Few knew of Galina Balashova's remarkable work on the Soviet space programme until a few years ago. "By day I worked on renovating buildings, by night I designed the inside of spaceships,” she says.

Galina Balashova, left, presenting her designs at the Skolkovo Technopark last week. Photo: Sk.ru.

Her life story as the architect who designed generations of Soviet spacecraft interiors is one that is finally getting the attention it has long deserved. Now in her 80s and free to talk about her working life, Balashova offers a dramatic account of what it was like to be a cog in the Soviet wheel, and fascinating insight into the working conditions and human effort that made the Soviet Union’s achievements in space possible.

Thrust assignments in the stairwell because she wasn’t allowed access to the design room, her work largely unacknowledged and little understood by her colleagues, Balashova was not even paid for much of the work she did moonlighting as a cosmic designer while continuing her day job as a regular architect. The designer of Soyuz capsules and the Salyut and Mir space stations was only given public credit for her pioneering work in 2015, when the German author Philipp Meuser “discovered her,” in her words, and published a monograph on her work. But she is not bitter.

A Velcro-like material was used on the sofa and the cosmonauts’ trousers to stop them floating off when they wanted to sit down. “At first, when they sat on the sofa, they would float off without their trousers,” Balashova recalled with a spark of mischief.

“There was too much work, but it was interesting,” she told the audience during a lecture at the Skolkovo Techopark last week. “It was like a cake that you’re forced to eat in one sitting.”

Balashova’s experience as a Soviet worker subject to the needs of the state began as soon as she graduated from the Moscow Architectural Institute in the mid-1950s. Like many young specialists during Soviet times, she had no choice over her place of work, and was ordered to go where the country needed her. In Balashova’s case, this was nearly 1,000 kilometres away in the Volga city of Kuibyshev, as Samara was then known.   

“Back then, they often sent young specialists to work in a place where there was no accommodation for them,” Balashova said, explaining that she was forced to sleep in a corridor at her place of work.

Balashova's design for the Soyuz orbital capsule approved by Korolyov in 1964. Photo: Sk.ru.

She was saved in 1956 by the arrival of a school friend. The two got married, and she was able to move to the Moscow region, where her husband – a physics engineer – got a job in the capital of the Soviet Union’s space industry: the town now known as Korolyov.

In 1957, Balashova started working in the architecture department of the OKB-1 experimental design bureau in Korolyov, designing regular buildings. The same year, the first Sputnik artificial satellite was launched into space.

“I remember watching it in the sky, like a flying star. It was really nice to see it,” said Balashova, 60 years later.

An architect’s touch

There was nothing, however, to portend the unusual request she received one day in 1963. The Soviet Union’s space industry was preparing to send cosmonauts into space for up to a week, and the engineers had drawn up a design for the interior of the Soyuz spacecraft that consisted of two identical large red tool boxes either side of the entry hatch.

Sergei Korolyov, the head of the Soviet space programme, “was furious, and said so in words I can’t repeat here, and said they had one week to make it inhabitable,” recalled Balashova. 

Balashova's sketches for a lunar orbital station. The project was put on hold when the U.S. put a man on the moon in 1969. Photo: Galina Balashova archive.

“Engineers don’t know how to organize space – that’s the job of architects,” she said.

Eventually the task found its way to Balashova.

“I wasn’t allowed in the design department – everything was classified in there,” she said. Instead, the design engineer Konstantin Feoktistov met her in the stairwell, where he dictated the basic design data, told her the conditions were zero gravity, and ordered her to create a design over the weekend.

Balashova based her design on the basic requirements of humans in space: a place to sleep, a toilet and control systems. The result was a sketch that showed a sideboard and an armchair-like toilet on the left, and a sofa inside which tools could be kept on the right. Korolyov approved the design, and over the years to come, Balashova would adapt and hone the design for new models of spacecraft and taking into account the cosmonauts’ needs. 

“Do you really think anyone needs your work? For the money they get, cosmonauts would fly in a tin can,” Balashova was told. 

There was no training for designing spacecraft interiors, and no colleagues to exchange experience with, but Balashova developed her own rules and standards. There should be no sharp corners, otherwise the cosmonauts would bump into them while floating in zero gravity. Colour was used to help orient the cosmonauts, with a cream/pale yellow colour for the top half of the living quarters, and green for the lower half. These were good colours in terms of filming: they remained the same on film, said Balashova. This was particularly important for the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, live footage of which was beamed around the world. An experiment with a red floor was therefore dropped. “It irritates the eye after a while, and appears black on TV,” said Balashova.

