The Croydon buildings that point to the cosmos

By - Friday 6th November, 2015

We direct visitors to ‘the visa office’, but Lunar House and Apollo House show us how to reach for the stars, says Sean Creighton

The names of Croydon’s Lunar House and Apollo Houses on Wellesley Road in central Croydon were inspired by the landing of the Apollo 11 mission on the moon in 1969. This was a major success for the United States in the Cold War space race with the Soviet Union. The pictures of the moon landing captured the imagination of the world.

Back in April 1961 the world had also been astonished by the successful Soviet launch and return of Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1. Cheering crowds lined the Mall on July 14th 1961 on his visit to London. Fifty years later his daughter unveiled a statue outside the British Council offices in Central London, since moved to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Present at the ceremony was Helen Sharman, Britain’s spacewoman who went with Russian colleagues to the Mir space station in 1991. A developer now proposes to build Gagarin Square at 55 Southwark Street, a 30-storey tower inspired by the engineering behind Gagarin’s flight in 1961. Southwark Council has refused the planning application and the developer intends to appeal.

Gagarin’s three day visit to Britain in 1961 was so packed it was extended twice. As well as having lunch with the queen and meeting prime minister Harold Macmillan, he visited the Soviet exhibition of technology and business at Earl’s Court. Having been a foundry worker, he was invited to go to Manchester by the Union of Foundry Workers. There he insisted on being driven in an open-top car past large crowds even though it was pouring with rain. A British Pathe news film can be seen on YouTube as can Richard Dimbleby’s interview with him on BBC TV.

He found time to attend a garden party in his honour organised by the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union, of which my father was secretary. I can still visualise how small and sparky he was. Anxious to enter the SCR’s building, before anyone could stop him he opened a door next to where he was standing, only to come out laughing, as it was a toilet. The other high point of the event for me was the astronomer Patrick Moore’s very proficient and upbeat piano playing.

Gagarin and Sharman are featured in the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition at the Science Museum in South Kensington which runs until 13th March.

The 1917 revolution encouraged many to contemplate new worlds

1963 saw the first space woman, Valentina Tereshkova. The moon landing put the United States in the lead, continued with the Apollo programme. The Soviets embarked on a different approach the development of the Salyut and then the Mir space stations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Russian Federation and the United States agreed to collaborate on an International Space Station. Repeated disasters of the US space shuttle (the loss of Challenger on January 28th 1896 and Columbia on February 1st 2003) brought the programme to an end in 2011, leaving the Russian Soyez ‘as the sole means of launching cosmonauts and astronauts’ to the station.The exhibition shows how Russians pioneered space travel with visions of being able to do so starting before the 1917 revolution. The revolution ‘encouraged many to contemplate new worlds, both on Earth and out in the cosmos. Enthusiasts gathered to design rockets, while others engaged through art, literature, cinema and architecture.’ Key to the development of the space programme was Sergei Korolev who died during an medical operation in 1966. October 1957 saw Sputnik 1. The United States responded by setting up NASA.

I hope that Croydon’s children open their minds to science and technology

Meeting of the Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Relations.
Photo author’s own.

The exhibition concludes with the following statement: ‘The Russian space programme launched us into a new era of human experience. Construction of the International Space Station showed us how once-hostile nations could begin to co-operate on the basis of scientific progress.

The Russian space programme proved that we are capable of extraordinary innovations and opened the door for the missions of the future, setting new targets such as Mars and beyond. Developing these future missions is up to the next generation of scientists, politicians, cosmonauts and dreamers”.

Rather than regarding Lunar House and Apollo House as grey skyscrapers, I’d like to us remember and celebrate all they represent and the exciting time of their construction when the world looked to the future. It is to be hoped that all Croydon schools will arrange for their pupils to see the Cosmonauts exhibition to open up their minds, to dream of what appeared impossible, to increase their interest in science and technology, to wonder about what it will be like to travel in space and to become members of that next generation.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age is open at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, SW7 2DD, seven days a week until Saturday 14th March 2016. Admission costs £14.00. 

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Anne Giles

    Very interesting article. Congrats!

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Fantastic exhibition, too :)

  • Croydon Radio

    I’ve often wondered if the small buildings attached to the sides of Apollo and Lunar Houses are symbolic of the Lunar Module. They’ve been changed slightly over the years but their unusual shape sitting atop a narrow plinths with water features beneath always made me think of a spacecraft when I was a kid.