In November 1957, the Soviet Union announced that it had launched a second satellite into space, the prosaically named Sputnik II being mostly little more than an in-your-face follow-up to the previous month's launch of Sputnik, which had thrown the non-Communist world into a frenzy of fright and self-criticism. There was, however, one great difference with this second satellite: it had a passenger, Laika, a female dog. A small, stray mutt with bright eyes and perky ears who looked like a Samoyed-husky mix, Laika was the first living Earth creature sent into orbit. Judging from photographs and her treatment in Nick Abadzis's gloriously humane but comparatively unsentimental graphic novel, Laika (out this month from First Second), she was a good first representative, too, being bright, tough and cute as a button: a survivor. Not much is known about her before she was captured and brought into the Soviet space program, not to mention that once scientists closed the hermetically sealed capsule (filled with equipment to monitor her vitals, so they could have an idea how a human would respond), there was no plan to get her out again. Abadzis talked with PWCW about how the story came about and what really was so special about one dog lost to space a half-century ago.
PWCW : Was Laika's story one you had long been interested in? How did you come to it?
Nick Abadzis : The story had always stuck in my head, ever since I first came across it when I was a little kid. In part, I think my retelling and fleshing out of the story as an adult is a distant answer to that child-self—an attempt to explicate and figure it out once and for all.
The ball really started rolling back in 2002 when I happened across a news item: a senior Russian scientist presented a report at the World Space Congress that admitted that Laika had died just a few hours into the mission, not four days as previously stated. That really piqued my interest in her and the whole Russian space program again, so I began gathering information and ideas that eventually I would build into the graphic novel.
PWCW : Was it difficult to dig up enough information about something once considered so top secret?
NA: Much of my early research consisted of getting my hands on anything I could about the Soviet space program. There's a lot of it, exhaustive works that detail the U.S.S.R.'s astounding technical achievements, but not a lot on their early experiments, largely because they were so secretive. There's very little on Laika and the whole "cosmodog" program (although there are now more books on the subject than ever thanks to the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launches). I went to the British Library and dug around; there I was put in contact with the head librarian of the Russian collection, and she turned up some interesting information that she was kind enough to translate for me. There was a fair degree of technical information available on the Internet, and I also contacted various space experts around the globe for advice on certain technical matters.
Possibly the most useful resource I came across was a series of taped interviews with experts in the field of Russian space medicine that was available from the Smithsonian Institution's Video History Archive. It turned out that one of the interviewees was academician Oleg Gazenko, who headed the team that trained Laika. He appeared as a character in the book, so it was useful to see what the real Gazenko was like. Unfortunately [in Moscow], I was on a limited time scale and budget and didn't get too much joy, although the Museum of Cosmonautics was very accommodating. It was important for me to walk around Moscow, to get a feel for the place, its geography and people.
PWCW : How much of this story did you have to fictionalize? Is anything really known about Laika before she was brought into the Sputnik II program?
NA: I could've taken an entirely documentary approach, but I felt that dramatizing it and saying, okay, maybe this is how it could have happened gave me more scope to explore all the characters. Although I was pretty rigorous in all the reading and research I did, ultimately I'm a storyteller so I chose to fill in the missing parts of the overall picture that way; it's my natural instinct. Laika's early history up until she comes to be in the care of the [space program's] medical scientists is fiction, but it's also fiction derived from watching real strays on the streets of modern Moscow—and there are a lot of them, still. After that, I could research the generic process of how the dogs were trained and apply that to Laika. I also took care to layer the story through with other, real historical details.
PWCW : Laika's is obviously a sad story—was it hard to avoid sentimentality?
NA: I wanted to engage the emotions of the reader without resorting to outright sentiment. To a certain degree, the very look of Laika, her appearance and the fact that she is/was a cute dog is going to draw people in; that's pretty much a given. That is a tough starting point if you want to avoid treacly sentiment or anything overly twee, which I did. If you follow your cast of characters and their personalities and are honest about it, inevitably one of them will express an opinion you don't necessarily agree with, but I wanted to avoid being crass. I worked hard to boil the story down, both factually and, I hope, to a sort of emotional truth.
All that said, it'd be disingenuous to suggest that, in dealing with a true story that involves dogs and their caretakers, there wouldn't be a bit of emotion. There's plenty, and I hope the reader feels it. But there's also the harsh reality of the time, the place and the confluence of events that put Laika into space. What I wanted to evoke from the reader was more a sense of empathy with Laika's plight, and sympathy also with the humans who surround her.
PWCW : Obviously, animals are killed by humans every day, whether for food or research. What is it about Laika's story that is so particularly poignant?
NA : At the time, it seemed that Laika was killed for what was essentially a publicity stunt. There were actually scientific gains made from the mission, too, but these weren't made public at the time and so the media and the people of the rest of the world reacted to what they knew: that she'd been sent up there for the purposes of propaganda.
It is a poignant story, especially when you consider that Laika was the only living being shot into space without there ever being an escape plan or return option of any kind. When you consider all the mice, insects, apes, let alone all the humans, who've orbited Earth, all of whom were launched with the express intention of being brought back again, it brings home what a lonely fate hers was.