The Right Stuff
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By Amy Fernandez
As a rule, dog people aren’t crazy about dog books. Most of them are justifiably considered rehashed content written by people who know less than we do. Therefore, I’m going out on a limb with this recommendation, but in this case, you gotta have it.
The newly released Soviet Space Dogs was written by Dr. Olesya Turkina, a Senior Research Fellow at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg and translated into English by Inna Cannon and Lisa Wasserman for the London-based Fuel Publishing. Dog people were definitely not a target market – which may explain its appeal. Without really trying, it’s alternately enlightening, reaffirming, heartbreaking, and inspiring. Most of all, it puts a new spin on a familiar topic, reminding us that the dog’s role in scientific advancement encompasses much more than medical breakthroughs that now grab headlines.
Although the space race is ancient history, some iconic facts are embedded in our collective memory. Russia’s canine cosmonauts rank high on that list. Utilizing recently declassified information, this overview fills in longstanding historical gaps and reframes conventional beliefs about both the dogs and the scientists who participated in this program, and that’s just the start. Secrecy surrounding the Cold War-era Soviet space program was motivated equally by the need to protect technological advances and the political desire to manage media perceptions. Needless to say, both sides in this race to space coped with endless glitches, complications, and disasters. Animals took the ride while researchers hammered out the details. And long after humans took the wheel, these missions offered risks aplenty.
Every aspect of spaceflight survivability was unknown when the space race commenced. Soviet investigations of these mysteries culminated in the first suborbital flight on July 22, 1951. To everyone’s surprise, both canine passengers survived. A few months later, America sent mice into space, which didn’t go so well. And… the race was on. The 1960s became a veritable zoo of orbiting rodents, insects, birds, fish, and reptiles, but monkeys and dogs were the headliners.
From a physiological and genetic standpoint, primates were the logical choice for these studies, which was the case for NASA. Soviet scientists opted for dogs. This book explains why. After spending time with a famed Moscow monkey trainer, researchers realized just how complicated and high maintenance they could be. “On leaving the circus, Malkin recalled Gazenko declaring that ‘the Americans are welcome to their flying monkeys; we’re more partial to dogs.’” Although they were utilized extensively during the space race, they usually required sedation, which added another element of risk to space missions.
Author Olesya Turkina also speculates that Pavlov’s groundbreaking work on conditioned reflexes may have inspired ethically questionable possibilities.
“It’s possible that the use of dogs in the space programme was partially influenced by the famous physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov…It is conceivable that the Soviet authorities were particularly fond of Pavlov, not because of the materialistic nature of his research, but also because they were hoping to develop the conditional and unconditional reflexes of a new type of Soviet human.” Pavlov’s work led to breakthroughs in physiology and neurological research, but his crucial contribution in this case was more mundane. His work provided breakthrough insights into canine temperament and behavior.
During the ‘50s and ‘60s the Soviet space program launched at least 57 dogs on space missions. Some became frequent fliers, which makes it difficult to determine the precise number. Although they had access to every canine style, they chose Moscow street dogs. The official explanation was that strays possessed genetic hardiness and learned resilience to tolerate the grueling training and trauma of spaceflight. Official denials didn’t offset the widespread conviction that communist ideology also influenced this decision. In that respect, mutt superiority sent a powerful message.
Moscow’s stray dog population qualifies as a microcosm of Darwinian selection. For more than a century, their ubiquity and street smarts has qualified as an urban legend. Researchers had 26,000-36,000 potential candidates for “future space scouts”, as they were euphemistically known. That posed some logistical problems, primarily a strict size DQ. Fitting into a rocket’s nosecone maxed out at 15 pounds, 14 inches nose to tail, and a 13 inch height. That aspect of the project was very unscientific. Quoted by various media sources including Space Dogs, a former research assistant from the Airforce Institute of Aviation Medicine described her experiences chasing strays around Moscow with a tape measure.
They eventually rounded up 60 recruits within these size parameters. That field was quickly narrowed when they realized the complications of training dogs to pee in a pressure suit. Ultimately, mostly bitches made the grade. That was the tip of the iceberg. Scientists faced unprecedented challenges in this project. But it’s safe to say that they didn’t anticipate designing and sewing doggy spacesuits or managing a kennel. Strays might be hardy and resilient, but they were way past the age to easily accept housebreaking and crate training. Space capsule or living room, it boiled down to the same issues. A century after the fact, good old Pavlov had answers. Researchers initially tried straightforward, mechanical methods to overcome these hurdles, but eventually conceded that nothing succeeded better than positive reinforcement training
They had to familiarize the dogs with bizarre sights, sounds, and sensations like rocket launches, weightlessness, and a very weird diet. Efficiently delivering a highly nutritious concentrate was great in theory. However, the unpalatable result became international fodder for social satire for decades to come. Even dogs refused to eat this revolting superfood. Like the other aspects of spaceflight preparation, convincing them otherwise was a matter of patience and persistence.
As Space Dogs emphasizes, throughout it all, these dogs reaffirmed the qualities that kept canis lupus familiaris on top of the game since prehistory. “There are also many accounts of how those that worked with the dogs were sympathetic to their fate and admired their resilience. Stories have been told of how some dogs managed to outsmart their handlers and slip away before the launch, and how some recordholders were sent into space many times over.” At least one space scout redefined temperamental resilience. The night before a crucial launch, ZIB was shanghaied as an emergency replacement after the scheduled passenger slipped her lead and absconded during an evening walk. Rather than abort the mission, the frantic team organized an impromptu dog hunt. Collared outside the mess hall, ZIB not only fit into the tailored spacesuit, he didn’t skip a beat. Canine or human, few individuals could cope with being kidnapped and shot into space within 24 hours.
