Dogs of the stars

In the late ’90s, a story emerged that made dogs a rebuke to post-Communist Russia. Ivan Mishukov ran away from his neglectful mother and her alcoholic boyfriend aged four, and survived two years on the streets of Moscow by begging for food and sharing his spoils with a pack of stray dogs that became his protectors. Adult humans abandoned, ignored or abused the city’s street children; the dogs were more humane. During the 1950s, though, dogs were the wet-nosed vanguard of Soviet progress. The successful launch of Sputnik 2 put a living creature into orbit for the first time, and that creature was Laika, a female Moscow stray mongrel, captured and trained for space flight.

The launch was a success for Soviet science, anyway. For Laika, it was disastrous, and it was always intended to be: there was no plan to bring her back. Sputnik 2 was designed to demonstrate that a living creature could survive the journey into space. How to make the return trip was a problem that didn’t even merit investigation until it had been proved that getting up there was possible. I’ve always imagined Laika’s death as a slow, stoical suffocation – paws flicking at levers in bafflement as the Skinner box runs out of biscuits, oxygen vanishing as she pants her last – but at a visit to the National Space Centre this weekend, I found out that my tidy version of the dog’s astronomical demise was very mistaken. Laika died a panicky death, probably of heat exhaustion, after about five hours in space. She wouldn’t have looked much like the sanguine canine voyager on the collector’s card above.

Oleg Gazenko, who led the Soviet animal experiments in space exploration, was later regretful about the use of dog astronauts: “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us… The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.” It’s hard to reconcile this with the photo of him exultantly holding up two trained cosmo-dogs, furry trophies of progress; but in my experience, the people who perform animal experiments are often people with great and genuine feeling for their subjects.

As an undergraduate biochemist, and then later as a researcher on artificial flavourings, my dad had to perform many tests on animal subjects, a lot of them futile. For example, under food safety law at the time, it was necessary to test a new compound at fatal levels, whether or not there was any likelihood of it being consumed in this way by humans. So, before a new gravy powder could be approved for market, it had to be fed to a panel of rats in increasing levels, until half the rats had died of gravy poisoning. But however dubious the science and unsteady the ethics, the researchers needed the results, and for that they had to be gentle-handed with their subjects. One of the main skills needed for the cold-blooded cruelty of animal experiments (and however necessary they are, however carefully meliorated, they are always cruel) is a talent for kindness. Another dad story: he once pithed a whole class of frogs, not because he enjoyed frog-pithing (he doesn’t), but because he couldn’t bear the suffering caused by the clumsy scalpels of his peers.

There’s understandable guilt about the fate of the Soviet space dogs, and a move to repay them by casting them as heroes. There are Laika statues, and this piece from the remarkable Museum Of Jurassic Technology talks about Laika’s “courageous example”, which is deceitful anthropomorphism: to be courageous, you have to know exactly what it is you’re braving, and however well-trained Gazenko’s subjects were, I doubt he was able to instill in them a sense of the danger of space flight or the greater good they were flying for. The naming of the space dogs suggests that the Soviet scientists felt the same impulse to lionise. The dog whose flight marked the final stage before a human astronaut was launched was called Zvezdochka – “daughter of the stars”. Laika, even though it sounds lyrical post-Sputnik, is more bathetic: it just means “little barker”.

When you see the dog suit at the Space Centre in Leicester, the bathos of the space dogs is much more obvious than their alleged heroics. Heavily laced canvas casings, with a glass helmet over the face and space for waste pouches (female dogs were used instead of males because they didn’t need to cock a leg to pee; though curiously, according to another display board at the Space Centre, when it came to human astronauts, NASA refused to consider women for several years, even though they tested better than men, and not just on their urinary habits)  –  it doesn’t look like something that a dog would be happy to wear. But dogs, even stray ones, have been bred for abjection. The heartbreaking thing about Laika is that dogs want so much to be in a pack, they can be trained to do almost anything, including dying alone in a space that’s barely bigger than they are.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; thanks to Chris Brooke for pointing me to MJT

2 thoughts on “Dogs of the stars

  1. Hi there,

    I recommend the comic book Laika by Nick Abadzis which is one of the most heartbreaking books I have read.

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