British artist/author Nick Abadzis tells the poignant story of the world’s first space traveler in his new graphic novel, Laika. He talked with Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Laika’s flight in 2007.
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.
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.
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.