The Legacy of Ukraine's Space-Age Glory

Photos and Text by Misha Friedman

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Ukraine was once a vital part of the Soviet space program, home to many research institutes and rocket factories. Now, wracked by war and shaken by political upheaval, the nation struggles to hold on to its scientific traditions. On a recent visit, I was struck by the determination of researchers stripped of the resources taken for granted in the West. The biologist still tending a jar filled with bacteria once destined for space. The retiree holding together a small astronomy museum in Kiev with spare parts and pluck.

From black garbage bags and duct tape, Tatiana Kovalchuk-Skorokhodnik, of the Ukrainian Space Agency, has built a mobile “planetarium” for children. With holes pricked in the makeshift dome, she has reconstructed the starry night skies above Ukraine.

I accompanied her to a camp for orphans and displaced children near Svyatogorsk, where she talked to them about things like the multitude of stars and the speed of light. The children asked to see the constellations representing their astrological signs.

But as the heat rose and the duct tape loosened, they fell silent, marveling, almost as if they were seeing moving images for the first time. Ms. Kovalchuk-Skorokhodnik was their Lumière Brothers and the constellations their “Arrival of a Train.”

Irina Prokofievna Kharitonova, a biologist, watches over an experiment that began 13 years ago with creation of two self-contained ecosystems. Originally, the jars holding them were to be sent to space, so that she and other scientists might assess its impact the interplay of living organisms.

Five years ago, during a move, one jar fell and smashed to pieces. The other remains on a shelf at the botanical garden at Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences. It requires little care.

Inside, moss and orchids continue to thrive in concentrated carbon dioxide, but Dr. Kharitonova shrugged when I asked if the jar was still hermetically sealed. Though this experiment has been largely forgotten, Dr. Kharitonova still dreams the jar will find its way to space.

Georgi Ulyanovich Kovalchuk works in the observatory at Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences. The main telescope, built from German equipment received after World War II, has been mothballed, and the building now houses an astronomy museum.

The observatory once operated another telescope in the Caucasus Mountains, and Dr. Kovalchuk worked there as an astronomer for over 20 years. He created this museum after returning to Kiev.

Most of scientific instruments were missing. Dr. Kovalchuk replaced one telescope piece with an old Soviet photo lens. Visiting schoolchildren look into it and pretend that they can see something like this photo hanging in a nearby staircase.

Though Zhytomyr's space museum had a constant stream of visitors one summer day, the guard dozed off at lunchtime, perhaps dreaming of the stars.