by Nick Abadzis
My wiry-coated dog loves this chilly weather. With the temperature hovering around the freezing mark, he's happy to keep walking as long as you'll let him. One icy morning as we finished another epic trek around the neighborhood I patted his side and said, "Good thing you were rescued in Alabama; if the Russians had found you they'd have shot you into space." And then I paused to wonder where that idea came from. (It's far too late to consider why I talk to my dog this way.)
Turns out I picked up that factoid a few years ago in Nick Abadzis's Laika, a biographical novel about the first animal launched into earth orbit, on November 3, 1957. Laika was a stray, a little 12-pound mixed-breed female found loose on the streets of Moscow. Soviet scientists chose their canine candidates for spaceflight from Moscow dog pounds, supposing that any dog tough enough to survive the privations of a Moscow winter had a better than average chance of surviving the unknown stresses of a trip into space. Laika did not and never was meant to.
Laika's story is gripping. Her flight aboard Sputnik 2 was conceived and executed in a matter of weeks, intended as a propaganda coup celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and shaming the US, which had yet to launch even a single vehicle into earth orbit. Cold War tensions, Byzantine Soviet politics and bitter interdepartmental rivalries within the Soviet space program provide the background for Abadzis's story of a pioneering engineer's redemption and small dog's martyrdom. A distinctly Russian melancholy suffuses the book and is articulated in a quotation from Soviet space scientist Oleg Gazenko, who in 1998 lamented, "The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog."
Whether you're a dog lover, a space enthusiast or a student of Cold War history, Laika will grab your interest and stick with you long after you've finished it.
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Review by Don Beistle