Stars became an important cultural and social phenomenon not just in Soviet but in world cinema.

Ryabchikova’s essay takes an unusual “road” to the film, and uses archival newspaper publications and written recordings of Klushantsev himself, to ponder how cinema was able to get ahead of science and why Road to the Stars resonated so strongly in scientific and artistic communities.

Introductory title: “A man is flying? But of course!”


COSMONAUTS in brown leather spacesuits take out large handkerchiefs. They wipe their foreheads under leather helmets similar to those worn by aviators. They unfasten their safety belts (with relief). One of the COSMONAUTS casts a sidelong look to the other with a smile, undoing the belt which holds his legs in the seat. Holding himself by the arms of the seat, he jumps up in a sitting position, as though he were trying to push off.

The COSMONAUT slowly rises to the ceiling. His boots dangle at the level of the back of the seat. The remaining COSMONAUTS sit in their places, craning their necks upwards. They smile.


“A man is flying? But of course!
After all, gravity has disappeared.”


My students, future film directors, are children of the twenty-first century. It is difficult for them to watch films about space, and explanations of how weightlessness arises—the film we just watched together passes on to such an explanation immediately after showing a cosmonaut flying up against the cabin ceiling—do not interest them. What is interesting to them is how weightlessness arises specifically on screen, specifically in this film, which was not shot in the far away and unreachable cosmos, but the Leningrad Studio of Popular Science and Educational Films. These frames were not just shot before the appearance of computer graphics—they were shot before astronauts had landed on the moon, before man had stepped out into open space, before the launch of the first manned spaceship and even before the launch of the first artificial satellite of Earth in 1957. A month after this key event, which opened the cosmic era of humankind, the director Pavel Klushantsev presented his film Road to the Stars, which became an important cultural—and social—phenomena in not just Soviet but world cinema.

And while my students ask: “But how was it done technically?,” I ask myself: how was it done at all? How was a cinematographer able to pre-empt science? How was Pavel Klushantsev, who graduated from the cinematography faculty of the Leningrad Photo-Film Technical School in the 1930s able, a quarter of a century later, to pre-empt tens of scientists in the USSR and the world and make a film that cast flight into the cosmos not as artistic or fantastic but scientific? And how did the scientists themselves respond to the film a few weeks after the launch of the first satellite into orbit?

Part I
Title: “This has not yet happened”

In the middle of the 1950s, Pavel Klushantsev began making a film dedicated to the ideas of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky about rocket engineering; the release of the film was planned to coincide with the hundred year anniversary of the scientist’s birth in autumn of 1957. The film was unusual for the Leningrad Studio of Popular Science and Educational Films (and for Klushantsev himself)—on the one hand, Tsiolkovsky was played by an actor, which was more characteristic of a feature film than of a popular science film, on the other, the second part of the film narrated not the past, but the future, showing the accomplishment of the first human flight into space through feature film techniques.

The newspapers in which the final stages of the making of Road to the Stars were described spoke of the future as reality. Conversation “in the present tense” smoothed out the time period between Tsiolkovsky’s reflections and the sending of the crew to the International Space Station:

Chelovek pokidaet zemlyu [“A Man Leaves the Earth”],
Smena [Shift], no. 20 (20 August 1957), p. 3.

“We are at a cosmodrome, located somewhere in the south of Crimea. We gaze at and take in everything around us. In the middle, on the square of the cosmodrome, stands a steel cigar clutched between two trusses. People and cars dash about around it. The concrete field of the cosmodrome, run round with a concrete parapet, is located on a truncated hill. Far off, snow-white official buildings are visible. All the area is girdled by a ring of green trees and mountains. Everywhere we see the lively movement of cars and people. A voice rings out from the radio-loudspeaker:

— All auxiliary staff are to leave the cosmodrome!

