Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Sputnik Moment

President Obama used the phrase “our generation’s Sputnik moment” in his State of the Union speech last week.  By referring to a time when this country was filled with fear and uncertainty because it appeared that the USSR was more technologically advanced, he meant to incite the feelings necessary to rise to a challenge – to lay down the gauntlet, a butt-kick moment, if you will – to this generation of innovators. He promised to invest in their projects provided, of course, that they meet with the approval of his progressive clean energy ideals in the hopes of spurring them toward greater advancement.

Because this is dog month, I’m going to leave the President’s spurious incentive program to be dismantled by those better equipped to do so, and herein discuss another Sputnik moment: that of Laika, the Russian space dog.

I first became aware of Laika while watching the movie, My Life as a Dog.  (I remember liking the movie, particularly the part about the kid having a drinking problem - go watch it and I’ll do the same and we'll meet back here in a month or so to discuss.) In it, the main character, a young boy forced to live with strange relatives, becomes obsessed with the idea of Laika being sent into space without a way home. While Laika’s situation parallels his own somewhat, he often finds comfort in the thought that at least he’s not Laika.

Poor little Laika. The stray terrier/spitz mix, weighing only 13 pounds, was ripped from the mean streets of Moscow only to be packed into a half-ton tin can to orbit the Earth without a return ticket!  While the official government story in 1957 was that she was to orbit for a week and be euthanized well before Sputnik 2 burned up on re-entry months later, it is likely that she died within 5-7 hours of being in space from overheating and panic. You can imagine the outcry of animal cruelty was tremendous over this muttnik situation.

One of the scientists on the Sputnik 2 project, Oleg Gazenko, opined in 1998, "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."

While festering over the dog's more anthropomorphic than actual Major Tom moment, some lost sight of what was gained. They learned that life could be sustained in space no matter how briefly and uncomfortably it was sustained for Laika.

And now, for your listening pleasure, I present, Surprise!

In the interest of full disclosure, I once sang this song, complete with Russian accent, in a tiny pub at a ski resort while drinking vodka shots with three of my friends.  Who says homeschooling moms are no fun?  No, really. Who?

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