Monument to a Great Bitch

As someone in the sciences, I have a healthy respect for the fact that there is a need to test a variety of advancements (usually medical) on animals before humans. I in no way advocate going out of our way to hurt animals. I am, at heart, an animal lover. However, I am more a lover of humans. True, we are all animals, and perhaps this shows a species specific prejudice, but I think do not apologize for it: if an animal or human has to die, I will do everything to save the human first.

Passing without fanfare this past November was a notable anniversary. Fifty years ago on November 2, 1957, was one of the most watched and followed animal experiments of that era. Laika, indeed a female mongrel, was launched into orbit, becoming the first mammal to be launched into orbit. She had been a stray on the streets of Moscow, and was obtained from a shelter there.

Laika was a passenger on Sputnik 2, a rather hastily assembled satellite in the wake of the success of the Soviet’s great achievement of launching the first Sputnik. The obvious topper was not just to launch a satellite, but to launch something alive. No one was ready for people, and Laika got her shot at history.

As was the case at the time, everything was rather secret. Not many knew that Laika sat in that capsule for three days on the frigid launch pad, with the engineers warming he outside to keep her from freezing to death prior to launch. Only a few more knew that this was a one way flight. The satellite was not prepared to return home, and that Laika would be sacrificed to learn if animals could survive in orbit. At the time, the Soviets announced that Laika had been euthanized with poisoned food, though today it is known that, in the rush to get the satellite operational, there had been no time to include a temperature control system. Laika died of overheating within hours or days, depending on the story. Sadly, there was not much telemetry. Laika’s experiment was a failure, and her death was seemingly in vane.

In 1964, there was a huge monument in Moscow built entitled The Conquerors of Space. There are depictions there of the great heroes who blazed the trail to humanity’s path to space. It depicts engineers, communications staff, a cosmonaut in a spacesuit …… and a little dog who beat them all there.

Just a few days ago, in honor of the half century of our taxonomic class entering space, Laika finally got a monument of her own. Just outside the facility where she lived and was trained (I assume potty training in addition to space training), there now stands a rocket with a dog standing atop it.

On the one hand, it caused me to pause a moment ….. there has been, for many decades, controversy surrounding the cosmonauts and astronauts who have represented humanity in the heavens. Certainly, prior to 1985, only two human women had been there. The first seven American astronauts were all White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and no others were really going to be considered. Cosmonauts were all good communists, full blooded Europeans. Laika on the other hand was a mongrel ……. a mutt …… a half-breed. In some ways, for a very long time, I can’t help but feel that Laika may have been the truest representatives of our planet that ever got launched into orbit. A poor survivor from the streets from heritage unknown. You’ve got to have a certain respect for the unintended symbolism of that.

I am not one to try and anthropomorphize animals. I had a great dog (Khoutek, a Norwegian Elkhound named for a comet) growing up, and have known several other great dogs. I have a bond for these animals which, for whatever reason, seem to be capable and loyal companions. I do not cheer when such an animal is killed for no reason, and I find the mistreatment of such animals despicable. Yet, I know, without their role in science often times, human lives would be lost in far greater numbers. Maybe it is sappy sentimentality that permits me those feelings for an animal.

But then again, the Russian government, or at least their space agency, must share that feeling, and I don’t think I have ever heard the Russian government called “sappy”.


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