Thursday, January 9, 2014

First Day of Class and the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Today was our first day of class!  We are split into two groups, with five of us in the advanced class and eight in the intermediate.  We met two of our professors and in class discussed Russian literature and large cities ("megapolis").  Our literature professor explained that after perestroika, it was as though a new world opened for literature - for the first time it was possible to read many foreign authors, and for professors it was possible to write about and analyze literature more freely. 

In our second class we talked about the pros and cons of extremely large cities and discussed Moscow in particular.   It is estimated between 15 and 20 million people live and work in Moscow and the city struggles with some of the worst traffic jams in the world (both on the streets and in the metro) due to the large number of people living in the city or commenting from sometimes up to two hours away just to find work.   Our tour guide, Alex, told us the longest traffic jam he's ever endured lasted seven hours.  There was a scandal recently when some roads were closed for government officials and a woman was forced to give birth in an ambulance.

After class, we took the metro to the  Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.   This museum commemorates the history of space exploration both in Russia and around the world.  The museum contains many objects worn or used by astronauts, including examples of the food preferred by American and Russian astronauts.  It has many documents and books, including original plans, blueprints, manuals, sketches, and newspaper releases surrounding historic events.  Numerous models of rockets, engines, rovers, lunar and martian vehicles, space ships, and space stations can be found all over the museum, some hanging from the ceiling.  Additionally, some of the actual engines, capsules, rockets and spaceships used by Russian and International astronauts are on display.  The ceiling of the museum is beautifully adorned with murals of galaxies, nebulae, and planets, while the walls are covered with posters, interactive touch-screens, pictures, and sculptures of constellations and the mythical beings they represent. 

Many of the animals who journeyed into space are commemorated at the museum.  The first two space dogs to successfully enter low earth orbit and return, Belka and Strelka (in Russian: Squirrel and Arrow) are on display in taxidermy form.  In addition to the large space dog program run by the USSR and the monkey program run by the Americans, many smaller animals including insects, lizards, mice, guinea pigs and birds were sent into space.  Lizards survived the flight but birds could not, because the rely on gravity to swallow food and starved to death in space.

Lastly, the museum had a section dedicated to the history of women in space, and included a picture of Wellesley alumna, Pamela Melroy.  The first woman to venture into the cosmos was a Russian woman, Valentina Tereshkova, who became an icon and role model for young women (especially in the Soviet Union) upon her safe landing.

I personally felt this was one of the most interesting (and most beautiful) museums I have ever visited, and by far the best commemorating space flight and astronautics.  The sheer number of artifacts held in this museum is astounding. Something that I found interesting is that unlike in the USA where we are witnessing the privatization of space flight (through companies like SpaceX), everything in Russia concerning aeronautics and astronautics is strictly controlled by the Russian government.  It is so strict that there are few aviation enthusiasts who are able to fly planes privately because the process of learning to become a pilot and actually fly a plane requires intensive government interference and surveillance.  I hope to one day earn a private pilot's licence and fly small planes recreationally, so it was interesting but depressing to hear this is not a possibility for Russian citizens.

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