The members of the rocket crew enter the cabin, lie down in their collapsible seats and buckle their seat belts. The start tower moves away slowly, revealing the spaceship. Five minutes remain until the start. Start! Tongues of fire flicker under the spaceship. They grow, become more and more resilient. From the seething dust cloud on the cosmodrome, the spaceship rises on a pillar of fire, and, accelerating, moves upwards. Leaving behind fiery traces, the spaceship rises headlong towards the clouds, breaks through them, then disappears behind them.

Where and when was this, you ask? We can set your minds at rest. This has not yet happened. We recounted you an episode from the new popular science colour film, Road to the Stars.”

Though it seemed imminent and inevitable, at the time these reports were published, humanity’s entry into space remained uncertain. The same newspaper, Smena, wrote:

Chelovek pokidaet zemlyu [“A Man Leaves the Earth”],
Smena [Shift], no. 20 (20 August 1957), p. 3.

“… flight in a rocket into the cosmos, to the Moon, to Mars, to other planets, will necessarily take place in the near future. Now, in our days, test launches of aerologic rockets and rockets with living passengers—dogs— are already being carried out. The day is not far now when the first small satellite of Earth will be launched, on which a radio apparatus and instruments for the study of cosmic rays, the radiation of the sun, and the upper layers of the atmosphere will be set up.”

It is symbolic that the newspaper Soviet Culture summed up: “This is fantasy, but, the most real of fantasies, so to speak.” None of the journalists could have guessed, however that only a month would go by before the announcement that this first “small satellite of Earth” had gone into orbit.

The scientists who worked as consultants on the film also did not know and could not have spoken about this. During a discussion of the film at the Leningrad Dom Kino on November 30, 1957, Professor Alexander Markov of the Pulkovo Observatory, who had consulted the film crew on astronomical questions, remembered their collaborative work in this way:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture on 30 November 1957,
Central State Archive of Literature and Art (TsGALI), f. 182, op. 2, dep. it. 68, l. 11.

“When the creative collective of this film visited us at Pulkovo and began to consult us, it was still a time when the question of artificial satellites was not so widespread. It was a year ago, when the attitude to this question was similar to what it would be to a very far away fantasy. The main merit of this film was that even at that time the Leningrad Studio of Popular Science and Educational Films set itself the task of painting a picture that would be as close as possible to science, how it could be and how it would be.”

It goes without saying that during the time he was working on the film, Pavel Klushantsev did not know how close the idea expressed in his film was to the beginning of its practical implementation. He could not have used the real plans, which were classified, and his consultants could not have informed him about the fact that work on the launch of a satellite was actively taking place. Which is why the coincidence of the completion of the work on the film and the release of the satellite was truly a happy accident. At a screening at Dom Kino on November 30, 1957, Klushantsev anticipated the discussion of scientists in this way:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture on 30 November 1957,
TsGALI, f. 182, op. 2, dep. it. 68, l. 4–5.

“In one of the reviews of the film in Soviet Culture one finds such a phrase: ‘when cinematographers want to, they can respond to life events.’

The reviewer decided that we had made the film in the month after the release of the satellite. No, this cannot be done so quickly. Work on the film lasted three years: a year and a half for the preparation of the scenario and a year and a half for the production of the film. In this way, if one expresses thanks to cinematographers, it should not be for the creation of the film in a month, but for its foresight and for its topical interest.

The production of the film presented us with particular difficulties. In contrast to artistic-fantastic films, we wanted to make a film about the astronautics of the future that was as scientifically-founded as possible. We involved a large number of pre-eminent scientist-engineers in the work on the film, created a kind of design bureau that worked on drafts of future spaceships and so on, which set the work on a maximally serious key. And it seems to us that the fantasy you will see on screen in the second part of the film is quite realistic.

The genre is difficult, we are glancing a few decades into the future, and, even though the film does have its audience, we know all the same that we can only go out onto the large screen by using all the artistic methods of cinematography that are not to the detriment of its scientific nature. It is for you to decide the extent to which we were able to solve the problem set before us.”

