The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot live forever in a cradle.—Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Russia’s “Father of Rocketry”

And just think of Laika, the space dog. They stuck her in Sputnik and blasted her into outer space. Wires in her brain and her heart showed how she was doing. I don’t think she felt so hot. For five months she circled the earth until her food ran out. So, compared to stuff like that…
My Life As a Dog, Lasse Hallstrom 1987

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On November 3, 1957, Russia shocked the world by launching the first living creature ever into space: Laika, a gentle, intelligent part-Samoyed terrier from the streets of Moscow. Within the week, New York Times writer Gay Talese would add Laika’s name to the list of the dogs of history, alongside Argus from Homer’s Odyssey, FDR’s dog Fala, and Checkers, the star of Nixon’s speech from five years earlier. Thanks to Laika, the spacecraft in which she flew, Sputnik II, was immediately dubbed “Muttnik.”

Exactly 30 days earlier on October 4th, Sputnik I, a basketball-sized metal ball with four long antennae trailing behind was the first object to be successfully sent into orbit. Coincidentally, this was the same night as the launch of another ’50s icon, Leave It to Beaver, a time capsule of bland Eisenhower-era domestic unreality that was a mainstay of my ’70s afterschool TV lineup. The lineup also included the Space Race-inspired I Dream of Jeannie, featuring Larry Hagman as an astronaut who, after landing far from his planned recovery site, finds a Jeannie in a bottle, played by Barbara Eden in an elaborate costume carefully designed to hide her navel in order to comply with the TV standards department of 1965.

But back in the fall of 1957, actual manned space flights landing on beaches laden with magic lanterns were years in America’s future and the squeaky-clean conflicts between the Beave, Wally, and that devious suck-up Eddie Haskell were the last thing on Eisenhower’s mind. Russia’s Sputnik double-whammy was everywhere in the press, and the launch of Laika into space so soon after Russia had launched the first orbital satellite was salt in the wounds of America’s already damaged pride. Sputnik meant “satellite” or “moon” in Russian, and there were now not one, but two “Russian moons” passing at regular intervals over American skies, one carrying an actual full-sized dog. There was a deeper, darker Cold War fear at work as well: the same rockets that could send a dog successfully into space—if not yet, as it happened, successfully bring that dog back to earth alive—could also potentially send apocalyptic nuclear payloads across the ocean into American cities.

My mother-in-law grew up in the ‘50s in Hampton, Virginia, at the epicenter of a critical mass of naval, army and air force bases, shipyards and research facilities, where her father worked for NASA and its precursor NACA. When she was 10, she vividly remembers overhearing an eye-opening conversation between her father and a co-worker, discussing the rationale behind the recent decision to stop teaching “duck and cover” in the local elementary schools: in the event of a nuclear attack, the area where they lived would be such a prime target they wouldn’t even stand a chance. So the people she grew up with had a particular reason for the dread that kicked in with the launch of the two Sputniks.

Soviet leader Nikolai Khrushchev was thrilled by the public relations coup instigated by Sputnik I’s 18,000 mph circling of the planet, sending out its trademark 40 megacycle “beep… beep… beep” to ardent shortwave-armed “Sputnik chasers” worldwide. He gave his chief rocket scientist Sergei Korolev just one month to come up with an even greater spectacle to capture the public’s attention, timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution on November 7th. Korolev suggested putting a dog into space and Khruschev was immediately sold on the idea.

Laika had been introduced to the Russian public a week before the launch as Kudryavka (“Little Curly”) when she barked into the microphone during a radio interview with one of her keepers, Dr. Alexei Prokovsky. The professor was explaining the dog’s role in achieving their dream of a time when “human travel in space will be a reality” and man could “establish contact with other distant, hitherto unknown worlds.” A few days later, on October 31st, she was brought to Sputnik II, readied with sensors to monitor her heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, and strapped into her flight container. There she would sit in wait for two days, 70 feet above ground at the top of the huge R-7 rocket that would carry her into space. Her handlers decided that a shorter, easier name was needed for world consumption, and her new name was born: Laika, meaning “Barker” in Russian, in honor of her radio performance from the previous week.

The time constraint placed on the rocket team led to the launch’s one PR miscalculation: with no knowledge yet of how to return a Sputnik safely back to earth, whatever dog went up into space was not coming back alive. The scientists working with Laika were certainly saddened by this, and one of them brought her home to play with his children the night before she was scheduled to be placed aboard Sputnik II.