A Velcro-like material was used on the sofa and the cosmonauts’ trousers to stop them floating off when they wanted to sit down, but here too, adjustments were needed.

“At first, when they sat on the sofa, they would float off without their trousers,” Balashova recalled with a spark of mischief. As many fastenings as possible were included, to prevent the numerous instruments from floating around inside.

Balashova signing a copy of Philipp Meuser's monograph about her: "Galina Balashova. Architect of the Soviet Space Programme" following her lecture at the Skolkovo Technopark on June 29. Photo: Sk.ru.

Moonlighting for space

During this period, Balashova had to do all the work on the space designs at home, on her own time.

“Officially there was no such job and I doubt there is now. It was unofficial and unpaid, but it was really happy work,” she said.

So Balashova remained in the architecture department, where her boss, she recalled, “was a plumber by profession, but she was a relative of the boss so she had been made chief architect. So all the work on the spacecraft was done at home, in the evenings and at weekends.”

Frustrated by the situation, Balashova finally plucked up the courage to ask to be officially transferred to the design department. Feoktistov’s response was damning.

“Do you really think anyone needs your work? For the money they get, cosmonauts would fly in a tin can,” she recalls him saying. 

Balashova's iconic emblem for the U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz project .

Balashova finally got her transfer when work began on the Soviet lunar programme, but since her role didn’t officially exist, there was no title for it. Balashova’s job title was engineer, meaning she was paid less than an architect. 

“I was the most junior person, almost like a servant,” says Balashova. “My work wasn’t considered important because it wasn’t included in the spacecraft designers’ plans.”

After years on the same salary of 140 rubles per month, the architect, in her words, “got offended,” and went back to the architecture department, where her salary was immediately raised. The design department soon felt their loss, and lured her back with another pay rise.

“I only ever got a pay rise twice in my life: once when I left the design department, and once when I came back. After that I stayed there,” she laughed.

Even after she was transferred to the design department, Balashova received no public credit for her work.

“I wasn’t allowed to sign my designs,” she says. “The bosses said it was classified, but in fact it was nothing of the sort: they would sign their articles in journals and newspapers, but I wasn’t allowed to.  They just didn’t want some woman featuring anywhere.”

Likewise, when Balashova designed the emblem for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project for the Paris Air Show in 1973, she was not paid or thanked, and only found out last year – through the Germans – that the design had won an international award back then. The iconic emblem had been patented by Moscow.

“The bosses would do what they wanted. It was upsetting, but you got used to it, and the work was interesting,” says Balashova.

Lone mission

Not only did Balashova’s work go largely unacknowledged, as a talented artist (nine of her framed watercolour landscapes were sent up in Soyuz craft to remind the cosmonauts of home), she was frequently called on to paint watercolours and portraits as presents at the request of her bosses.

Once, one of the design engineers asked her to paint a picture of the children’s book character Karlsson-on-the-Roof for his dacha – with Karlsson holding a beer, as the engineer liked beer. A few years ago, when going through her possessions after the Germans “discovered her,” Balashova found the sketch that she did in preparation for the dacha piece, she said, unrolling it for the audience at Skolkovo, to titters.

When a Russian TV channel made a documentary about Balashova a few years ago and wanted to talk to some of her former colleagues about her work, they were disappointed: no one knew anything, she says.

“They didn’t know or appreciate me,” she says, matter-of-factly. “They either didn’t understand or didn’t want to.”

The architect's designs for spacecraft interiors were on show at the Skolkovo Technopark as part of the Days of Industrial Design, which ran from June 27-29. Photo: Galina Balashova archive.

There is no trace of bitterness in Balashova as she recalls the conditions in which she worked. That the work was interesting was its saving grace, it appears.  

“The lack of gravity made it very interesting for an architect,” she said.

Most importantly, her target audience was satisfied. Balashova met with cosmonauts following their flights, include Alexei Leonov – the first human to walk in space – and received feedback.

“The cosmonauts liked it, and their flights were successful,” she says with pride.

During the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, when U.S. and Soviet spacecraft docked together in space, with the U.S. astronauts entering the Soyuz and meeting their Soviet counterparts in the living quarters designed by Balashova, the astronauts praised the design, comparing it to a hotel, says Balashova. The only complaint in their feedback was that the ground staff had forgotten to include any forks for them to eat the canned food with, she recalled.

And in some ways, her colleagues’ lack of understanding of what she did was a blessing. “Sometimes it’s better to work alone, like [Russian architect Fyodor] Shekhtel, or a composer,” she says.

“I was the odd one out, but no one interfered in my work, and that was great.”