Eulogy for a Cosmonaut
Believing himself still young, a ditchdigger in the town where I once lived abandoned his dog so that he could travel the world and see what was what. I was only six years old at the time, beloved, and oblivious to the old mongrel’s lonesomeness when we took her in.
In the mornings she’d rush in, ailing and enthusiastic, pummeling my bare legs with her front paws to wake me out of bed, as if kneading a window for escape: Up, up! And in the evenings, when I’d run her down the pavement, she’d scatter gravel underneath her abdomen, clocking particles of airborne terrain across my sight: floured leaf, insect bone, grits of carbon, silt, sod, some clay. I’d fan for a warm breath, catch flashes of the moon eating dusk on the alternating pages.
Give me a break you idiot space cadet, I’d say.
And once, when we were off up the sloping sidewalk near the school, the sky overhead softened into an unusual spectrum, looking like something oily leaked on the blacktop. Ah, a planet, I attempted to tell the dog, seeing a distant ship flicker the shades of coined metal—aluminum, nickel, copper, brass. It was the one with the ammonia crystalline atmosphere and the baritone name, where it rains diamonds sideways across 240-mile-per-hour winds. Jupiter. But she’d already jogged ahead, her sable gray coat blending to the curbside snowbank. Unwittingly camouflaged, she yelped from the gloom, worried that I’d lose her. This way, I said, lifting my arms to a porch light, casting beckons like shadow puppets. Psst! Dumbass! Over here!
And there she was: legs trawling, eyes loosed to ground, finding relief at my shins.
Pat her twice on the head.
We called the dog Laika after the Soviet space mutt: Laika, that pioneering canine who took to the air in a satellite. Only, our Laika never made it farther than the tot lot on her own. She was a coward in fact, damaged goods from the kennel, and when she died from bad nerves, we laid her in the same garden from which she once stole tomatoes. I was nine years old. It was October then: The old oaks and haws were already bending under frost and the fields, pro forma, had iced down utterly.
Sooner rather than later, we hypothesized, the blizzards would follow suit.
Had it been like any other early winter, I’d’ve spent the days off from school enjoying the particular incongruities of the overlapped seasons: throwing snowballs at cherry leaves, shoveling the walkway under the chickadee’s sigh, forgetting all about autumn until the puddles dried. Idled and without a dog, however, I was summoned to help my mother deal with the birdbath in our backyard. The problem was that the birdbath kept freezing over, and the frogs, bemused at the early winter, kept getting stuck on top, their legs locked under the ice. Most were dead when we found them. For the others, my mother would bring along a steel knife and near-boiling water and try to carve out their legs as best as she could. And a few times, when only two or three limbs were free, a frog would lunge from the ice early, abandoning its final appendages in a kind of premature jubilation. I wasn’t permitted to watch. My mother delivered the wounded creatures to the stream on her own, but left behind thin red stumps in the bath for me to discover later on.
In Juan Rulfo’s novella Pedro Páramo, a mother’s corpse says to her son’s corpse, Just think about pleasant things, because we’re going to be buried for a long time. We ought to take any mother at her word, but I’m hard-pressed not to ask: Are things really that fixed? The bonds between atoms vibrate at 10x1014 hertz. The mane down the dog’s nape swaddles as she stalks. Melting snow smells differently on different people, I’ve found. The black hole at the center of our galaxy is imploding at a rate of 70 million miles a day, like a pebble falling in a gravity well.
I bury myself in such facts each winter: Exposed blood freezes at temperatures just after ice forms; turtles under the ice get oxygen by suckling water into a large posterior opening where special tissues filter the oxygen right into the arteries, like so many gills. And did you know that on the Terra Nova voyage to Antarctica, a British officer, whose frostbitten feet were hopelessly slowing the others down, came up with an idea? Late one night he simply stepped out of his tent and froze himself to death.
