Monday, March 31, 2008
Remember Laika? 2007 was the 50th anniversary of her ill-fated space flight. Laika was a homeless mutt who eventually ended up in the Soviets' space flight program. Not wanting to risk the life of a human in the early days of space exploration, the Soviets tested the effects of space flight on dogs (other animals, such as mice and monkeys, were also used in space experiments by the Soviets and Americans).
Sputnik I had already been launched, to the jubilation of the Soviets (and the consternation of the Americans). Khrushchev placed enormous pressure upon the scientists to immediately launch Sputnik II. With a four week deadline, there wasn't enough time to create a way to bring Laika back from space. Laika was given a week's worth of food and oxygen.
On November 5, 1957, Laika was launched into space. Due to malfunctions in the launch, Laika died a few hours after launch. The fact that Laika was destined to die in space was not revealed until after the launch.
For many years, the timing and nature of Laika's death was unclear. At a 2002 space conference in Houston, it was revealed that Laika died 5-7 hours after liftoff, due to stress and overheating.
Nick Abadzis's graphic novel is a fictionalized but research-grounded account of Laika's training and fate. While some characters were invented (Yelena, the lab technician in charge of the dogs' care, is based upon an actual worker at the time), Abadzis does an incredible job of conveying the totalitarianism of the Soviet space program, the enormous pressure under which the scientists were placed, and the tragedy of Laika's fate. Althought Abadzis does anthropomorphize Laika's thoughts, this is done very briefly and rarely.
Laika is definitely a YA novel; not for the brief instances of swearing, but for its subject matter. I made the mistake of reading this last night, and it took me some time to get to sleep! Abadzis is unsentimental about Laika, but the book is still quite powerful. The book ends with a somber quotation from Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko, an afterword, and a bibliography for further reading.
Having a working understanding of the Soviet regime (including the Gulag and labor camps) and the obsession of space exploration by the Soviets and the Americans is definitely helpful, but not necessary, when reading Laika. Laika could be an excellent conversation starter on the space race, the Soviet regime, and on animal experimentation...lots of things to think about and discuss for mature teens.
Although it's been 51 years since her flight, Laika continues to fascinate many people. Youtube has several interesting videos about Laika (quite a few are animations):
This is a short animated feature:
This is a sweet video set to a Spanish song by Mercano (released 1987). It includes many pictures (including color) of Laika (I love her ears!):
Someone in the comments section kindly posted a rough translation of the lyrics (the other translations in the comments are similar):
She was Russian and her name was Laika/ She was a normal dog, and went from being an ordinary dog to being an world-wide star/ They put her within a spaceship to observe the reaction/ She was the first astronaut in outer space/ The spaceship is ready to be launched/the control center on Earth is saying to Laika/goodbye
In the base there was only silence/ everyone waiting for some signal/ All of them with headphones heard the dog bark/On Earth it was a celebration/shouts, laughter, weeping and champagne/
She was a normal dog, and went from being an ordinary dog to being an world-wide star/They put her within a spaceship to observe the reaction/ She was the first astronaut in outer space/ The spaceship is ready to be launched/ the control center on Earth is saying to Laika/goodbye
Laika watched out the window wondering what that ball of color was/and what am I doing going aound it/ The spaceship is ready to be launched/the control center on Earth is saying to Laika/goodbye
One night through the telescope a new light appeared/Nobody could give an explanation of the new sun/ And if we listen to the legend then we will have to believe that there is one less dog on Earth/and one more star in the sky
She was a normal dog, and went from being an ordinary dog to being an world-wide star/They put her within a spaceship to observe the reaction/She was the first astronaut in outer space/ The spaceship is ready to be launched/ the control center on Earth is saying to Laika/goodbye.