In the 1985 Swedish film My Life As A Dog, 12-year-old Ingemar copes with the death of his mother (and his pet dog) by telling himself that it could have been worse. Among the examples he cites of those with worse fates is a dog named Laika, the first living creature sent into orbit by the Russians aboard Sputnik II — and the first living creature to die in orbit, since the spacecraft wasn’t designed for recovery.
Why use dogs in the first place? Back in the early says of space exploration, nobody was sure how living things would fare in that environment, and Soviet scientists needed a way to test the viability of life support systems they had designed for Sputnik 2. They found Laika — a stray female mutt — on the streets of Moscow and spent months training her and two other dogs for a possible space mission.
In the end, they chose Laika, in part because she had such a calm temperament. Just before the launch, one of the scientists, Vladimir Yazdovsky, took Laika home to play with his children. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he wrote in his own account of the mission. “She had so little time left to live.”
The launch was successful, but Laika’s fate was already sealed. Accounts differ as to how she died. For many years, it was believed she asphyxiated, since there was only sufficient oxygen aboard Sputnik-2 to keep her alive for six days. Others claimed she’d been humanely euthanized. But former Soviet scientist Dimitri Malashenkov told the World Space Congress in October 2002 that, in fact, Laika had perished early on in the mission (within a few hours of achieving orbit). She died from overheating, because of an unreliable (and hastily designed) temperature control system.
Laika has been capturing the imaginations of space enthusiasts ever since, most recently in 2007, when Nick Abadzis published his eponymous graphic novel, Laika, a fictionalized account of the space dog’s life and death, told from multiple points of view — including that of Laika herself, albeit non-verbally (hey, she is a dog).
But while readers embraced the graphic novel, and loved the plucky little space dog, Abadzis discovered that many were upset by the tragic ending. True, it’s a bit of a downer, but this is history; it happened. And readers no doubt realize this.
“But somehow we wish we could change it,” the author writes at publisher Big Planet’s Website. “We wish we could change the way things happened by writing about them.” This is the driving force behind most fan fiction, and all those sci-fi plots involving alternate realities.
So when Big Planet approached him about doing something special for the publisher’s 25th anniversary, he decided to write a series of alternate endings for Laika in graphic novel form, and post them on Big Planet’s website — ones with happier fates for the Russian canine. The first such ending was posted last week; look for more in the weeks to come.
Subsequent missions in the Soviet space program that carried dogs were designed to be recovered; the only two other dogs who died in space, did so in an accident, when Korabl-Sputnik 3 disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere in 1960. And Laika has a statue and plaque at Russia’s Star City (the Russian training facility for cosmonauts) honoring her sacrifice.
“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us,” one of the Soviet scientists responsible for Laika’s training, Oleg Gazenko, reflected in 1998. “We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”