Laika: A Sad, Unnecessary Death


I think our space programme is one of our species’ greatest achievements. It does have a sordid past, though, with roots in war, conflict, aggression, violence, paranoia, and narrow-minded parochial/tribal brutality. Which makes it all the more remarkable that I think it unites us as a species now, when it was born of such acrimonious and savage division. But probably one of the greatest crimes of the early days our species’ space programmes is the death of Laika.

A congenial, friendly, and very patient stray picked up from the streets of Moscow who cooperated enthusiastically with all the scientists and engineers and programme managers until she was shot out into space to die a horrible death by being roasted alive as the climate controls failed. Not that it was ever planned for her to make it back alive: it was a one-way trip from the get-go. And for no real gain in scientific or engineering knowledge: it was just a PR stunt in the game of one-upsmanship that characterized to early days of the space programmes of both countries.

Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into space: “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.

Comet Landing Pride: Rosetta Mission to Churyumov-Gerasimenko

I am always resistant to imparting any exceptionalism to our species, considering it some sort of narrow-minded parochialism based on the accident of the restricted perspective we have when we try to place ourselves in context with the rest of nature. But every time I look at at the achievements of our space programmes, I find it hard not take pride in our species’ achievements in this domain (whatever else the horrible things we do): this is truly where our reach exceeds our grasp, but again and again and again we step up to the challenge and make our grasp meet our reach. On Wednesday, once again, we, as a species, will be reaching out from our cradle to grasp a speck of dust in the darkness of infinity, and in doing so will grow more as a species in a moment than we have in the past decade.