« White Easter 2008 | Main | Investing: Including gold in a portfolio »

Monday, March 24, 2008

Reading List: Laika

Abadzis, Nick. Laika. New York: First Second, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59643-101-0.
The first living creature to orbit the Earth (apart, perhaps, from bacterial stowaways aboard Sputnik 1) was a tough, even-tempered, former stray dog from the streets of Moscow, named Kudryavka (Little Curly), who was renamed Laika (Barker) shortly before being sent on a one-way mission largely motivated by propaganda concerns and with only the most rudimentary biomedical monitoring in a slapdash capsule thrown together in less than a month.

This comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer) tells the story through parallel narratives of the lives of Sergei Korolev, a former inmate of Stalin's gulag in Siberia who rose to be Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, and Kudryavka, a female part-Samoyed stray who was captured and consigned to the animal research section of the Soviet Institute of Aviation Medicine (IMBP). While obviously part of the story is fictionalised, for example Kudryavka's origin and life on the street, those parts of the narrative which are recorded in history are presented with scrupulous attention to detail. The author goes so far as to show the Moon in the correct phase in events whose dates are known precisely (although he does admit frankly to playing fast and loose with the time of moonrise and moonset for dramatic effect). This is a story of survival, destiny, ambition, love, trust, betrayal, empathy, cruelty, and politics, for which the graphic format works superbly—often telling the story entirely without words. For decades Soviet propaganda spread deception and confusion about Laika's fate. It was only in 2002 that Russian sources became available which revealed what actually happened, and the account here presents the contemporary consensus based upon that information.

Update: Reader Mark Ziemba writes to point out an excellent podcast by Clark Boyd (MP3) about Laika's mission, including interviews with author Nick Abadzis, space historian Von Hardesty, and Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Soviet premier and aerospace engineer in the Chelomei design bureau in the 1960s. This page has background on the podcast and excerpts from the interviews. There is one goof: the chimpanzee Ham did not orbit the Earth; his flight was a suborbital lob on a Redstone booster. The first chimp to orbit the Earth was Enos. (2008-03-29 20:28 UTC)

Posted at March 24, 2008 22:49