The women who never went into space (2012)

installation / radio play (directed and produced by Rafael Bies, Thomas Jähn, Choir: Vocalconsort, Leipzig, directed by Gregor Meyer), 52 min / capsule, wood, 230 cm diameter / 19 framed images, front: black velvet, back: cosmonaut and astronaut portraits, 40 × 30 cm, 2009–2012



Francis Hunger‘s radio play The Woman who never flew into Space reflects on a forgotten episode of the Soviet space programme: Although (the fictive) Irina Evgenina Shukova obviously appears to be better prepared and qualified for the first flight of a female cosmonaut in a Vostok spacecraft, Valentina Tereshkova is given preference for this historic mission in 1963. Applying methods of speculative research, Hunger deals with the possible reasons for this decision (based on historical facts) and the significance that human spaceflight had for the technological development of the Soviet Union.

The story is inspired by the historical figure of Valentina Ponomaryeva, who was promised a space flight by the leaders of the Soviet Union. Her mission, however, was cancelled, after the moon became the new goal for the competing space powers of the US and the USSR. She is the woman who never flew into space.
Francis Hunger reconstructs her case based on research conducted beforehand, which included an interview with Ponomaryeva.

In his work, Hunger discusses the case against the backdrop of the then prevailing socialist ideology – with technocrats preferring that candidate who would fit the propagated female ideal more closely. Hunger‘s radio play shows formal similarities to the didactic plays of Brecht, where the plot is pushed forward through dialogue and commented by the Choir of Dead Space Travellers, in reminiscence of the classical Greek tragedy.

Hunger‘s method is not purely documentary: historical facts and investigative research merely form a point of departure for an artistic narrative which crystallises various questions: how does an emancipated woman act in a Socialist society whose ideological programme officially recognises equality, yet at the same time upholds an out-dated female ideal for the purposes of propaganda? (The soft features and the pleasant nature of Tereshkova seem to complement the humble smile of Yuri Gagarin far better than the inquisitive determination of the young mother and pilot Ponomaryeva. For both, the first male and the first female in space, were intended to be used as multipliers for Communism, representing the superiority of the Soviet people.) Approaching a seemingly utopian goal, only to fail shortly before, with no fault of one’s own – what does it mean to handle this situation?

The cosmonauts and astronauts catapulted into space by the Soviet Union and the US during the Space Race were dead persons who by coincidence, should the experimental technology actually function, would return to life after a successful landing: manned space travel was and still is that risky. The very limited space in the Wostok and Mercury capsules of that time reminds of steel coffins, catapulted into nothingness by a controlled explosion. Death was accepted in the name of the collective or free creative genius in order to reach the great goal and demonstrate the superiority of the respective political and societal system. The trauma caused by the shocking live images of the exploding Challenger space shuttles is still present.

The Choir of Dead Space Travellers not only appears in the radio play, but also as part of the installation. In his installation, Francis Hunger reminds of the often nameless victims of space flight on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. Hunger dedicates a portrait to each killed cosmonaut or astronaut. The portrait’s front is covered in black velvet and the actual image of the space travellers is on the backside. Instead of seeing the faces of the dead “heroes”, we see the black void of cosmic space. The pictures only reveal the individual faces during set up and take down of the exhibition.

Together with the black shape in the exhibition space reminding us of the Vostok capsule, the black portraits turn into a silent requiem for the victims of the technical progress of two competing ideologies. At the same time, Hunger’s installation, drenched in deep red light, is the stage for the radio play The Woman who never flew into Space, in which the voices of the dead Soviet cosmonauts come through to us as echoes from the past. They tell their story, intervene and comment the on-going events.

Fabian Saavedra-Lara, 2012


Photography by Hannes Woidich

The creation of this work was funded through a stipend by Kulturstiftung des Freistaates Sachsen. The production was supported by Hartware MedienKunstVerein, Dortmund and Kunststiftung NRW.