Laika in Flight

By Caroline Paul

Listen to Caroline read this story at the Big Ugly Review #7 release party:

Laika was part Samoyed and part terrier, with floppy ears and average teeth and doggy knees that pointed inward. For three years she lived on the streets of Moscow, until she was picked up by the dogcatchers, the canine equivalent of the KGB. They used reindeer steak and a cage and a long stick and didn't know that soon she was going to be the most famous dog in the world, or they would have asked for more money when they sold her to a strange man with glasses who said he was a scientist. He was a scientist, with the secret Soviet Sputnik program. Laika was going to be the first living being in space.

Training as an astrodog was straightforward. Mostly it consisted of being put into smaller and smaller cages for twenty days at a time, in order to approximate the tiny Sputnik capsule, until finally Laika graduated to one she couldn't move in at all. Albina and Mushka, also strays, were Laika's astrodog backups in case she failed her cage tests, or the centrifugal tests, in which she was strapped down and rotated at the high speeds expected of rocket flight. But she didn't fail her tests, because whimpering, vomiting, defecating, not defecating, and finally becoming so depressed that she was immobile when the door to her last cage was opened, did not count as failing. She was well liked by her handlers, who rubbed her ears, kissed her nose and murmured nicknames like Little Lemon and Bug.

On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union won the space race by successfully launching Sputnik I, which was essentially a radio tossed into orbit, a tiny 22-inch sphere that circled the earth every 96 minutes with a curious beeping sound, inspiring fear and awe around the world. Premiere Kruschev was so pleased that he could only think about the next launch, something bigger and better. Something to really wow those Americans. He demanded that the launch of Sputnik 2, with the astrodog on board, be pushed forward. The scientists were not ready, but they agreed, and settled on a less sophisticated design so Kruschev would get what he wanted, which was a launch to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, just one month hence.

And so, on November 3, 1957, Laika the astrodog was shot into space.

The Soviet scientists announced that the mission was going very, very well. Laika enjoyed it up there in space. She ate her jellied food with zeal. Weightlessness was fun, the doggy equivalent of jumping for a ball. She slept well, her digestion was fine, and there was a monitor on her heart which was broadcast back to earth as a steady thump-de-thump, like a happy puppy tail wagging against the ground.

By day two America was in a panic. The Russians assured the world that their goal was purely scientific, but all over the heartland, from sea to shining sea, linguists obsessively translated Laika's name and wondered what the word "Barker" really meant, military bases were put on high alert, and door hinges to underground bunkers were oiled. On day three, Eisenhower demanded a hasty test launch of the country's own satellite equipment, scientists previously recruited from Nazi Germany and the eggheads from Harvard would rush the prototype, and a few weeks later the media would gather and a rocket booster would fire, rise a few feet off the ground, and explode in flames.

Meanwhile, Laika and her heart looped the earth. On day four, Soviet Mission Control reported that she was enjoying the view and doing her favorite little tummy shimmy right before eating her gelatin food. School children clapped their hands to her little doggy pulse, broadcast into their classrooms. Puppies from Moscow to Nebraska were named Muttnik in her honor.

But what Soviet Mission Control did not mention was that the hurried, untested design of Sputnik 2 had lost a heat shield during launch. The fan's sensors indicated almost immediately that it couldn't keep the tiny capsule at 15 degrees Celsius. Within minutes, the carbon monoxide absorbing device became woefully inadequate for a breathing rate that indicated panic. Deep black lines in the tickertape came in to Mission Control in the jagged geometry of soundless cries. The famous heart monitor dutifully recorded that Laika's doggy heart rate increased threefold and so an underling was ordered to splice in and play, in an endless loop, a recording of another dog's heart, any dog's heart, lickety-split. What was not recorded was what Laika thought while dying alone in space.

It took five full hours. Some of the scientists removed their headphones and turned away from the paper graphs spewing from the console. Finally someone yelled It's over. Someone else pulled the paper and folded it, and put it in an envelope marked Laika, which was then put in a locked box on which was written TOP SECRET, to be looked at later.

So all along it was Laika's doggy corpse and a fake doggy heart circling above, signaling a new step in the space age and in the Cold War. The ensuing panic, perhaps the tenacity of the space race itself, was founded on the least complicated technology of all: the human ability to deceive, and its capacity for needless cruelty.

On Day 10 of the orbit, the poison pill meant to quietly put Laika to sleep fell into her food bin as planned and sat there. The Soviets, whose hasty design of the Sputnik capsule did not make provisions for Laika's return to earth, but who had not foreseen that things would go so wrong, stuck to Plan A and announced to the world that Laika had enjoyed one last meal on Day 10 and a view of her homeland from 900 miles up. They said she ate her pill and closed her eyes, relaxed her smiling mouth, and slept peacefully, until her heart stopped.