Archives For Sputnik

Before human beings ventured into space, the possibility of surviving in this alien realm was tested by sending animals as their surrogates. Fruit flies blazed the trail, as passengers on a V-2 launch in 1947.

In our previous cosmic conversation, we considered space debris cemeteries. Today we will consider space exploration’s cost in lives, as it was driven by the space race.

Two years after the fruit flies passed beyond Earth’s atmosphere, Albert II, a rhesus monkey became the first primate to survive space, only to have his parachute fail upon reentry. His predecessor, Albert I, had failed to reach space when his rocket failed before reaching the 50-mile boundary which marks the space threshold.* Monkeys were probably not great fans of the early space race, since about two-thirds of their space veterans failed to survive the experience.

Presumably for emotional distance, animals were frequently given impersonal names. For example, the first monkeys to survive a spaceflight (in 1959) were Able and Baker.** Out of deference to their gender, their full names were Miss Able and Miss Baker. They were accompanied on their flight by onions, yeast, and sea urchin eggs.

Miss Baker was an exception to the rule of increased mortality for astronauts. She lived until 1984 and her tombstone at the United States Space and Rocket Center is often adorned with memorial bananas.

Human astronauts and cosmonauts competed among their peers for space flights. The animals who journeyed there, did not. Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle journals their stories. The volume does not shy away from the costs of the experiments, but it focuses on the rewards. The story of Ham, the first chimpanzee to return from space is told in a detailed and entertaining manner.

A little wobbly in the legs and slightly dehydrated, Ham was otherwise in excellent physical condition . . . The next day he was flown back to Cape Canaveral where hordes of reporters and photographers were eagerly waiting . . . for a glimpse of America’s newest space hero. Ham was quick to show his displeasure at this noisy, unwanted intrusion . . .

The handlers tried to get the reluctant chimp to pose next to a Mercury training capsule but he rebelled; he didn’t want to go anywhere near the darned thing. . . .

Ham later trained for a second mission, but it seems he’d had his taste of glory and showed very little enthusiasm for another ride on a rocket. Another chimp would make the flight.

Ham retired and died in 1983, in the company of two female chimps half his age. But other animals, including monkeys perished in accidents in the United States and the Soviet Union. Some were euthanized prior to takeoff. It is a complex story, and painful for a lover of animals to hear.

The Sad Story of Laika (Лайка)

One of the first animals to fly in space was a small dog who perished on Sputnik 2, in 1957. Laika is celebrated as a hero and a memorial with her likeness was erected near the research facility in which she was trained. In Moscow, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space also bears her image.

Sadly, Laika carried a one way ticket aboard Sputnik. There was no provision made for her survival. It is unfortunate enough that her body incinerated along with the spacecraft upon reentry, but her actual death was perhaps even more horrific. The Soviet government falsely reported that she was euthanized prior to the depletion of the oxygen. In fact, the temperature aboard the spacecraft rose to unsurvivable rates and little Laika was . . . well, it was certainly terrifying for the trusting dog strapped into tight restraints.

Laika had been a stray roaming Moscow. The Soviets felt that homeless dogs possessed stronger constitutions than those cared for by families. This website describes “10 Tragic Facts about Laika.”

The day before the launch, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky brought Laika home. For the last four weeks, he had been closer to her than anyone. He had led the team that picked Laika. After [life on]the streets, he’d trained her, and he’d personally chosen her to go into space.

Dr. Yazdovsky brought her home so that his children could play with her. For one last moment before her last day on Earth, he let her experience life as a domesticated dog with a loving family. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” Dr. Yazdovsky said. “She had so little time left to live.”

As if Laika’s final hours were not poignant enough, the pitiable canine was restrained in her space coffin for three days before Sputnik 2 was able to launch. For seventy-two relentless hours she was trapped in the spacecraft as they made repairs to conclude the launch protocols. One can only imagine what fear and confusion she suffered as she waited for her human friends to remove her from the duress.

Although it would be years before the full details of Laika’s pain would be revealed, there were many animal lovers who recognized the barbarity of the event from day one. C.S. Lewis was a man who loved dogs. And not only dogs, Lewis was opposed to all cruelty to animals.

Several months after Laika’s death, Lewis referred to her passing in a letter to a friend. His comment is offered sardonically, but it reveals his genuine compassion for the innocent victim of humanity’s actions.

I shall be glad when people begin talking about other things than Sputniks, won’t you? One gets quite sick of the whole subject. The pity is that some cosmic rays didn’t produce a mutation in the dog which would have made it super-rational: then it might have found its way back alive and started taking revenge on the humans!⁂

When I witness tragedy in terms of the suffering of people and sentient animals, I grieve. At those times I seek comfort in God’s promise of the redemption not only of humanity, but also of nature.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18-25)

I’ve discussed in the past whether animals will be welcomed into heaven. I am not alone in pondering this subject. Likewise, I suspect I am not alone in hoping that innocent Laika will join us where the tears are wiped away from all of our eyes.


* The United States boundary for space is 50 miles, while the international threshold is the Kármán Line, established at 100 kilometers.

** Able was a resus macaque and Baker was a squirrel monkey. Able did not survive the postflight medical procedures.

⁂ This revenge of the animal kingdom against humankind is the premise of a television series entitled “Zoo,” which aired 2015-17. For those who find the notion provocative, be forewarned. The series does not live up to its potential.

Where do all the satellites go when their utility ends? No, they don’t all just burn up on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere as their orbits decay. Many are too large for that, and they must be escorted to a remote and desolate Spacecraft Cemetery.

