For a short period in history, Laika was the most famous dog in the world. Blasted into space as an experiment in Soviet Russia’s space program, she was the first living creature to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and orbit the planet. At the time it was a mammoth achievement, creating a world-wide media frenzy and capturing the imagination of a generation.
However, there was a certain amount of spin involved. The mission was clearly incredibly dangerous and Laika only survived a handful of Earth orbits, a journey lasting just a few hours. The stresses put on the dog, both in training and during the flight were immense, and her final hours were undoubtedly extremely uncomfortable. Yet by unwittingly paving the way for humans to experiment with manned space travel, her ‘successful’ flight in Sputnik 2 almost certainly saved other animals from the same fate.
Nick Abadzis retells her story with the benefit of hindsight in this wonderful book. Dramatising her life from birth to death, he shows Laika moving from abandoned puppy to canine cosmonaut. But while the scientists who train and handle her inevitably fall in love with her, the political whip that’s cracking behind the rocket designers means that they don’t have the time to create a space craft that can safely bring Laika home again.
It’s a beautifully written piece, made heartbreaking through Laika’s interaction with the humans around her. She was chosen for her calm and pleasant temperament, but her life was packed with abuse, even when she finds people who seem to want to care for her. It’s the handlers’ emotional attachment to the dog, contrasting with their cultural requirement to fulfil their duty to science and the state, which truly pulls at the heart strings. Poor Laika doesn’t stand a chance.
Abadzis’ artistic style is compelling, pulling you along the narrative. His characters are full of drama and feeling – even his dogs – and his Soviet landscapes, laboratories and uniforms have a drab, authentic feel. The emphasis is on the story though, with the art pulling us through the plot with a minimum of friction.
As a dramatisation of an incredible moment in the history of space exploration, this is a charming and fascinating book. The juxtaposition of the excitement and brilliance of the scientists with the warm-hearted tragedy of Laika’s story, allows it to bridge an often difficult gap between science and animal welfare. It leaves you with the overarching question of how right or, perhaps more accurately, just how wrong it was to shoot a living creature into space on a journey she had no hope of ever returning from. Without her we might still be shackled to Earth, but at what point does human exploration become more important than the life of an innocent creature like Laika?