Part 2
Title: “The development of the technology of the future is predictable to a certain extent”

Naturally, the launch of the satellite and the turning of the eyes of all the world to the cosmos brought attention both to Tsiolkovsky and his ideas and to the film Klushantsev had so timelily made. If Road to the Stars had been more akin to science-fantasy at the time it was made, by the time it came out, it was more akin to traditional popular scientific films—though this did not cancel its experimentality and novelty. Klushantsev understood this perfectly:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture on 30 November 1957,
TsGALI, f. 182, op. 2, dep. it. 68, l. 3–4.

“The film Road to the Stars tells the story of the new science of astronautics, the science of interplanetary travel. This science is in fact not so new, it was born half a century or so ago, but for some reason no one believed they would live to see its realisation in life, to see the practical accomplishment of interplanetary flight.

And it is only today, after the successful launch of two Soviet satellites, that have come to believe we will live to see flight to the Moon and, perhaps, flight to Mars. Only today do we believe in the reality of this undertaking and only today has a widespread interest awakened. Until today, astronautics was the lot of children’s fantasy.

Today, a mass of questions have appeared about what astronautics is, how it developed, what a satellite is, what Tsiolkovsky did, what satellites promise in the coming years and so on. And it needs to be said that, very likely, a motion picture will answer these questions better than anything. Let us remember the Chinese saying: ‘It is better to see once than to hear a hundred times.”

When in October of 1957 fantasy became reality, Road to the Stars had to be urgently completed. An introduction covering the launch of the satellite was added before the start of the film’s first part, a historical-theoretical excursion through Tsiolkovsky’s thought; frames showing the flight of the satellite and a text about the “new celestial body created by the hands of the Soviet people” were inserted before the second part of the film, an artistic-scientific fantasy about man’s flight into the cosmos and the work of an interplanetary space station.

The responsibility of the studio, film crew, and, most of all, of the director increased, as the task before the film was no longer simply the popularisation of Tsiolkovsky’s ideas and fantasising about the future. The burden of explaining the present now fell to the film, of explaining the shining point that continued to circle the Earth. The accuracy of Road to the Stars’s scientific part had to be confirmed once more before the film’s release, and this, it seems, was the reason that Klushantsev turned to his consultants with a request for scientific reviews—a number of them are noted in his archive on October 31, 1957. Professor Markov, a specialist in the study of the Moon, proposed light alterations to the film (“It seems to me that it should have been called Road to the Cosmos. You see the Moon is already the cosmos, while we are still far away from the stars”) but also assured the director: “in general the film is good and of its time and needs to be released onto screens.” The author of a biography of Tsiolkovsky, Boris Vorobyov, confirmed: “The figure of Tsiolkovsky in the film is drawn correctly. Vulgarisation and loud pretentiousness are absent.” Felix Yakaitis, who had been working on the development of rocket motors run on ethyl since the 1930s, wrote:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture,
TsGALI, f. 645, op. 1, dep. it. 60, l. 5.

“It is also clearly shown in the film that no motor other than a reactive one is suitable for the transportation of the apparatus. It is shown that the most suitable apparatus for flight into space is a liquid reaction engine. From the example of the movement of two rockets with differing stores of fuel it is explained that the speed and altitude of the flight of the rocket depends on the quantity of fuel contained within it. Afterwards it is also shown that if it is impossible to fit the necessary reserves of fuel to ensure flight into space into one rocket, than this flight can be ensured through a multistage rocket.”

In his review, Viktor Krylov, the rector of the Leningrad Institute of Instrument-Making and author of works on aerodynamics who had clarified “technical questions related to the representation of space rockets and artificial satellites of Earth” for the Road to the Stars crew pointed out:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture,
TsGALI, f. 645, op. 1, dep. it. 60, l. 6.

