Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Friday, April 14, 2006

Kudryavka's Wake

48 years ago, on April 14th, a satellite holding the lifeless body of the first sentient creature sent into orbit reentered the Earth's atmosphere.

We celebrate the courage of human astronauts, but those astronauts were and are braving calculated odds. Kudryavka ("Little Curly", which wasn't very easy to pronounce, so they went with the generic "Laika" for media promotion value) didn't even know where she was going, and it's likely she died in part from the stresses of being sent -- alone, hungry, bewildered, and trapped -- into a place no sane dog would go unless following a beloved master or mistress.

Kudryavka's sputnik was arguably the first real "biosatellite", but the craft was not a credit to that otherwise excellent and underappreciated concept. Sputnik 2 was thrown together almost overnight, to celebrate an anniversary of the October Revolution with a new space "first". It was felt that simply launching another electronic satellite would not be symbolic
enough. So what about a dog?

Adequate life support was effectively impossible, however, and there was no way to get Kudryavka back down alive anyway. Exactly when Kudryavka died is uncertain-- some time within the first 7 hours of flight seems to be the final coroner's report, after decades of silence or confusion. Perhaps a compassionate flight technician poisoned her before sealing her up, to reduce the number of hours of terror and misery she might otherwise have had to endure. Overheating was the likely cause of death. Relatively little biometric data was collected, most of it of no real use, except insofar as it proved that an animate creature of some size could survive at least a few hours of weightlessness.

As recounted in a documentary I saw at the Museum of Flight on Yuri's night here in Seattle, a thousand letters arrived in response to the announcement of Kudryavka's launch, letters in which people expressed a desire to be sent into orbit themselves, even if there was no safe way to come back -- or no way to come back at all. The one reason for people to go into space that makes any real sense (i.e., that they simply want to go, as the ultimate expression of the human desire for flight and release) was ironically affirmed by Kudryavka's forced adventure. It is a strange (and in a way, wonderful) statement about us as a species that there would probably have been no shortage of human volunteers to go knowingly to a certain death in orbit, instead of Kudryavka, had there been a spaceworthy capsule large enough for a human being at that point. Unlike Kudryavka, any selected volunteer would have gone down in history knowing that they would be in the history books, and would have appeared in those books under their own name. Poor Kudryavka, had she been reachable by radio from orbit, would probably not have responded to hearing "Laika" except as another human sound. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Kudryavka, a stray mutt, died lonelier, more frightened, hungrier, and ultimately, just as nameless, as the day she was picked up off the streets of Moscow.

As a rule, I don't drink much. Tonight, however, I think I'll buy some vodka, and drink a toast to Kudryavka. Maybe I'll go out to some place where people dance; maybe I'll dance a little myself; and while dancing, I may try to make myself believe that, in her terror and bewilderment and loneliness, Kurdryakva might nevertheless have experienced a brief moment of joy and wonder in feeling weightless. I have no doubt that dogs can feel joy and wonder. I also have no doubt -- a legacy of my climbing days, I suppose -- that both joy and wonder are possible even in very miserable and frightening personal circumstances.

If and when I go out this Friday night, I'll try to invite some people, and if they come along, I will tell them I'm doing it in memory of Kudryavka. If they come along, it will be a true space party -- a wake, but still a real party. Will the moon be out? Perhaps we'll bay drunkenly at the moon, half-hoping to hear an echo from space, the voice of the spirit of a small dog who committed no worse sin than that of simply trusting some human beings with her life, trusting them as any good dog has been bred to do, oblivious to nationalism, technological ambition, political pressure, ideology, careerism. Maybe, if Seattle's skies clear up enough tonight, we'll be lucky and catch a glimpse of a falling star, and see something that looks like Kudryavka's coffin self-cremating in the upper atmosphere. And if we are very lucky, we will wake in the morning with not only a new respect for human intelligence and the wonders it can create, but also with a more wolflike wariness of the ever-present potential for that intelligence to be bent to purposes that are cruel, selfish, and deceptive. Any such wariness may feel like a personal burden, but it will also be a blessing in disguise. It's a wariness we owe to all sentient beings who might follow us wherever we go. We owe it to ourselves as well.

Kudryavka. Learn how to pronounce it. It was her name.


At 9:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Thank you so much for enlightening me. I have learned to pronounce (and thoroughly respect) "Kudryavka".

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