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(Nick Abadzis)

Laika's Tale

Fifty years after her flight, a new graphic novel recounts the saga of the dog that made space history.

A&S: The typical portrayal of Sputnik is this very Soviet, bureaucratic program. But you found the human story. The departure point for your book, in fact, is a quote from Gazenko, who said—decades after Laika’s flight—that they didn’t learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog, and that he always felt bad about that.

Abadzis: I discovered that quote really early in my research, and resolved to forget it. I almost didn’t want to put it in. Then as I began mapping the book out, and as the project grew from my initial idea of a straight documentary, I found fairly quickly that I couldn’t do the story justice without giving it some emotional turning point. I’m a storyteller, and I gravitate naturally toward storytelling. And that quote of Gazenko’s kept re-presenting itself to me. Because I was using a lot of real characters from history, I wanted to be respectful of them.

A&S: Did Gazenko think, or do you think now, that there would have been a more humane way to do that second Sputnik flight?

Abadzis: I think at the time they thought they were being very humane. They set it up so that she would be put to sleep through lethal injection. And they tried to make her as comfortable as they possibly could. They really did open up the capsule on the launch pad so they could give her a drink of water, which was going totally against the protocols of the time. The book isn’t really intended as a condemnation of the Soviet system or the Soviet scientists of the time. It’s really meant to look at it from different viewpoints, and allow the reader to have their own thoughts on the matter.

A&S: You also say in your afterword that there was a public outcry against the flight. That’s not something we often hear. It’s usually "the brave little dog that gave its life so we could enter the Space Age."

Abadzis: It’s really difficult to find out how people in the Soviet Union felt about it. Almost all the archival material I could get from the time portrays the reactions of the West and the rest of the world. Very little is known about what your garden Soviet worker would have thought. But in the West, there was a major outcry from dog-lovers, as you’d expect. Laika was also nicknamed "Muttnik" by the U.S. press, and there were jokes made. But ultimately, from the Soviet leadership’s point of view at the time, it was a propaganda success. They still managed to put the first living creature in orbit, no matter what the cost was.

A&S: Sergei Korolev is a major character in the book—in fact you open the story with him. Did I read that you’re interested in doing a longer treatment of his story?

Abadzis: The original plan I had was to do something more on Korolev’s life. It wasn’t possible in the 200 pages of this book. But I have an abiding interest in these things, so I did envision a trilogy, the first on Laika, then Yuri Gagarin, then Korolev, the book that would bind together the first two. Whether that will come to pass is something I have to discuss with my publisher. Laika took it out of me, though. I did the artwork in an extremely short span of time. That kind of pressure-cooker atmosphere I felt was entirely correct, because it gave me the emotional "in" to the same enormous pressure that the scientists who did the Sputnik 2 mission felt.

A&S: They were in an almost impossible hurry.

Abadzis: It’s just astonishing when you think about it now. The first Sputnik was done at an incredibly speedy rate, but the second one, Laika’s mission, was put up there in a month, which by any standard—today’s or yesterday’s—is absolutely extraordinary. The mission came as a complete surprise [to the biomedical scientists]. They had a pool of dogs they’d been launching on their Cosmo-dog program to gain medical data. They were vertical rocket launches into the upper atmosphere and the edge of space. They always tried to get their dogs back. But this idea of lofting an animal, Laika, into orbit, was something that came completely out of the blue for everybody.

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