When Valentina Tereshkova was a little girl, she dreamed of being a train driver. But in 1963, she found herself in an occupation that would see her traveling much greater distances—as the first female civilian to travel to space.
Tereshkova was in London today with Sergei Krikalev (a Russian cosmonaut who spent 803 days in Earth's orbit) for the opening of Cosmonauts: Birth of of the Space Age at the Science Museum. The exhibition charts Russia's pioneering involvement in the space race through a panoply of spacefare that's never left Russia before. Tereshkova was also reunited with a capsule that hurtled her skyward: the Vostok 6.
"When I see the object, I stroke it. I say my lovely one, my best and most beautiful friend," Tereshkova said at the opening. "My man," she joked.
The Vostok 6—now a rusty, more elderly-looking orb of a "man"—is an epic feat of human engineering that housed Tereshkova for two days 22 hours and 50 minutes in space. But it is just one of 149 other historically significant space-related objects ranging from space crafts, posters, china, and letters, that have been carefully shipped to the Science Museum from 18 different locations in Russia.
The exhibition took around four years to plan, and despite several delays and hiccups along the way, it was worth the wait. Afterall, these objects haven't actually even been seen by most Russians, and are pretty much Russia's "crown jewels," said Doug Millard, senior curator of Technologies and Engineering at the Science Museum, over the phone.
The Russians were early pioneers of space travel. They were the first nation on Earth to launch everything from animals, humans, and satellites into orbit. Take Laika, who became the first dog in space; or Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet citizen, who was launched into Space on 12 April 1961 during Premier of Russia, Nikita Khrushchev's rule. (Russia was also the purveyor of some of the earliest space tragedies, like the crash of Soyuz-1 and the death of Vladimir Komarov.) This spirit of intrepid space-faring and its evolution in Russia are key themes explored in the exhibition.
"The idea was to show a sense of conquering and penetrating space—these ideas had already emerged in Russian philosophy as early as the late 19th century," Zelfira Tregulova, an art historian and director general at The State Tretyakov Gallery, told me at the exhibition.
Tregulova, who co-curated and helped with the logistics of transporting the objects, explained the importance of including a variety of objects that encompassed Russia's desire to venture into space. Across four rooms in the Science Museum, visitors will be able to peer, for example, at a Dog ejector seat and suit, Sputnik 1 satellites, as well as the LK-3 lunar lander that looks a bit like a giant metallic spider.
As well as displaying physical objects, the curators were keen to showcase some of the ideas, feelings, and key figureheads that drove the Russian space age. Tregulova referenced Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), a Russian polymath known as the father of Soviet space travel, as an example. Tsiolkovsky is remembered for writing both science fiction and treatises on rocket propulsion, and for his infamous quote: "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever."
Millard told me that a letter from a 42-year-old Soviet farm worker to Radio Moscow was one of his favorite exhibit pieces.
"She asked to be put in a Sputnik and sent into space. She felt it was a duty to her country, and also thought it was an opportunity, which the country had promised its citizens," said Millard. "It's a very poignant letter because she didn't worry about the dangers, she didn't mind about not coming back."
The Space Age developed at the height of the Cold War, with the United States recognizing that any of their space exploration incentives would develop in harsh competition with Soviet Russia. A series of Soviet space successes—which included the first woman and crew in space, as well as the first spacewalk—sparked malaise over in the US, with President John F Kennedy resolving in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. At the time, the US only counted one man in space.
Tregulova described witnessing both Gagarin and Tereshkova's successful launches as an epic moment. "It was inspiring for Russians to have a woman in space," she told me. "I remember how proud we all felt."
The space age might have come to be marked by a ruthless competition between the US and the USSR. However, at the press conference, both Tereshkova and Krikalev said that such rivalry had given way to increased collaboration between nations.
As opposed to one country striving for prestige, Krikalev said that the aim of space exploration was to continue to develop novel technologies without political interference, and make the public more aware of the potentials of space exploration. Afterall, space, said Treshkova, should be an "arena of peaceful corporation."