As it was, Laika did not make it anywhere near the five months that Ingemar imagines in My Life As A Dog, nor did she even make it the week that the ship’s designers had intended for her to survive. Already leery of the bad press they were starting to get as it dawned on the public that Laika was not coming back to Earth alive, the Russians told the press that Laika had adapted well and had survived for six to seven days. In fact, while her heart rate did race up to 260 b.p.m. during the launch when she was no doubt terrified by the deafening roar of the R-7 rocket and the terrific g-forces being exerted on her body, she had initially recovered well. It wasn’t until 1999, 42 years after the launch, that some of the scientists involved with the launch admitted the truth: the cooling system for Laika’s cabin had not performed as they’d hoped, and Laika had overheated, dying somewhere between four and seven hours into the flight.

While the full truth of Laika’s early death was not known at the time, her ultimate fate was, and the recriminations started rolling in. The ASPCA announced that it deplored an act that could not “possibly advance human health and welfare.” A particularly pathos-laden New York Times editorial declared Laika the “shaggiest, lonesomest, saddest dog in history,” which was certainly wrong on at least the first fact, and would have required a reliable dog psychic to confirm the final two. Eisenhower would later note that while everyone was certainly impressed by Russia’s technical feat sending Laika into space, “by a strange but compassionate turn, public opinion seemed to resent the sending of a dog to certain death.”

In any case, Laika was not the first and certainly not the last animal to die, or at least risk death, for the Space Race, and Americans were as guilty of the practice as Russians. An entire menagerie of mice, rats, dogs, spider monkeys and even bears—which the Americans used to test the affect of massive Gs on the human body—were to follow.

But Laika’s ultimate fate did little to diminish the impact of the achievement itself. After Laika was launched into space, Eisenhower’s Gallup poll numbers went the exact opposite direction, diving by a stunning 22 points in a matter of days. The fact that he had been intentionally avoiding escalating the Space Race with Russia in order to avoid also escalating the arms race was a fact he was forced to keep to himself; the main message the public received, often from Wernher Von Braun, the dashing, press-friendly former Nazi rocket scientist who now ran the U.S. Army’s space efforts, was that the Eisenhower administration was senselessly stifling America’s potential dominance in space.

A few weeks after the launch of the first Sputnik, Eisenhower announced his plans to go on the air with a series of what he called “confidence speeches,” popularly known as the “chins up” speeches, in an effort to calm America’s fears by putting Sputnik I in context and explain the planned American response. Unfortunately, the launch of Sputnik II intervened. This meant the President’s first speech was now scheduled three days after Russia stunned the world all over again with a second momentous Space Race victory. After the ill-timed speech the legendary Washington Post cartoonist Herblock made a point of depicting Ike indeed giving the speech “chin up”… chin up because he was staring at an object labeled Sputnik II flying over his head.

The stress got to Ike, and by the end of the month Laika and the Sputniks had literally driven him apoplectic. On November 25th, three weeks after Sputnik II’s launch and right before he was scheduled to deliver his third confidence speech in Cleveland, Ike found himself unable to speak clearly to his secretary. He had suffered a stroke, although for obvious reasons the nature of the illness that took him out of the public spotlight for three days was not revealed. Initially, there were rumors that he would have to leave office, in which case Vice President Richard Nixon would have become president. Within three days of the stroke, however, despite occasional difficulties with his speech, Eisenhower was again taking official visits and he eventually fully recovered.

The Democrats worked to ensure that the political damage from Laika’s flight into space was more permanent. Three days after Sputnik II made headlines and immediately after Eisenhower’s first “chins up” speech, a young senator named John F. Kennedy, already working on his 1960 run for president, gave a speech in which he declared, “The people of America are no longer willing to be lulled by paternalistic reassurances, spoon-fed science fiction predictions, or by pious platitudes of faith and hope.” Another presidential hopeful, Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, went a step further and started hearings before the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee about the state of the United States space program, opening the hearings by announcing that in his estimation Sputnik was a bigger concern than even Pearl Harbor.

Politics aside, Johnson was hardly alone in equating Sputnik with Pearl Harbor. Even decades later historian Walter A. McDougall would write about the Sputnik launches that “no event since Pearl Harbor set off such repercussions in public life.” Without question, the Sputnik launches set off a spirit of competition with the Soviet Union that led to a massive increase of American research and funding of the sciences, technology and engineering. My mother-in-law remembered being less than pleased at finding herself in the first wave of eighth grade classes required to learn algebra.

Paul Dickson, in his history of Sputnik, points out that this renewed American focus led directly to the development of microelectronics, the foundation of our fully-computerized world, and that “many essential technologies of modern life, including the Internet, owe their early development to the accelerated pace of applied research triggered by Sputnik.” The next time you find yourself wasting an hour of your life paging through your Twitter feed and Facebook updates, thank Laika!

