A&S: She’s still the only space explorer sent on a one-way mission.
Abadzis: That’s correct. Laika’s the only creature from Earth sent out there without any kind of escape plan or express intention of getting her home. That certainly lends to the loneliness and mythic nature of her story.
A&S: There’s also an anti-heroic tone to it. What are your thoughts about what’s sometimes called the "conquest of space?" Is it a noble, heroic mission, or is it hubris?
Abadzis: I don’t know if I believe in heroes any more. Everyday people have heroes all around them. I think you have to be very, very brave to be an astronaut or explorer of any kind. But the idea we have of icons and heroes needs to be stretched so that we can see that the details of anybody’s life are as human as anyone else’s.
A&S: One of the heroes in your story is Yelena, the woman who trains Laika and suffers through her flight. Was she an actual person, or based on an actual person?
Abadzis: There’s a good story behind "Yelena." I based her very, very loosely on a woman I had known had worked for the Soviet space bureau, the IMBP, several years after the Laika mission. She had worked for the Soviet state circus. She worked with Gazenko a few years after the events of Laika. So I had the idea that I could put a female worker in the story and it wouldn’t be too much of a dramatic stretch. I didn’t want it to be an all-male cast. But as far as I was concerned, she was my character, completely invented. Then after I finished the book, I had a conversation with Chris Dobbs, who with Colin Burgess did a book called Animals in Space. He’s a bit of a Laika expert, too. There was a photograph in his book that I hadn’t seen, a picture of a woman who looked incredibly like the character I had created. I asked Chris, "Do you know who this woman is?" He had no idea, but he could date that picture to 1956 or ‘57. So suddenly I had confirmation that a woman very like my character worked for [the institute] at the time. It was one of those coincidences that both creeps you out and makes you feel very satisfied.
A&S: The ethics of animal experimentation is obviously a large part of this story. The space arena has been fairly progressive in that regard—animals have largely been banned from U.S. and European spaceflights. In the early space shuttle era, they were still flying monkeys, but I don’t think there are plans to do that anymore. Chalk one up for the space program?
Abadzis: The more questions we ask, the healthier this debate gets. And I think it should remain a debate. If we put these issues out on the table to talk about, we are going to slowly shuffle forward. And that’s the idea, isn’t it, of space exploration? We’re trying to shuffle forward and make the whole human condition slightly better.