Declassified information in this book annihilates the notion of dispassionate scientists. Researchers on the project admitted their immense respect for the dogs, calling them colleagues, friends, and true professionals. In reports they were never referred to impersonally. All of their names and photos were permanently logged into the projects records. Genuine affection developed between these canine and human allies of this very weird team. There was no media hype attached to that aspect of the story since many consequent decisions directly violated regulations, such as the voyage of Dezik and Tsygan on July 22, 1951. “The nosecone containing the dogs separated correctly, parachuting down to the launch pad some fifteen minutes later. The medical program was run by Vladimir Ivanovich Yazdovsky who personally fitted the dogs into the capsule before takeoff. According to his memoirs, immediately on landing the waiting crowd ran towards the space travelers, even though it was forbidden, shouting ‘they’re alive! They’re barking!’ Sergey Pavlovich Korolev grabbed one of the dogs into his arms and ran around the capsule with joy; he then personally drove the heroes back to their enclosure in his car.” After Dezik died in the next mission, Lieutenant General Anatoli Arkadyevich Blagonravov flexed his military clout to appropriate Tsygan as his personal pet. By then 12 canine cosmonauts had experienced suborbital ballistic flights in preparation for the first orbital mission.
Sputnik 1 was an international sensation. The launch of Sputnik 2 a month later was intended to surpass that stunner, which required a living, breathing passenger. On November 3rd 1957, Laika ascended into popular culture. Chosen from ten candidates, her good looks sealed her fate for the suicide mission that made her an international star.
“She was a striking dog, approximately two years old, light in color with dark brown spots on her face, which possessed a surprised expression.” Soviet scientists understood the historical and cultural significance of this mission, and this book reveals how much they hated sending her. Her many nicknames confirm the affection she inspired among them. Originally named Kudryavka (Little Curly), she was variously known as Zhuchka (Little Bug), Limonchik (Little Lemon) and Laika, which referenced her barky nature, not the Russian Laika breed. Stowed into a padded pressurized cabin she had room to stand, turn, and lie down, and sufficient oxygen, water, and gelatinized food that she never needed. Malfunction dictated a quick death, foreshadowing many human losses that would follow. “The canonization of Laika unfolded following a perfectly human script.” The first of many memorials to her appeared a year later in Paris.
International adoration of space dogs kicked into overdrive August 19, 1960 when Belka (AKA Albina/Whitey/ Squirrel) and Strelka (AKA Marquise/Little Arrow) became the first animals to safely return from a 24 hour orbital mission aboard Sputnik 5. It was Belka’s fourth mission, but Strelka got the glory by proving that spaceflight didn’t impact reproductive capability. Her superstar status hit America when Khruschev presented Caroline Kennedy with one of her puppies a year later.
No one mentioned that they were actually the backup team for Chaika and Lisichka who died a month earlier when their rocket exploded. The ensuing government-orchestrated media blitz was purely political and unprecedented. It was meant to reinforce Soviet pride by glorifying stars of its space program. Hero worship was an unknown phenomenon in the Soviet Union’s barren wasteland of popular culture. Ironically, dogs became the first candidates for this officially endorsed veneration. They were in the right place at the right time. “Paradoxically, Belka and Strelka became the first Soviet pop stars.”
They were branded as thoroughly as any real or fictional superstar. Every conceivable item was emblazoned with their images juxtaposed against futuristic, sci-fi scenes. This avalanche of stamps buttons postcards, matchbooks, candy wrappers, cigarette packs, and matchboxes definitely had visual impact but it didn’t quite translate as intended. The imagery fit neatly within the parameters of government-approved art, but the stylistic result was frequently a surrealistic mashup rather than a celebration of communist ideology. Much of it was virtually indistinguishable from the comic book art then dominating Western culture. However, that didn’t completely account for Belka and Strelka’s superhero status.
No amount of space race niknaks or propaganda could have intensified the global amazement following that first grainy glimpse of Belka and Strelka adorably bundled into their spacesuits as their capsule hurtled around the planet. Their calm, stoic demeanor wasn’t motivated by the lifetime supply of sausages awaiting them back on earth. Dogs are true existentialists. Belka and Strelka simply coped with one more of the absurd situations that inevitably characterize the 15,000 year canine/human partnership. To them, it was no more remarkable than crossing the Bering Strait to stake a claim in Ice Age America or swimming the Straits of Gibraltar with a load of Moroccan contraband. From a canine perspective, it was business as usual. From a human perspective, their achievement reframed the world’s collective concept of space travel. Suddenly, that cold, dark void was transformed into an alluring utopia, “the final frontier” that has gripped our imagination ever since.
This misguided Soviet PR campaign had an even bigger impact back on earth. Today, Russia is an acknowledged source of topnotch quality in many breeds. Therefore, it’s easy to forget how suddenly it has emerged as a major player in the international show scene. Public reactions to Belka and Strelka heralded current attitudes about dogs as valuable individuals, but back then, it was a pivotal turning point. “Like the cosmonauts, they suffered in obscurity before their flight, but enjoyed universal fame and material rewards (including all the sausage they could eat) after a successful landing.” Their celebrity status catalyzed a national redefinition. Arguably, the fact that they weren’t purebred gave this message greater impact. “After Belka and Strelka’s flight, Soviet schools initiated lessons on how to be kind to stray dogs in the street, and the prices of mixed breed puppies in Moscow doubled, since any mongrel of the proper size could theoretically be the next canine cosmonaut.”
At least 15 space dogs perished during the race to space. Their sacrifices and achievements were mourned and celebrated. This book reminds us that their contribution reverberated far beyond that context.
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