When Russia launched the first dog into space in 1957 aboard Sputnik 2, the whole country followed her progress with rapt fascination.
Husky-spitz mix Laika became the first living creature to orbit Earth and was hailed a Soviet hero, while hundreds of thousands of schoolkids wrote stories in class about all her imagined adventures.
But, in fact, Laika had perished within minutes of the successful orbit and, on her spaceship's descent back to earth, it was enveloped in flames and the luckless mutt was burnt to a cinder.
Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev didn't want, however, to disillusion so many kids, so Laika's death was covered up and she was said to have proved herself such a plucky pup, she had been sent off on a new mission to explore other galaxies.
It's tales like this that make Moscow's Museum of Cosmonautics such a fascinating place to visit. While it holds more than 93,000 items, from space suits to parts of rockets, from probes and space food to a chunk of moon rock you can handle, it's also steeped in Russian pride.
After all, the height of the space race – played out as another taut strand of the Cold War – really wasn't that long ago and while, in the West, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin snatched the lion's share of adulation, in Eastern Europe, the Russians considered themselves the clear winners.
It's a tough call. They did have the first animal in space, despite her sad demise, and the month before had launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, much to the shock and ire of the US.
In 1959, the Russians had also had the first space probe to hit the moon and then in 1960 sent up two more dogs, street strays Belka and Strelka. They survived the trip, coming back to Earth to a hero's welcome. Strelka even went on to have puppies, one of which was presented by Khrushchev to US president John Kennedy's family in what was seen by Russians as the perfect "up yours".
But April 1961 was the time of one of the Soviet Union's biggest triumphs: cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person, in Vostok 1, in space and the first to orbit Earth. They beat the Americans by a matter of days, with astronaut Alan Shepard the first American in space on May 5 1961 – although he didn't, as his rivals were quick to point out, orbit.
As we know, it was the Americans, however, who were the first to have men – Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins – on the moon in 1969, a moment captured by the new medium of TV. But today, our Museum of Cosmonautics guide is nonplussed.
"Yes, they did that," he says, "but as soon as that happened, we lost interest in the moon. We were then the first ones to have a permanent presence in space with our space stations, whereas the Americans concentrated on shuttles. Having space stations were much better and today our Soyuz rockets carry astronauts from around the world to the International Space Station."
The US has its Kennedy Space Centre – currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of NASA's Apollo program – but that somehow isn't quite as enthralling as this Russian version, located at the base of the 107-metre-high titanium Monument to the Conquerors of Space, which depicts a rocket rising on its exhaust plume and was erected in 1964. As a memorial to both the cosmonauts and a past Soviet era in history, it manages to be poignant as well as captivating.
Among the displays at the museum are the ejection container in the second orbital spacecraft where Belka and Strelka hit the heights, as well as the dogs themselves, now preserved by taxidermy. Then there's the Luna 3 space probe that transmitted, for the first time in history, pictures of the far side of the moon. Yuri Gagarin's spacesuit in which he beat the odds is also there in a glass case. You can peer inside his claustrophobic Vostok 1, you can walk inside the replica of a later spacecraft, examine the core module of the Mir space station and muse over the figure of the legendary architect of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, sitting at his desk.
And what better for a souvenir to take the flavour of Russian space travel back home than a metal tube containing a space meal of chicken and potatoes?
Sue Williams travelled to Russia for a cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg courtesy of APT.
Hotel Baltschug Kempinski Moscow is a five-star hotel close to the city's major tourist sites. Room from $345 a night. See kempinski.com/en
Museum of Cosmonautics, 129515, Moscow, VDNKh metro station, 111 Mira Avenue. See kosmo-museum.ru