“…I consider that the representation of particular objects in the final version of the film corresponds with standard of contemporary scientific views, is accurate and true from the technical point of view, and correctly orients the viewer. […]

In particular frames, models are visually indistinguishable from the real objects. Sometimes, the manner of execution of the models is not entirely in accordance with the real materials. I suppose these inadequacies could be addressed through the selection of colour during printing.

I think that the film as a whole, including the objects on which I consulted, is worthy of total approval, and confirms my opinion of the high skill of the director and of all the collective working with him that I acquired over the process of collaboration, and that the film will doubtless have an important scientific significance.”

By January of 1958, Mikhail Tikhonravov, the lead consultant on the film, had also written a review. All autumn, under the leadership of Sergei Korolev, he had worked closely on the launch of the two first satellites, and received the Lenin Prize for his work at the end of 1957.

of the Road to the Stars motion picture,
TsGALI, f. 645, op. 1, dep. it. 60, l. 12.

“From a technical engineering perspective, one can say the following about Road to the Stars. The technology shown in the historical parts of the film was based on documentary information. The relevant photographs were carefully studied, and the director sought throughout to reproduce documented historical moments not just technically but scenically.

In the final parts, where it was already necessary to fantasise, the engineering structures were designed in advance and thoroughly checked with authoritative engineer-consultants who had been brought in to work on the film for this purpose. The result of their work, sketches of future rockets, interplanetary stations, and so on, were discussed a number of times and one or another decision was only taken in the case of a serious technical and scientific basis. And if in the reality of the future the engineering decisions will have be somewhat different in form—and this will, in all probability, be the case—in general they will be as they are in the film.

Thus the development of the technology of the future is predictable to a certain extent, and, what’s more, to a high degree of verisimilitude. The frames relating to the construction of the space station, for example, are done with great audacity and remain in one’s mind for a long time.”

It is no accident that the question of fantasy in science and of imagination in strict calculation appeared in Tikhonravov’s review—when at the end of the 1940s he had suggested the possibility of using ballistic missiles to send artificial satellites into orbit, few of his colleagues had taken his ideas seriously.

Part 3
Title: “…to find people who are not afraid of fantasising”

Road to the Stars realistically showed how the most improbable of Tsiolkovsky’s fantasies was realised in reality—and, accordingly, that it was entirely possible for the fantasies of contemporary scientists to be realised in the future. Moreover, for scientists, the images of the future brought to life by Pavel Klushantsev and his crew through technological tricks became an opportunity to look directly into this future—not at sketches, not at imaginings, but on screen, as though it were reality. This is why scientists, convinced of the correctness of the demonstration of film’s first, “historical” part, argued over the third, the “fantasy.” About a month after the film’s release, on November 30, 1957, they transformed a discussion at the Leningrad Dom Kino into an arena for the continuation of their own arguments. Would an interplanetary space station really resemble that? Should the astronauts’ suits really look like that (it should be noted that at that time the words “cosmonaut” and “cosmonautics” were used in Russian as frequently as “astronaut” and “astronautics”)? Is that really what the surface of the Moon looks like?

Vsevolod Sharonov, the director of the Leningrad University Observatory and populariser of astronomy who had developed one of the theories of the outer layer of the Moon, stated:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture on 30 November 1957,
TsGALI, f. 182, op. 2, dep. it. 68, l. 6.

“If we want to find fault over trifles, then we can find particular failures from the scientific point of view. For example, the sun rises from the Earth and looks like a red disc, not changing the outline of its look. One should expect letters about this from viewers. Lunar craters with shining bottoms—none of this in fact exists.”

Alexander Markov answered:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture on 30 November 1957,
TsGALI, f. 182, op. 2, dep. it. 68, l. 11.

“With regards to the questions about whether astronomical perspectives are presented correctly, one can note a number of details. In particular, when the Sun rises from the edge of the Earth, then it is not just the Sun that needs to be changed, but the solar halos must be made visible.

In terms of to the surface of the Moon and what is there—great arguments are going on about this in the astronomical world, and astronomers will have to finally decide this question when the first spaceship will actually prepare to land on the Moon.”