While a great deal of debris and smaller satellites burn up upon re-entry, larger items—including entire space stations—need to be disposed of in a way that keeps the hazardous materials out of public circulation. And what better place than the dark depths of the ocean? Among the craft that have been scuttled at the spot are unmanned satellites . . . and, possibly most remarkably, the entire decommissioned Russian space station, Mir.

The isolated location of this unique graveyard is near the “oceanic pole of inaccessibility,” which marks the location on earth which lies the farthest from any land. The cemetery, which is already the final resting place for more than 260 spacecraft from Russia, Europe, Japan and the United States, lies on the deep seabed approximately 1,500 miles between Pitcairn Island, Easter Island, and Antarctica.

This remote locate is truly mysterious. Members of my critique group expressed concern that residual extraterrestrial elements aboard the satellites might birth some variation of ゴジラ [Godzilla]. Another member, steeped in the Lovecraftian lore of the Cthulhu mythos, pointed out that this “oceanic pole of inaccessibility” is virtually identical with the location of R’lyeh, the subterranean cavern wherein Cthulhu awaits his terrible awakening. In response to these observations, I reminded my colleagues that I happen to be writing nonfiction.

The international space race formally launched in 1957 when the Soviet Union placed Sputnik in orbit. The United States scrambled to catch up, and in 1959, the USSR placed the first human in space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was preceded by a precious little dog, the first living being to reach out for the stars. Her name was Laika, and we will consider Laika’s sad tale in a moment.

C.S. Lewis & the Space Race

The realm of space was not unfamiliar to Lewis. From 1938 to 1945 he authored three volumes of science fiction that would come to be known as the Space Trilogy (or Cosmic Trilogy).

In one book he describes the danger posed to spacecraft by interstellar debris. Presumably similar dangers led to the early demise of some of the residents of the Space Cemetery. In the first volume, Lewis describes the protagonist’s initial exposure to the “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness.”

The period spent in the spaceship ought to have been one of terror and anxiety for Ransom. He was separated by an astronomical distance from every member of the human race except two whom he had excellent reasons for distrusting. He was heading for an unknown destination, and was being brought thither for a purpose which his captors steadily refused to disclose.

All was silence but for the irregular tinkling noises. He knew now that these were made by meteorites, small, drifting particles of the world-stuff that smote continually on their hollow drum of steel; and he guessed that at any moment they might meet something large enough to make meteorites of ship and all. But he could not fear. He now felt that Weston had justly called him little-minded in the moment of his first panic. The adventure was too high, its circumstance too solemn, for any emotion save a severe delight. (Out of the Silent Planet)

Lewis’ initial foray into space was influenced by H.G. WellsFirst Men in the Moon. In The War of the Worlds, the second chapter is entitled “The Falling-Star.” It describes the terrible dangers that can fall from space. Earth’s “greatest authority on meteorites, stated that the height of its first appearance was about ninety or one hundred miles.” So common are meteorites that “no one seems to have troubled to look for the fallen mass that night.” However, the next morning they discovered,

An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.

It is precisely due to the destruction that would be caused by a crash-landing catastrophe such as this, that the nations of the world have identified an unpopulated spacecraft cemetery.

This international competition, one of the most publicized elements of the Cold War, unfolded as C.S. Lewis was at the height of his professional influence. Unlike many, who regarded sputnik’s orbit as alarming, Lewis offered a measured, yet realistic, assessment of the advance.

I don’t feel that ‘Sputnik’ in itself is anything very dangerous, but one doesn’t like the underlying implication, i.e. that its existence proves that Russia is far ahead of your country in inter-continental missiles. (Letter to Vera Gebbert, 12 November 1957)

Lewis understood that the race to control the thermosphere and exosphere would not be won in a day. His insight was affirmed as the United States overtook the Soviets’ early advantage and planted a flag on the moon.

In his preface to a theological book, Lewis refers to Sputnik in passing, using its fame as a counterpoint to what is truly lasting and of profound significance.

Dr. Farrer is far too wise and workmanlike in his pastoral office to waste any time on being topical. You will find nothing here about the [nuclear] Bombs or Sputniks. What is usually called ‘the contemporary’ is in fact a composite picture of the recent past, based on secondary sources (chiefly newspapers) and touched up with guesses about the future.

Dr. Farrer . . . has no leisure to spare for such a phantom. He deals with what is really and knowably contemporary–with the august and terrible coincidence of the present moment and the eternal, in which each one of us lives. He is never speaking to the abstraction ‘modern man,’ always to you and me. (Preface to Austin Farrer’s A Faith of Our Own)

C.S. Lewis recognized well how the flash of “the contemporary” served to outshine what was of lasting import. He recognized Sputnik’s scientific breakthrough for what it was. And then he turned his attention to more significant concerns.

The space race, however, never ended. Today we see another shift in the transnational race for space with many nations vying for a role in exploration of the solar system. Likewise, after a period of rewarding international cooperation, the three superpowers are now all actively pursuing the militarization of space. Where it will end only our descendants will witness.

Still, like C.S. Lewis, we have personally witnessed much progress when it comes to humanity’s desire to touch space. And many of the most powerful memories have involved tragedy.

Soyuz 1 (1967) and Soyuz 11 (1971) cost four lives. In the West, entire crews were lost in three disasters: Apollo 1 (1967) and Space Shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003). Humans, though, were not the only ones to sacrifice their lives in the exploration of space. In our next post, we’ll reflect on the price paid by animals in beginning this extraplanetary journey.