Q&A with Doug Millard - Museums Association

Q&A with Doug Millard

The stories behind Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age
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Rebecca Atkinson
Last week the Science Museum in London revealed details of its forthcoming exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age (opens 18 September), which will tell the story of how Russia became the first nation to turn the dream of space travel into reality.

Featuring Russian spacecraft and artefacts, the exhibition will look at key figures in Russian space travel, such as Yuri Gagarin the first human to go into space and Valentina Tereshkova, the first ever woman in space.

Doug Millard is the senior curator of the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

The Cosmonauts exhibition explores Russia’s early space exploration – why did you decide to focus on this specific period?

It’s very simple: we wished to explore the time when humanity first left Earth, via the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and then for real with Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

These and more space firsts that followed over the next few years were all launched by Soviet Russia. It is a period that will be celebrated for as long as humans exist.

While the museum had acknowledged these missions and more recent ones in its exhibitions and galleries, it had never been able to tell a fuller story that gave Russia’s achievements the recognition they deserve.

Do you have any favourite objects or stories from the exhibition?

Several! The two spacecraft – Vostok 6 and Voskhod 1 – are of immense historical value, respectively taking the first woman into space and the first multiple crew. These are among the most significant space artefacts anywhere in the world.

I am also bowled over whenever I see the LK lunar lander, which might, had things turned out differently, taken Alexei Leonov down to the Moon’s surface.

But a particular favourite is a simple letter from a Russian woman to Moscow radio in 1959 offering to fly in space for Russia. It captures a relationship between her country and the cosmos that is quite unique, goes back centuries and which we also explore in the exhibition.

How will the historical and social context of Russia’s bid to become the first country to put a human in space be presented in the exhibition?

We start by going back to turn of the 20th century and on through the revolution of 1917 when so many Russians identified with space travel. A new country had been born and with it utopian visions of a new society both on Earth and in space.

These longings were expressed not only through the cosmonautical theory of people like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky but through the works of the supremacist artists, through cinema and literature.

The story continues through the grim years of the Stalinist purges and the Great Patriotic War and up to the years immediately preceding Sputnik.

What is it about space travel that continues to fascinate audiences?

For almost all people space travel is unattainable, yet a few 100 humans have experienced it. We are curious to know what it is like because there is, quite simply, nothing on Earth that can truly duplicate the experience.

We are of Earth. Our bodies and minds are conditioned to living on Earth – not the moon, nor Mars.

So to be able to push our species towards conquering these limitations and moving out into the universe, just as the early Russian thinkers envisaged, is truly astonishing and endlessly fascinating.

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