July 19, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Katharine Coldiron
Has knowledge of Laika already broken your heart? Do you hear her name and quickly shut down your emotions before you lose control of them? Do you think of her, traveling through the emptiness all those decades ago, and wail your sorrow into the nearest soft object? Well, then, brace yourself and join me. Because we are going to look head-on at Laika, the first living being to orbit our planet, for at least the length of this review.
Kurt Caswell’s detailed, deeply felt biography, Laika’s Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog, covers not just the most famous dog of the century but also her context. Caswell writes of many other animals in space and space programs, offers thumbnails of the Russian space program and the history of animal experimentation generally, and speculates quite compellingly about the men who worked with Laika and how she herself experienced her journey. This last is the touchstone of the book: what was in Laika’s mind as she sat patiently in her capsule, as she underwent the enormous physical stress and pressure of liftoff, as she died. Caswell returns to these questions again and again. Laika’s actual mind is, of course, a mystery, but Caswell’s perspective on her makes the book a warm and meaningful read.
While the American space program experimented with monkeys in the 1950s, because they were similar to humans, the Russian space program used dogs instead. Monkeys “proved difficult to train and vulnerable to the stresses of spaceflight,” the Russians determined. “They just weren’t very tough…. The Soviets knew dogs, and they knew how to work with them.” (Blame Pavlov.) A variety of dogs were acquired, most of them hardy, friendly strays, and were cared for very well as they were trained and tested. Caswell tells stories of the space program staff loving the dogs, having strong bonds with them, feeding them special treats. “The space dogs of Soviet Russia were not lab animals, I think,” Caswell proposes. “They were cosmonauts, highly trained working dogs with a job to do.”
As with police dogs and military dogs, though, the job was dangerous. Everyone involved with the space dogs knew they would not survive being shot into space. Getting Laika safely back to earth was not possible with the technology of the time, though shooting her into space was. She was the best fit for the job of first animal into orbit both literally—she was a small dog, and the smaller the better in space programs—and because of her temperament. She was profoundly patient, capable of sitting in a confined space for 20 days, and she took well to space training.
And so, on November 3, 1957, up she went, inside Sputnik II. She died of overheating after a few orbits, but she passed on a wealth of information about the status and survival of living beings in space, such that Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit a few years later would not have been possible without her.
The Soviets who worked with Laika offered her all due credit, and the nation put up multiple monuments to her. Caswell, too, depicts her as a hero in Laika’s Window. He also doesn’t shrink from asking questions about the ethics of Laika’s story: “What does it mean that we use animals for our own designs, our own purposes, to improve human life, for wealth and power? What does it mean that we sacrifice them instead of ourselves?” Both his philosophizing about Laika and his sentimentality about her should be demerits on the book’s quality, but in this case they are perfectly placed. Laika cannot help but inspire sentiment, and if you have no curiosity about what went through the mind of a dog who saw the earth from above, I am not sure you should be reading books at all.
The only off note in what is otherwise a sure and confident book is the epilogue, which editorializes that we, the human race, must establish colonies on Mars. Caswell says that he started the process of writing Laika’s Window thinking the opposite, that we needed to sort out the problems of this planet first, but writing the book changed his mind. Reading it did not change mine. His insistence on this point, after the sensitivity and level consideration he brought to Laika, seemed out of place. Still, this final note hardly mars a marvelous tribute to a heroic dog.
After reading in such detail about her, though, I am not reassured that Laika had a noble fate. I clenched my jaw painfully in order to write this review, and a picture of Laika will tell you why. She looks like a sweet little dog, eager and friendly, and, science be damned, she died a lonely death at the hands of the human race. Now she is immortal, when as a street dog in Moscow she might not have lived past 1960. But when I think of her, sitting in a tin can, running out of air one breath at a time, I am indifferent to what her life might have been. My heart breaks for what was.
Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, LARB, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming from KERNPUNKT Press in early 2020. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.