Excerpt from Laika’s Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog
A dog is a social animal with a face that asks for your attention, your acknowledgment, your love. The dog looks at you, and through its dark, often sad-looking eyes it asks to be recognized. I am alive, the dog is saying, and you are alive, so let’s acknowledge each other. We feel something penetrate us to the center in looking into the face of a dog, something vital and fundamental, something that was there before we were here, distinctly human and yet resident in the kingdom of animals. When we look into a dog’s face, we want to help, somehow. “The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation,” writes French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in Totality and Infinity. Here Levinas is writing about human-to-human relationships, but I think we can extend his sensibilities to human-to-dog relationships, because the dog is a member of the human community, a resident of hearth and home, because humans and dogs have been together for a long time, for as long as civilization. Dogs and humans built civilization together. This obligation Levinas writes about, this compulsion to act or to help another human being or a dog, tugs at us until we either reject it or accept it, both of which define the boundary of the relationship.
Kurt Caswell examines Laika’s life and death and the speculation surrounding both in Laika’s Window. Profiling the scientists behind Sputnik II, he studies the political climate driven by the Cold War and the Space Race that expedited the satellite’s development. Through this intimate portrait of Laika, we begin to understand what the dog experienced in the days and hours before the launch, what she likely experienced during her last moments, and what her flight means to history and humanity. While a few of the other space dog flights rival Laika’s in endurance and technological advancements, Caswell argues that Laika’s flight serves as a tipping point in space exploration “beyond which the dream of exploring nearby and distant planets opened into a kind of fever from which humanity has never recovered.”
A relationship with a dog does not encourage possession, however. “The face resists possession,” writes Levinas, “resists my powers.” The face “is present in its refusal to be contained. In this sense it cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed.” What is at stake in looking into the face of a dog, in coming into relationship with it, is the fragile beauty of trust. If a relationship is to develop, it must be based in trust, and at its edge is a necessary moment of determination: friend or foe? The dog asks this of us, and we ask it of the dog. And the face makes this determination possible. In the dog’s face “is the primordial expression,” writes Levinas, “is the first word: ‘you shall not commit murder.’” You shall not murder me, the dog says, which means, you shall not possess me. Only after this limit is established does a relationship of trust become possible.
In his essay “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger affirms that this is so. When an animal looks at you, Berger writes, you “become aware of [yourself] in returning that look. And this exchange sets up the condition for our parallel lives.” We need each other—animals and humans, dogs and humans—but as much as our lives are entwined, they remain parallel too. The look we exchange with animals, writes Berger, crosses a “narrow abyss of noncomprehension,” so that this awareness of ourselves that is mirrored in the face of an animal, with our shared gaze, does not necessarily include an understanding of that animal. Our lives are always separated by a space we cannot cross, a space across which we fail at understanding. In considering more specifically the space between humans and dogs, we may become adept at reading what a dog wants (food, a walk, to be in our presence), but we cannot know what a dog feels or even comprehend a dog’s feelings. We can share something with a dog, but we can’t presume to understand it. This condition, this state of noncomprehension, is fine by us. We don’t need comprehension to love a dog, or any other animal for that matter, because dogs offer us something we can’t get anywhere else. “With their parallel lives,” Berger goes on to say, “animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.”
Companionship with animals, especially with dogs, I think, is an antidote to loneliness. It is a gift that animals may offer to us, a gift that dogs may offer, and they give it freely, of their own choice and will.
As the scientists and engineers looked in at Laika through her window, they saw her dark eyes, the drooping tips of her ears, her mouth open as she panted lightly. As the scientists and engineers looked in, what they saw was Laika looking back at them, Laika reaching out with her gaze to make contact, to create something between her and them—trust, perhaps—and thereby define the stable ground all relationships are built on. The scientists and engineers would have seen something else too, something in the margins of the glass and in its center, shifting as the light shifted with the shadows they themselves cast over Laika inside her capsule. They saw their own reflections, their own positions in space and time. They could not have but marked that moment as they noticed themselves noticing her, noticing in her a concordant innocence for all her unknowing about where she was going and what was going to happen to her. In that moment they must have acknowledged, even if only privately, that Laika was both simultaneously alive and dead—a kind of Schrödinger’s cat—that the capsule was a container inside which she was alive, but from which she would never escape. In that moment the window became a medium through which they might witness the drama of her end, if only they could follow her that far, and a medium through which they might imagine their own ends and the fate of our own capsule, the Earth, which will not last forever. Where Laika was going—into the stars, into death—the scientists and engineers knew they were going too. Like her, they would go alone, as we all must go one day. Through that window, then, we see Laika’s face, and we feel triumphant and elevated in her company, and also impossibly lost and alone with or without her, each of us alone in the cosmos looking to end loneliness through something we might build with each other. Here in the 21st century, our loneliness rises not just from imagining our own death but from the terrifying possibility of extinction, the extinction of our species, the end of the Earth, which could one day become so drained by our numbers and technologies as to be as dry and lifeless as Mars. This is why Laika’s flight and death haunt us still. This is why we cannot forget her—Laika—that little dog set adrift in the unbroken dark.