At Johnson’s senate hearings, von Braun was more than willing to fan the flames of nuclear fears in order to put the screws on the Eisenhower administration and force them to finally approve the orbital launch he’d been dreaming of and working toward for so long. When asked if the Russians were already capable of dropping a hydrogen bomb on Washington, von Braun answered “I would think so. Yes, sir.” He and others also made it extremely clear during the hearings had the Army not been hampered by the Eisenhower administration, they would have been capable, through their Jupiter program, of sending a satellite into orbit a year earlier.

Von Braun was a fascinating character with Cary Grant good looks who—much to the White House’s chagrin—had an easy and largely irrepresible relationship with the press. He was also a German aristocrat and a former Nazi who had masterminded Hitler’s V-2 rocket program (in characteristically dramatic Nazi fashion, the “V” in V-2, probably suggested by Hitler himself, stood for “Vergeltungswaffen” or “Vengeance Weapon”). When Germany’s defeat in 1945 was becoming a fait accompli, von Braun put in his lot with the Americans, who were all too willing to whitewash his Nazi past—including the deaths of thousands of concentration camp slaves in the rocket building efforts—in order to bring his genius into their own military efforts.

Von Braun’s equivalent in the Russian space program, Sergei Korolev, the man personally responsible for both Sputnik launches and later for Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 historic flight as the first man in space, was the absolute opposite of Braun’s determinedly public persona and was in fact never even identified—outside of highly secretive intelligence circles—during his lifetime. In true Cold War fashion, the Soviets, terrified that Korolev would become the target of C.I.A. assassins, would only ever identify him by the Kafkaesque rubric “Chief Designer.” The only public communication he was allowed to give were occasional letters to the press that he wrote under the pseudonym Professor K. Sergeev.

After Laika, the Space Race escalated, first with America’s rushed and pathetically bungled response to Sputnik, the failed launch of the Navy’s Vanguard I, followed by Von Braun’s first success in January of 1958 with the launch of the Explorer satellite. In July, six months later, Eisenhower—in consultation with LBJ and others—established NASA, the civilian space program, which officially opened for business on October 1, 1958. In 1959, the original American astronauts—the Mercury 7—were chosen. For my mother-in-law’s childhood community, the astronauts were local heroes; it was a huge moment at Hampton High, my mother- and father-in-law’s high school, when the seven—Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton—visited the school for an official tour. In 1961 the Russians reached another historic first with Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space, followed 23 days later by Alan Shepard’s much more public flight and recovery. The Americans finally beat the Russians to the ultimate finish line eight years later, putting the first man on the moon with NASA’s Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969 under now-President Richard Nixon.

The Cold War, which today feels like an antiquated detail straight out of Mad Men, was still very much a part of my childhood in the ’70s, and it was a favorite hobby of my parents finding communist conspiracy theories behind everything from Social Security to legalized abortion. But while I certainly absorbed a palpable childhood dread of nuclear apocalypse, the more cloak and dagger aspects of the Cold War were beginning to feel like a thing of the past. After Brezhnev, that unsmiling chunk of Slavic granite who seemed to singlehandedly put the “Cold” in “Cold War”, Gorbachev felt like a big cuddly teddy bear, albeit one with an Alaska-shaped wine-stain solidly placed on his congenial bald head. The good will of Perestroika was in the air, and by ’91 the Soviet Union was entirely a thing of the past. The Cold War was over. And the nuclear threat—while still a reality—has largely been replaced by global warming as the apocalyptic threat of the day.

Space exploration has moved far beyond sending dogs into space. Just this past weekend, NASA launched Curiosity, their new nuclear-powered “rover on steroids,” towards Mars where it is scheduled to land next August. Juno, NASA’s five-year mission to Jupiter, is already in flight, and will reach Jupiter in 2016, limiting its examination of Jupiter from orbit since Jupiter has, as far as we can tell, no actual land on which to land. Stephen Hawking, in an interview this month pushing his new TV series, reasserted his belief that mankind can’t explore space fast enough, convinced we need to figure a way to travel off of Earth in the next century before we exterminate ourselves, which he’s convinced we’re destined to do as a result of faulty, outdated survival wiring in our brains.

While I am fascinated by the prospect of terraforming Mars—and just imagine those trips home for the holidays—it’s my fond and ever-optimistic hope, based on a well-established state of denial regarding the reality of human behavior, that a more cataclysmic Sputnik and Laika-style wake up call will not be required before humans find it within themselves to advance the technologies—recyclables, alternative fuels, and sustainable food sourcing among others—that will allow us to keep Terra itself sufficiently terraformed for at least centuries to come.