Soviets woo Europe with space exhibit. Show chronicling space achievements said to be largest
The Mikhail Gorbachev Show has come to Kaatsheuvel. Russian folk music wafts gently through the gigantic exhibition hall. Smiling Soviet guides speaking several languages escort curious visitors from one slick display to another. And dazzling audiovisual demonstrations repeatedly tout Moscow's achievements in space.
The crowds love it, and no wonder. This is said to be the largest exhibition of Soviet space technology ever seen in the West -- 150 tons of assorted orbital gear spread over 45,000 square feet, from space suits to space capsules, all in the heart of De Efteling Family Leisure Park, Holland's rough equivalent of Disneyland. Millions of men, women, and children from all over Western Europe visit the park every year.
Many Western diplomats see the exhibition -- dubbed ``Interkosmos 1986'' -- as the latest attempt on the part of the new-style Soviet leadership, guided by Mr. Gorbachev, to woo the hearts and minds of the West European public to the Soviet cause.
``We hope the exhibition will enable people in the West to better appreciate Soviet accomplishments in space,'' says Hanni Uku, an astronomer from Estonia who has been enlisted as one of seven Soviet guides on hand to inform and charm inquisitive visitors. More than 250,000 people have passed through the exhibition turnstiles since it opened at the end of March. It closes Oct. 19.
In recent weeks -- in what some diplomats view as further evidence of Gorbachev's wide-ranging effort to win over West European public opinion -- the Soviet bloc's economic organization Comecon agreed to open negotiations aimed at improving relations with the 12-nation European Community. These talks, due to begin next month, may lead to the first formal recognition of the EC by the seven East European Comecon countries (including the Soviet Union) since the EC was founded in 1957.
Some observers have also noted that the exhibition just happens to coincide nicely with the Kremlin's recently accelerated campaign to persuade commercial satellite owners in Western Europe to place their payloads on Soviet launchers. The aim reportedly is to take advantage of the technical problems that have grounded some Western launchers, including the United States space shuttle. Soviet officials, however, insist that the Kaatsheuvel exhibition has been on the drawing board for years.
Whatever its underlying inspiration, the exhibition chronicles an impressive record of Soviet achievements in space, beginning with the work of mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who according to literature available at the exhibition, ``foresaw and described practically the complete development of space travel.''
Also given wide play is Sputnik 1 -- the world's first satellite (launched in 1957). Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to walk in space, is duly honored, as is the longest manned space flight (made by three Soviet cosmonauts in 1984). The undisputed hero of the Kaatsheuvel exhibition is Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who 25 years ago became the world's first man to fly in space -- to the profound embarrassment of scientists and politicians in the US and elsewhere in the West. Garagin was killed in 1968 in an airplane accident.
It must be said, however, that the exhibition is not an all-Soviet show. Financial support has been provided by several American and Dutch multinational corporations. The TV sets used for the audiovisual displays (including the one broadcasting live Moscow programming via Russia's Gorizont satellite) were made by Philips, the Dutch electronics giant, and ITT.
And at a souvenir shop, plastic models of the US space shuttle Columbia are on sale alongside other US space memorabilia, including 18 ``Original NASA Design'' arm patches commemorating various US ventures into space, beginning with the Apollo series of space flights and ending with the ill-fated launch of the Challenger spacecraft in January.