There’s a boldface sign in front of a burned up NASA replica at my hometown museum that says something like, These brave men gave up their lives for that most sacred purpose of discovery. Or was it, behold, skeletons, we have reached the moon! Next to the replica are scans of Russian space-propaganda posters which are stunning as well as terrifying: They’re these extravagant, stirring images of Yuri Gagarin reaching across the stars, or of people standing in the exhaust of missiles and being blissfully transformed and, sure, disintegrated. One can’t help but be enthralled by the national yearning that the Soviets had in the ’50s and ’60s. The century was pretty rough for them. They suffered revolution, genocide, war, poverty, and half the population was sent to the camps. But somehow, in spite of it all...
Soviet scientists had decided to use Moscow strays for space travel, figuring that such an animal had already learned to endure conditions of extreme cold and hunger. The original Laika had been picked up as a stray wandering the back alley of a Moscow pinball factory that had only recently stopped manufacturing missiles. Laika was a three-year old, 13-pound, husky mix who looked good on camera when she won the lottery. A Russian news magazine described her as phlegmatic, saying that she did not quarrel with other dogs and that this was the necessary temperament: phlegmatic.
In the subsequent weeks, Laika was regularly confined in small, rackety containers and spun in the centrifuge. She wore wires in her brain and in her heart that showed how she was doing. And on November 3, 1957, she was strapped inside the Sputnik 2 satellite atop an R-7 rocket and sent 900 miles up through the stratosphere where she died within just a few hours.
But still she made history: Hers was the first body to orbit Earth.
Few had heard the true circumstances of Laika’s death until 1999, roughly 42 years after the launch, when some of the scientists involved in the mission went on TV and fessed up to the malfunction that actually caused her to die, for it had been reported until then, that the dog had survived a week, passing only when the oxygen ran dry. A pleasant end.
In fact, she burned up during liftoff like cigarettes.
People were outraged at the revelation. My mother couldn’t stand to look at our own Laika without getting upset. You can’t imagine how the heat is, she’d say, how it affects you. I tried to consider what it would be like to overheat in zero-G. Sweat, I imagined, would not run down the face, and if brushed off would just hang as globules in the air until evaporated. But dogs don’t sweat, so what’s it matter? I was more bothered when I found out that there weren’t countdowns at the Sputnik launches. Like there was no one at mission control, chanting (in Russian), T-minus five, four, three, two, one, blastoff. As it turns out, no one did countdowns before NASA—the Americans who a decade after World War II started watching German cinema again and in particular the 1929 Fritz Lang film Frau im Mond. Frau im Mond was the first instance of a countdown being associated with a rocket launch. Only in Lang’s film, after each number the phrase seconds to go was repeated.
The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes, wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a book having surprisingly little to do with dogs. Out on the frozen creek, Laika and I once went snooping. She was my Holmes, and I, her watchful Moriarty. What’ll you discover today, my dear? On a picnic table at the edge of the woods, a pitcher had been filled with glass, which, upon being emptied into the creek, made a metallic sound, like tin against tin. Where two rills intersect, a mother bullfrog whelped through the ice to her eggs trapped sleeping beneath. Carefully, I cracked the surface with my pocketknife and reunited the family. Laika cheered. It was only upon returning the following day that I learned the sacs were gone, that Laika ventured back for a taste, having been provided with renewed access.
Another time I asked the dog to shake and instead she convulsed.
Laika (version 1.0) said hello to the people of Earth on a radio broadcast a week before her flight. She barked into the microphone. Soon after launch, she transmitted a continual beep-beep-beep on a radio frequency, which served as a tracking signal. But within a week Sputnik 2’s signal died and all contact with the craft was lost. Laika’s 1,120-pound capsule remained in orbit for a total of 162 days, circling the Earth 2,570 times before burning up in the atmosphere on April 14, 1958. To anyone watching the sky at that time, she made her final statement as a tiny falling star in the night.
In the waiting room my mother described it as planes of communication wearing thin.
They did build Laika a window. Despite objections from higher-ups and the large costs of securing a window in a pressurized capsule, the engineers did it so the dying dog could look out—a window for Laika, whose monitored execution had been their one objective in all interactions that had bonded her to them with the keen devotion of every well-loved canine.
