It is the nature of scientific endeavour that in order to achieve, sacrifices must be made; every theory must eventually be tested, and even when all safety precautions have been taken, there is always the unpredictable, the unseen failure. It is a testament to the dedication of all those who have been involved in the spaceflight programme, the theoreticians, the designers, the engineers, that there have been so few human lives lost; the crews of Soyuz 1, Soyuz 11, the Challenger and the Columbia, their names remembered and celebrated, yet the space programme might never have progressed so far to allow these men and woman to leave our planet had it not been for the knowing decision to send another to her lonely death in orbit on November 3rd 1957 aboard Sputnik 2.
An elderly scientist, Vlad (Fred Kelly), looks back on his life with a measure of regret as he reflects, “Why explore space? Why spend billions of roubles shooting at the stars when below your people starve? Was it only to piss off the Americans? Or was there hope that we might all look up at the sky and be united?”
The Soviet space programme was beating the American equivalent, with Sputnik being the first artifical satellite launched from the surface of Earth on 4th October 1957. The race was on to place a human in space; that man would eventually be Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, but first it was necessary to ascertain whether a living animal could withstand the pressures of takeoff and the environment of spaceflight; that there was no recovery method for the capsule was highlighted by those working on the programme but they were overruled by the patriotic demands of the military which only accepted achievement, expecting everyone to be willing to sacrifice.
On the streets of Moscow, stray dogs hardened by the winters of that cold city were rounded up; Laika and her two brothers Mushka and Bolik (Josh Morris, Fredi Beard Porcel and Louis Strong) know only of struggle as they sing “Life’s a bit of a bitch in Mother Russia, Mother Russia’s been a bit of a bitch to me,” but lured by the promise of warmth and food, the mongrels surrender themselves and are taken for training.
“When you’re cleverer than Einstein and definitely canine there is always room at the top” they sing, but at Baikonur they meet the other dogs they will be competing with, including Gregor (Bertram Silvera), previous top dog at the facility until he was forced out, and slowly they realise that the promises made to them were only to bring them into captivity and that the fearsome Minister Oleg (James McRae), head of the space programme, has no interest in them other than how they can service his goals.
With all of the actors at one point or another doubling from their human roles as one of the prospective space dogs, the whole cast are as endearingly enthusiastic as a bunch of puppies themselves in their cute floppy eared hats. With no set, rough and tumble performances and the occasional clunking line in Joe Von Malachowski’s script, the quality of the production is not professional theatre so much as a school production run free from its cage, but it is impossible to dismiss the show which is both entertaining and diverting. With all the songs sharing similar arrangements by Tom Recknell they do verge on the repetitious, though fortunately the lyrics from Recknell, Malachowksi and Joe Hancock, co-director with choreographer Rebecca Steel, are both funny and catchy.
While the domineering presence of Minister Oleg is perhaps unfair on the real Lieutenant General Oleg Gazenko, his true character is reflected in the programme notes: “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 the mission to justify the death of the dog.”
A compressed and highly fictionalised life of Laika and her siblings, the saddest scene is drawn directly from the memoirs of Doctor Vladimir Yazdovsky who wrote of the day shortly before launch when he took Laika home to meet his children. “I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.”
It is early on in the play when Vlad, explaining the re-entry problem, describes it as “a bit of a public relations problem;” it is unfortunate that in an effort to convince the Soviet public of the success of the mission and to vindicate the effort, the truth of Laika was concealed until the year 2002 when it was conclusively revealed that she had not died relatively peacefully as her oxygen became depleted on the sixth day, but that she had only survived at most seven hours when the capsule overheated due to a fault in the cooling system.
Over half a century later, it is impossible to change what has been done, but it is important that the life of Laika is celebrated and that her death is remembered, a pioneer of spaceflight.