Remembering Laika, Space Dog and Soviet Hero
On the evening of November 3, 1957, barely a month after the Soviet Union sent humanity’s first artificial satellite into orbit, a rocket lifted off from a secret site in Kazakhstan, carrying its second. The launch of Sputnik 2 was timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution, and the craft itself was an appropriately showy statement of Communist know-how—six times heavier than Sputnik 1, designed to fly nearly twice as high, and, most impressive of all, containing a live passenger….
Within the Soviet Union, Laika and her comrades were seen as heroes. What’s more, they were heroes that Communists could safely commodify. As Olesya Turkina writes in “Soviet Space Dogs,” a book lavishly illustrated with kitschy canine-cosmonaut imagery, “Under socialism the niche occupied by popular culture in capitalist society was subject to strict ideological control.” Because the Kremlin considered the dogs ideologically safe, Turkina continues, they effectively “became the first Soviet pop stars,” appearing on every product imaginable—matchboxes, razor blades, postcards, stamps, chocolates, cigarettes…
But the story of Laika had a dark lie at its core. In 2002, forty-five years after the fact, Russian scientists revealed that she had died, probably in agony, after only a few hours in orbit. In the rush to put another satellite into space, the Soviet engineers had not had time to test Sputnik 2’s cooling system properly; the capsule had overheated. It remained in orbit for five months with Laika inside, then plunged into the atmosphere and burned up over the Caribbean, a space coffin turned shooting star. Turkina quotes one of the scientists assigned to Laika’s program: “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.
Six decades later, as humans reach farther and farther into the solar system, as we contemplate colonizing remote planets and reaching distant stars, Laika’s legend and legacy ought to give us pause. Space exploration needn’t be an “assault on the universe,” a militaristic enterprise undertaken without regard for other creatures’ suffering. Dogs were likely the first animals that we domesticated, and the first to migrate with us across the globe. They have never left us, despite our failings and abuses. As we humanize space, let us remember that dogs humanize us.
Sun Dogs by Brooke Bolander
It’s almost too hot to breathe. The air burns Laika’s insides and dries out her nose. She pants constantly, even in her sleep. No summer she has ever known has been this warm.
Her dreams mix with the awake-time. Noiseless, scentless shapes appear and vanish, looking like great leaping rats or fluttering birds or drifting blue lights. Sometimes the walls of the ball fall away and she’s back in the whitecoat’s kitchen with a dish of water that fades to fog just as she bends her head to lap. Brother comes to see her once—she knows it’s not really Brother, this hollow-eyed, smell-less shadow, but she wants so much to believe—and after that a whitecoat with the head of a dead dog, flies buzzing around its dried gums. She crouches and curls her lip and rattles a warning deep in her throat until it goes again. Knowing the thing is a not-creature makes it no less terrifying. If anything, that simply makes it more wrong.
When green fire blossoms across the ceiling and walls, panic finally overwhelms sense, and Laika screams. The harness pinches clumps of hair from her shoulders. Tubes rip free and float around her like weeds in a river. The flames roll into balls that skitter and spark across her coat, bouncing without scorching, crawling all over her in that same horrible way. She thrashes, froths at the mouth, shrieks and howls and claws at her restraints, a cloud of spittle and loose fur forming around her head. Laika’s energy is blazing now, the urge to live tugging at her muscles. Death is a lean and tireless wolf. If she stops for a second it will catch her and tear the meat from her flanks and belly.
Laika fights. She is braver than the whitecoats could have ever guessed.