Night temperatures are cold in Kazakhstan in early winter, cold and dry, and the plain stretches out in every direction. That R-7 rocket must have looked impressive standing out there on the pad, the support towers rising up around it, nothing like it, really, anywhere in the world. The team had made all the preparations, and the launch was scheduled for early morning on November 3. Laika had been inside the capsule now for nearly three days.
The medical staff, led by Yazdovsky and Alexander Dmitrievich, noticed that the pressure in the capsule was slightly higher than when they sealed it on November 1. This was not a problem for Laika, they told Korolev, but it was a problem for science. The pressure inside and outside the capsule had to be equal at the time of launch so that when the rocket went up they could more accurately determine the change in pressure during flight and in orbit, if there was any change at all. An accurate read on the capsule’s pressure change was essential as they moved toward that day, not so far off, when they would send a man into orbit. The only solution, as Yazdovsky and Alexander Dmitrievich saw it, was to open the capsule, normalize the air pressure, and reseal it. So close to launch, this was an odd request, and it might cause a delay, but the investment in this mission was immense—time, money, resources, engineering and political capital, Laika’s life—and no one wanted to miss this opportunity for good science. Korolev granted permission to make the adjustment. In the sources I read, however, there is some question about the authenticity of this permission from Korolev. It is possible that Yazdovsky and Alexander Dmitrievich were denied permission or didn’t ask for it at all. But if either was the case, that information would likely have come out after the launch, and the two men disciplined. I found no such record.
Laika’s capsule had been designed with a breathing opening on the outer shell sealed by a screw cap. Removing that cap was the easiest way to equalize the pressure. Yazdovsky and Alexander Dmitrievich explained the situation to the engineers on site, one of whom was Ivanovsky. It may have required a bit of coaxing and reassurance to convince them that Korolev backed this strange request, that there was time before launch to make this happen. That done, everyone stood by as one of the engineers unscrewed the cap. The pressure now normalized, the cap could go back on, but Yazdovsky and Alexander Dmitrievich had something else in mind.
“They literally attacked me, especially Alexander Dmitrievich,” Ivanovsky writes in The First Steps. “Please, I beg you,” insisted Alexander Dmitrievich, “Let’s water Laika!”
Ivanovsky calls this moment in Laika’s story “a trickery,” and Burgess and Dubbs describe it as “a subterfuge.” Whatever the sneakiness of the plan, after three days inside the capsule Laika needed water. She had eaten all of her space dog food, and while it would have helped with her thirst, it was not enough. She was probably already suffering from dehydration, her body’s systems slowing down. Without water, Laika was not going to live much longer, and she had not even left the ground. “Frankly speaking,” Ivanovsky writes, “we all were willing to comfort Laika’s life in space a little bit.”
In some re-creations of this moment in drawings, books, and animated shorts, the team opens Laika’s window to give her water, but the window was not fixed on a hinge that could be opened. It was sealed tight, all the way around. The capsule too was sealed. It did not include a door but was rather a cylinder with an end-cap, and the end-cap contained the window. If either the window or the end-cap had to be removed to equalize the air pressure, it would have been impossible to complete the job and still launch on time. Korolev would not have given permission for such a delay. The image of Laika with her window open wide, the medical staff and engineers comforting her, giving her water to drink from a bowl, patting her on the head, is a comfort to us, but it is a fiction. The reality was far more clinical.
Alexander Dmitrievich pushed a rubber tube onto the end of a large syringe and filled the syringe with water. In her condition, Laika was probably listless and groggy, perhaps mostly lying with her head down between her front paws stretched out before her, her ears tipped over on the ends. All the activity outside her capsule might have brought her to attention. All the talk and bustle. What was going on out there? I imagine that she could see people moving through the window, and some of them were people she knew, who had fed her, walked her, trained her. And there was Yazdovsky, the man who took her home. “When Laika saw a familiar face through the window,” writes Ivanovsky, “she showed all the signs of canine joy.” What does canine joy look like? Perhaps Laika stood up inside her capsule, the restraining chains restricting her movement. We do not really know. Perhaps she wagged her tail, panted hard at the window, steaming it with her breath, her body wiggling now with the wagging of her tail, her head going back and forth too, her ears moving up and down in her wiggling. And perhaps she barked.
Alexander Dmitrievich dropped the tube through the breathing opening and filled the empty food tray with water. Laika drank. She drank it all and would have taken more, but the opening had to be resealed. Sputnik II was soon to launch. These were the last moments of Laika’s life in human company. The men looked in at her, and she looked out at them. Then, Ivanovsky writes, she “gave a grateful nod led by her wet nose.”
Read additional writing by Kurt Caswell appearing in Terrain.org, including his Letter to America, poems with Japanese prints by Ando Hiroshige, “Getting to Gray Owl’s Cabin,” and “The Road to Crownpoint.”
Header image–Russian stamp of Laika in Sputnik II–courtesy Vintageprintable1, via Flickr. Photo of Kurt Caswell by Rachel Veale.