British artist/author Nick Abadzis tells the poignant story of the world’s first space traveler in his new graphic novel, Laika. Launched on November 3, 1957, just a month after the first Sputnik, Laika’s flight was designed to help Soviet scientists understand the effects of space travel on a living creature. The dog London, captures the emotional truth of Laika’s story along with the historical facts (Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Laika’s flight.
From This Story
Air&Space: What drew you to this subject? Had you known much about Sputnik before you dove into this?
Abadzis: I was always really interested in the space race, which captured my imagination when I was a child. I don’t think you ever forget those childhood fascinations. And of course, the Soviet space program was a lot more enigmatic and mysterious than the U.S. program. Every space book given to me by my mom when I was a kid was about the U.S. space program. The great icons of the Soviet program were Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, and Laika, the first living being to orbit Earth. And Laika’s story always chimed with me. I was both horrified and fascinated by it as a kid.
Then I sort of forgot about it, and wound up becoming an artist, although I never lost my interest in space. In 2002, some new information about Laika’s fate came to light, and that triggered my interest in Soviet cosmonautics again.
A&S: How did it come to your attention?
Abadzis: I recall a news item on the BBC, or maybe The Guardian website, about a world space congress in Texas. There was an eminent Soviet space medicine expert attending, and he admitted the real story of Laika—that she had not survived nearly as long as they had said at the time. They learned that, yes, they could put a biological organism up in orbit. But [Laika] was far more uncomfortable than the propaganda at the time had allowed them to say. It was quite a sad little tale, and that was really what set the ball rolling for me to do more research. I’d always wanted to do something about the Soviet space program. It was something I felt hadn’t been well documented, certainly not in comics.
A&S: You did a prodigious amount of research for this book. How did you get the look of the places, like the biomedical institute, or the barracks and firing room at Tyuratam [the launch site]? Were you able to visit those places, or did you see pictures of the way they looked in 1957, or did you imagine them?
Abadzis: All of the above. I actually wrote to the Russian Academy of Sciences to see if I could get access to those places, but they took a very long time to get back to me, and I was on a limited time schedule. I did make a visit to Moscow, and through contacts at the Museum of Cosmonautics I was able to get an invitation to [chief Soviet rocket designer] Sergei Korolev’s house, which is now a private museum. So I did get to look around that. The big institutions were far more difficult [to see], and an awful lot of that came from my imagination. But I did have some visual references that were extremely valuable. The Smithsonian Institution has a video history program, and among the articles they have is an interview with Oleg Gazenko, one of the most eminent of the early Soviet space medical scientists.
A&S: He’s a character in the book.
Abadzis: Indeed. And they had still photographs and a little bit of video of laboratories that Gazenko used to work in. It was extremely valuable in the sense that it also allowed me to nail Gazenko’s character. Suddenly he wasn’t just a person in biographies. He was this very humorous, sparkly character. Recently, when I was doing a book-signing at the National Air and Space Museum, I met a gentleman who had worked for both NASA and outside agencies, and he knew Gazenko well. I was delighted when he told me that I had nailed Gazenko’s character accurately.