If you’re a space enthusiast, it’s likely you’ll be familiar with the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow. Die-hard fans might have even toured the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. If you happen to be in Ukraine, there’s another space-themed attraction worth seeking out. The Museum of Space Exploration lies 80 kilometers outside of Kyiv and is one of the 30 historical buildings open to visitors at Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi’s ethnographic park. Its small collection boasts several rare objects including Gagarin’s red training parachute, the scaphanders of various cosmonauts, and a real-scale model of the space capsule. What makes the museum unusual, however, is that it is situated in a wooden church.
“It’s one of these unique places that one can find only in post-Soviet Ukraine, places that are totally unexpected,” explains Kyiv-based photographer Niels Ackermann, who was taken there by journalist Sébastien Gobert, with whom he’d previously hunted banned Lenin statues. The museum opened in 1979, when an exhibition in Moscow was relocated to Ukraine. “Mikhaylo Sikorsky, a famous academician, was from this city. As he and his colleagues looked for an empty space to store the exhibition, they decided on the church. Up until today there is a debate on whether they intended to save the building by turning it into a museum or if they wanted to desecrate it, as atheist Soviets used to do.” The venue continues to surprise tourists, who enter fully expecting to see a church.
The building is a physical manifestation of the Soviets’ attempt to eliminate religion and replace it with space dreams. For now, it looks like the building will remain a museum. Today, the museum’s uncertain future reflects the religious tensions in the country, sparked by the Ukrainian Othodox Church’s split from the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, one of the biggest schisms in Christian history.
As Gobert explains: “Local church authorities have struggled to have [the museum] back as a church. It has become even more complicated because of the Ukrainian church’s feud: the church used to be claimed by the Moscow patriarchate. Now it is claimed by the newly established church of Ukraine. The Moscow patriarchate local priest kind of gave up on his claim provided it does not go to the church of Ukraine. ‘Better a museum than schismatics’, father Feodossiy said.”
The museum’s Scientific Manager has other hopes for its future. He told AFP news agency that he wants to invite billionaire and space entrepreneur Elon Musk to donate some new objects and visit the venue. You could say that’s one small step for the museum and a giant leap for Soviet space race history.