Legacies Found and Lost. Wikipedia and Laika

I have a thing for space dogs, especially Laika, the first living being to orbit the earth. Less than a month after the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957, the Soviets sent Laika to the great beyond in Sputnik 2. The fact of her voyage made her an instant celebrity as well as a symbol of Soviet supremacy in the Superpower’s new proxy struggle, the Space Race. The circumstances of her death remained mysterious for decades and are controversial to this day.

Laika died in space. Putting a satellite into orbit is easier than returning it safely to earth, and in 1957 the technology for bringing her capsule back did not yet exist. The Soviets prepared her for a seven-day mission and claimed she was humanely euthanized after the experiment had concluded. The fact that the dog was deliberately sent to die provoked outrage in the West, and the exact circumstances of her demise remained the source of debate and rumor until long after the Cold War ended.

At first glance the history of Laika’s life on Wikipedia inspires respect and admiration. The first entry on the space dog appeared on January 25, 2002, a little over a year after the community-sourced encyclopedia began. At 97 words, it offered the essential elements of her biography:

Laika1stWikip1-25-02 copy

Twelve years, and more than 2000 revisions later, the first space dog’s entry runs well over 4,000 words. It sports a table of contents, a biographical card, and the gold star of a Wikipedia “Featured Article”  — testimony to (among other things), the creative energies and persistent attention of author/editors from around the world, the growth and elaboration of Wikipedia as a unique, networked repository for encyclopedic knowledge, and the enduring significance of a humble stray dog, plucked from the streets of Moscow to carry the dreams of people beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

Among the many twists, turns and pools of the page’s history, two moments in the evolution of Laika’s Wikipedia presence stand out as particularly salient to me.

The first is the clarification about how she died. Soviet sources from the fifties were vague and contradictory, and even the advent of glasnost’ and the dissolution of the Soviet Union did little to loosen the secrecy surrounding the early days of the manned spaceflight program. The original entry sought to combine two of the most popular theories about the dog’s demise:

“Sputnik II was not designed to be retrievable and it was destroyed on re-entry on May 14, 1958, but Laika had already died before that after her oxygen supply ran out.”

Others speculated that she had been poisoned by her final dose of food, or overheated when the batteries failed on the climate control unit. But by the fourth revision, we see all of these theories converge on Dmitri Malashenkov’s revelation in October 2002 at the World Space Congress in Houston – namely that Laika had died from overheating after only a few hours.

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After forty years of speculation, one of the great mysteries of the Space Race had been solved, and Wikipedia provided the clearing house through which all of the competing and outdated theories were soon filtered out.

I’m calling this piece of Wiki history, “legacy found.”

The, second, and more fascinating chapter of Laika on Wikipedia is the growth, elaboration and eventual deletion of what I think is her most significant legacy, namely the diverse and expanding array of cultural expression inspired by or dedicated to her. For Laika was not only the first dog to orbit the earth, she is likely the only dog to have inspired such a raft of songs, novels, poems, graphic novels and films.

The first glimpse of the space dog’s cultural afterlife on Wikipedia appeared on February 11, 2004 in a single line below the “external links”:

Laika is also the name of an English indie pop-rock group.”

If you somehow missed the magic that was Margaret Fiedler’s and Guy Fixxen’s dreamy electronica for a decade beginning in 1993, please click here. But of course Laika the “English indie pop-rock group,” was just the tip of an iceberg that included the Finnish surf rock band, Laika and the Cosmonauts, songs by Moxy Fruvous (missing that non-heavy metal umlaut right about now),  Arcade Fire, an eclectic array of folk singers, etc., as well as novels (Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, Jeannette Winterspoon’s Weight, Viktor Pelevin’s Oman Ra), Doctor Who episodes, Star Trek spoofs, Nick Abadzis’ breathtakingly beautiful graphic novel…..

I could go on and on. And for several years the editors of Laika’s Wikipedia page did just that, collecting, verifying, and updating an expanding list of Laika’s impressions on popular culture. In the version of her page that ran on the fiftieth anniversary of her death the “in popular culture” section was the second largest section of the entry (after “training and voyage”).  This entry exemplified the unique power wiki creation and Wikipedia’s strengths. Who would have thought that a global editorial team could or would document the multicultural afterlife of the world’s most famous dog in a universally accessible format? I was amazed. Amazed that a long-dead dog could inspire all of this and amazed that so many people all over the world cared and contributed in this way. Wow. Just wow.

But early in 2009, convention descended on the Laika page, and the entire “popular culture section” was deleted.

Cut PC

“Trivia” gone. Just. Like. That.

Fortunately, just because something has been deleted doesn’t mean it isn’t still there. Laika’s cultural afterlife remains vibrant.  Her  “lost legacy” lives on in the page history, and, happily, on the Russian version of her page:

LaikaRusWikPopCulture 10-23-14

The current English version is respectably annotated, attentively maintained, and appropriately situates Laika as a historical figure deserving a biography. But by purging the “In Popular Culture” section I think the Wikipedia editors missed the mark. Music, monuments, and poems inspired by a dog who died so that people might travel in space seem anything but trivial to me.

Laika - Commemorative Pin

5 Replies to “Legacies Found and Lost. Wikipedia and Laika”

  1. Fascinating account! I remember well the excitement surrounding Sputnik 1 and 2 and the controversy about animals in space. The morality is certainly questionable – maybe the primary concern should be for the humans who come to use living animals for these purposes but it’s a difficult area for firm conclusions.

    1. Thanks, Gordon! It is a difficult area. And it is hard to untangle the controversy about Laika from the broader context of Cold War fever. We eat all kinds of animals and use them in biomedical research as well, but there is something about sending dogs into space that is both compelling and abhorrent. Thanks for reading!

  2. Hey Amy–this is extraordinary and moving and insightful–and it raises a question immediately: why not restore what was purged (a plangent word in this context, and one I’m sure you chose for just that reason)? The material is there. A rationale can be offered on the Talk page. Perhaps this time the material will stick, especially given that a Soviet historian contributed it. If you do this, please let me know; I’d love to tell the story of your intervention’s afterlife.

    Also, if you don’t do it, I certainly will. 🙂 But it’d be far better if you did it.

  3. Thank you Gardner! Definitely chose purge deliberately. And of course I am called to restore the material — I was so surprised that it had been deleted! It may not happen until the rush of the semester (and ccourses) eases up, but I am on it. And I will keep you posted. Also, Laika appreciates that you also cherish her cultural Nachleben. 😉

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