What the scientists didn’t yet know was that once reaching peak-altitude, Laika would have seen nothing but blackness and the faint indigo squint of the troposphere on the horizon miles away. She wouldn’t have bothered to look at the sun, which, without cloud cover, burned unforgivingly against the vessel’s glare shield. And she wouldn’t find other stars. Had she survived the week as reported and lived to see the capsule turn, however, Laika would’ve caught one last view of the forested mainland. She would’ve been the first to disclose those undiscovered countries. And there, there below: a downy avalanche over Peru—an earthquake jolting at 200 miles per hour, disporting itself in amorphous bulks of snow, an extravagant gesture, uprooting the livid conifers and 4,000 lives, 4,000 tiny dots in white. From up above, the landslide would’ve looked like a photograph, moving just inches at a time across the dog’s windowsill—a peaceful wipe of snowflake and dust, almost perfectly still, in witless motion.
Wintry air makes a wolf’s tongue numb. With sharpened blades, Inuit hunters used to set traps for wolves. They’d dip the knife in seal blood and bury the haft in the snow. The blood would freeze into a deadly popsicle. A hungry wolf would smell the blood, seek out the knife, and lick it until it shredded its tongue to threads.
I mean, the wolf would bleed to death.
Laika once came home with petals of blood on her nose. There were muskrats in the garden that liked to fight back. My mother wiped her face and then told us about black holes. She showed a picture of our own galaxy, laid her finger on the chartreuse center and said, You could never see someone fall into a black hole. If a traveler were to fall into a black hole, his image would just get slower and slower till he reached the horizon—at which point his image would stick. It’s kind of like Zeno’s paradox, where Achilles never wins his race against the tortoise because the distance of their subsequent movements reduces infinitely, by half the distance of the finish line. Only with black holes the light bouncing off of the traveler would also be shifting to lower frequencies, making him not only infinitely slower but infinitely dimmer and redder too.
My mother unpressed the bloodstained napkin from Laika’s face.
Because of black holes there are hundreds if not thousands of dim red tortoises frozen across the universe, she explained.
I watch a snowfall from my bedroom in Clifton, Virginia. The clouds settle and depart as if pulled on a leash. In the evening I take a walk down to the creek where I once scouted tadpoles, checking the rills for frogs stuck in ice. When at one point I think I hear a spadefoot hurrying a croak, I shut my eyes and pray it was instead a sound that only sounded like a frog, because I’ve forgotten my knife.
Five—at two miles above the Earth’s surface, pilots without air tanks begin to suffer hypoxia; blood-oxygen saturation reduces to ninety percent and with prolonged exposure the brain loses its ability to make judgments or retain thoughts. Four—at four miles, temperatures drop to negative 55 degrees Celsius and homeostasis becomes impossible; the pilot begins to freeze. Three—at six miles, bodily fluids expand nine times their size at sea level, decompressing the lungs and rupturing any abdominal organs containing trapped gases. Two—at eight miles, blood begins to boil and all internal liquids vaporize. One—at ten miles—the human body inflates, inflates, and inflates and then bursts open from within. Zero—in fact there’s one other way to kill a wolf: let it bite down your arm, then wrestle it under you and lace your fingers—one in each eye—and squeeze through both eyes into the brain.
The panting stops; the blood freezes thick; the sound, it turns out, was a skidding rock. I pick it up and throw it across the icy creek. I recall that in the hours before Sputnik 2 launched, one scientist brought Laika home to play with his son and his daughter.
Sometimes I think of my old mongrel pup: of how hard it was for her to keep her head steady, of the cigarette burns the ditchdigger left on her belly. Other times I think about what it would be like to live on a moon 15 light years away. You could point a giant telescope from there to Earth, and the image would arrive 15 years delayed. Today you’d see Laika and a boy playing together as they did when they first met, racing past the turnaround roadsides and rows of softwoods, winding.
In the first few years after Laika’s death, I would always dig the snow off the dirt where she was buried. It would make a dark hole, a round of soil exposed under ice, that I’d leave behind, carrying my plastic shovel in tow, counting, seconds to go, seconds to go.