Besides the fact that in 1957 scientists had not yet come to a unified opinion on many questions, and debatable moments in the film necessarily had to come down on one side or another of a given hypothesis, Road to the Stars particularly offended its “professional” viewers for its emphasis on the creative component of science. In the hands of Klushantsev, the imagination itself became an instrument of technological progress. Professor Kirill Ogorodnikov, editor-in-chief of  Astronomika magazine, spoke about this at the Dom Kino screening:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture on 30 November 1957,
TsGALI, f. 182, op. 2, dep. it. 68, l. 15.

“Though the science fantasy genre is significantly harder than the popular science genre, its value is significantly higher. Science fantasy lives for centuries. To this day, we read the seventeenth-century stories by Roger Bacon about boats sailing along rivers without sails and so on with amazement and delight. We read the dreams of the Decembrist Odoyevsky with deep interest. We understand that he could not have foretold everything. And we still read even the works of Jules Vernes, despite the fact that much of what was foretold in them has already come about. Why then should we fear mistakes, we must act more boldly!”

This thought also received an answer from the director:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture on 30 November 1957,
TsGALI, f. 182, op. 2, dep. it. 68, l. 25–26.

“We, of course, wanted to fantasise more, but it must be said that it was difficult to find people who were not afraid of fantasising among the engineering scientists. Finding a consultant who answers the of questions what was and what is is a lot easier than finding a consultant who answers the question of what will be.

We performed a significant selective work before we found those among the engineers and scientists who would agree to fantasise. Many consider this a dubious pastime. I met a scientific worker, an engineer, who, smiling, said: ‘This does not suit me, I deal in real things.’

The words of Professor Ogorodnikov made me happy: all the same, we will find engineers and scientists who help us in our work in this genre in the future.”

Part 4
Title: “It is harder to excite with science than with hunting for tigers or unlucky love”

Fantasy was an integral component of the film’s technology—Klushantsev had to decide one and the same things—whether he was speaking about the past, the present, or the future. Whether it was Tsiolkovsky’s drafts, frames of the first satellite flying above Earth or future interplanetary space stations—none of this could be to filmed in a documentary style, everything had to be constructed. In order to show a rocket flying in the sky, the cinematographer had to create not just a rocket, but the sky itself.

V rakete na Lunu [“In a Rocket to the Moon”],
Sovietskaya kultura [Soviet Culture], no. 117 (663) (3 September 1957).

“There it is hanging below the ‘sky’—a ceiling on which more than two thousand bulbs are burning—‘stars.’ Below the rocket, in the basement (as the pavilion was not high enough, it was necessary to break through the floor and carry out the filming from the basement) the cameraman, lying flat on a special trolley, prepared himself and his equipment.”

Pavel Klushantsev created detailed “technical notes” for his films, which at times read like those of Leonardo da Vinci:

Technological records for the filming of the science fiction motion picture Road to the Stars,
TsGALI, f. 645, op. 1, dep. it. 52, l. 4.

“The sky—drawn on a backdrop of 4 × 5.3 meters. An area of the sky in the zenith is depicted. At the edge of the frame—light fleecy clouds, the rest of the sky—pure blue. In front of the backdrop is tulle on a 4 × 5.3 meter frame. On the tule, light feathery clouds are depicted. The rest of the tule—blue.

Light movement of the tulle in relation to the backdrop during the filming lends a kind of ‘airiness’ to the clouds.”

Today, this is called “special effects.” One viewer, B. Yudin, drew the attention of the gathered scientists to the fact that in the case of Road to the Stars, one should talk not just about the achievements of space technology:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture on 30 November 1957,
TsGALI, f. 182, op. 2, dep. it. 68, l. 19–20.

“I consider it a great merit and achievement of the film crew that the film returns us to the inexhaustible and, unfortunately, half-forgotten possibilities of cinematographic technology, which in films of this genre have a colossal significance, as even if there is no individual person’s fate and no ensemble of actors, one [can] compensate the great thoughts that move a film with visual means. And, of course, Klushantsev, who masters this subtle art before our eyes more and more, has done a great thing.

Today this sounds very free. We all know that we perceive a violin piece with one and the same script differently when it is performed by Oistrakh or by a student from the conservatory. From an amateur or a student we feel the difficulty of a passage, as from an inexperienced circus enthusiast or a sportsmen of lower rank. This is the freedom of mastery, we do not feel the difficulty, and this is a colossal difficulty. Klushantsev had gone grey sometime before he made this film, but the work that went into this film would have been enough to go grey from.

I would like to note one more condition. It would, of course, be very elementary to see the fact that the film was launched when the satellite was launched as a chain of accidents and straight coincidence. I think that in principle one can draw a fairly close parallel between the fate of this film and the fate of the real satellite. It is the result of scientific prediction, it is the result of the fact that Klushantsev and his crew’s film, standing at the frontier of Soviet culture, does not lag behind, but is in front, absorbing into itself that with which the country lives. And this is a very important phenomenon, and one should respect Klushantsev for this very much.

This is not an accidental theme, this is is the victory of those scouts who go along with the people. […] Klushantsev is a director-philosopher. There are many features in his manner that liken him to the late S. M. Eisenstein, he approaches a film as a philosopher-thinker, and from this comes a number of the colossal successes of the film, but he is still a little shy with actors, and with the plot, like a blushing damsel.”

At this point, the director recalled that the notion of “popular-science cinema” in the Soviet Union, or, at least, the tradition of its use, did not imply the use of actors or the use of fantasy: “One has all the same to consider that we grew out of technological film, an organism with a bad past, an organism that began with lecture films, with boring scientific films, and that it is harder for us to attain full artistic merit in films than it is for workers of artistic cinematography.” His task was to unite science and art, accurate calculation and emotional perception—truly in the spirit of Eisenstein, who had dreamed about this at the end of the 1920s. By the time Road to the Stars had come out, Klushantsev was able to say:

of the Road to the Stars motion picture on 30 November 1957,
TsGALI, f. 182, op. 2, dep. it. 68, l. 26.

“We have worked in the field of popular-science film for many years and know that it is always thought that science is boring, that only that which is normally reflected in feature films, that is, the personal fate of man, can be interesting.

However, the process of knowledge is so interesting, so vitally, engineeringly, and scientifically full of things to recommend it that I could never understand why they consider this science boring, why the process of consultation is considered boring, why scientific discoveries are considered boring. It’s terribly interesting, and if we take any branch of science, we can always find those elements from which an interesting film can be made, one needs only to immerse oneself in the process through which any scientific discovery is made.

If our films really begin to excite people, then this is good, because it is more difficult to excite people with science than with a hunt for tigers or unlucky love.”

And so how was weightlessness filmed? Soviet journals wrote about one of the means by which this effect was attained through cinematographic means in the summer of 1957, a month and a half before the launch of the first satellite, when the film seemed more fantasy than science:

Polet v kosmos [“Space Flight”],
Leningradskaya pravda [Truth of Leningrad], no. 189 (12911) (13 August 1957).

“How can you show, for example, that in conditions where the force of gravity is absent, the concepts of ‘up’ and ‘down’ do not exist for a person? It’s difficult. And yet it was possible to do it.

Many have seen how a squirrel runs in a wheel. Now imagine a five meter hollow drum, a camera connected to one end, an actor standing at the other. The drum begins to turn along with the camera apparatus, and the actor steps from foot to foot, remaining in place. This funny ‘trampling’ is fixed on camera. And when the representation ends up on screen, the spectator sees how an astronaut calmly walks upwards along the wall of a spaceship cabin, reaches the ceiling, and continues, hanging upside.”

A simple cinema trick.

The End.

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