Space Race

By H. Peter Steeves



Through an investigation of popular culture sources focused on our relationship with space exploration, this essay asks if and how we might go about traveling off-planet in an ethical way. Moving from a reading of Georges Méliès’ silent film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), to the history of the Soviet space program, to contemporary plans to colonize the moon and Mars, questions of the value of science and discovery are juxtaposed with questions of racism, speciesism, environmentalism, and social justice.



NASA, Laika, space, Mars, Moon, Georges Méliès, colonization, ethics, astronaut, cosmonaut


  1. Go For Launch

I have a complicated relationship with space. From a young age, I loved not only space but the scientists who were making it possible for us both to visit and study it. There’s a part of me that—though firmly entrenched in middle age—still thinks I might grow up to be either an astronaut or a NASA scientist. But there is also a part of me that realizes how troubled all such work is, necessarily tied, as it is, to capitalism, colonialism, a neoliberal state, the megamachine of technology, and an Enlightenment ideology that has led us to the brink of the destruction of our own world. The notion that we are explorers, that we’re necessarily on the move, and that we must know something if it is there to be known, leads only to alienation, injustice, and the death of real community. And so, for all my love—for all our love—of outer space, we must tread lightly.

Although we are typically a gung-ho society when it comes to technology, such complications are not merely of my own making but show themselves on a larger scale in our culture, popular and otherwise, as we begin to look at the ways in which our civilization has conceptualized, advertised, and actually gone about the business of heading to space. Thus, like a wayward Major Tom finally heading home from an odd odyssey, let us move backwards in time—from our plans for colonizing Mars, to our missions to the moon, to the first steps we humans took above the firmament into our first orbits—thinking together about what it is we are racing toward when we blast off into space.


  1. Missions to Mars

The most important thing we can do—on so many fronts—is have a real discussion about our future, not taking for granted that anything is inevitable. In our culture at large, science is typically seen as the path to objective truth, with technology celebrated at every step. The fundamental ideology of science is in need of a good shake-up and critique, though, and finding a way to critique the “scientism” of our culture can stand in tandem with an understanding that the empirical investigation of our world has merit. If NASA has a future that will spark real interest in the public, it seems that that future will likely include more missions to Mars. But: should we go to Mars? And why should we—or why shouldn’t we?

In 2009, NASA commissioned a series of posters for an exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex. (See figures 1-4.) Visitors to the Center were encouraged to think of themselves as potential visitors to Mars. It is surely the case that the way in which we, as a culture, conceptualize Mars is based on how we visualize Mars; and interestingly, the fictional enlistment posters clearly, if unintentionally, place scientific exploration into the historical lineage of colonization, empire, and capitalism. There is even a hint of underlying fascism at work in the narrative and the iconography, as if these were posters created by the Nazi-inspired state in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film, Starship Troopers. What are needed are explorers, surveyors, workers—all willing to do anything Uncle Space Sam says must be done. And to do it with a single-minded enthusiasm.

Figure 1: Explorers Wanted NASA Recruitment Poster
Figure 2: Work the Night Shift
Figure 3: Recruitment Poster, Surveyors Wanted
Figure 4: Recruitment Poster, We Need You

Wherever we go, there we are. And there our values are, too. It is difficult for a capitalist culture not to think of a new land as simply a new market or a new source of resources. We map our values onto our vision of the future. And such posters are part of that mapping as well.

From Earth, Mars is seen as a rocky wasteland, barren and dead. With only rocks (and no life) on Mars, we are told that we thus have a blank check to do whatever we wish with the planet once we finally get there. In truth, we have already encountered Mars first-hand. Mars and the Earth exchange bits of themselves all of the time in the form of rocks and dust. Thinking of our solar system as a connected whole, one with internal systems of exchange, means giving up thinking of our planet as the center of anything—a world-view that is said to have changed with the Copernican revolution, yet never really did. Rocks can found our ethics for an encounter with Mars if we are open to seeing things in a truly revolutionary way. Envisioning the Red Planet as only a rock in space—as merely dead—is not really the end of ethics. Ethics is not only for the living world. Rocks, too, can be thought of as having moral standing. They require and thus demand different things from us than do plants, animals, and other humans. But rocks and I are co-constituting on many different levels, and thus we participate in a common Good. I literally am part rock (without the minerals in my body doing their work, I could not exist). But more than this, rocks are appropriate role models. Rocks show me the importance of being still—a valuable lesson in a culture that equates stillness with inactivity and thus being unproductive. Rocks teach me how to think about time differently—neither worrying about the future nor obsessing over the past, rocks are historical and carry their history with them at all times, but they do not let time bear down on their being to the point that they are overwhelmed by it. Rocks demonstrate how our conceptions of individuality are arbitrary—cut a rock in half and you have two rocks rather than a-rock-cut-in-half. Rocks have their own perspective on morality and the common Good—an ethic not based on an economy of exchange but instead a being-together in which giving and receiving are simply the way in which we necessarily exist in community, not choices that require a dualistic notion of subject/object or agent/patient.

One wonders if Matt Damon’s character in The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott, 2015) took time, of which he had plenty to spare, to think philosophically about his relation to the Martian rocks all around him. It’s doubtful. Wherever Matt Damon goes, there go the values of our culture—even on Mars. That those values displayed by Damon’s character include American radical individualism, can-do spirit, and plucky inventiveness seems wonderful at first, until we recall that these are the values that made Manifest Destiny a reality, enslaved Africans in order to build a capitalism machine on the North American continent, and generally ravaged the world. Even Damon’s character’s attempt to “live off the land” is no different, really, from Lewis and Clarke, who knew that they couldn’t take everything with them on their trip to explore the West after Thomas Jefferson hired them to go on their journey after the Louisiana Purchase had been finalized, and so had to learn (with radical individualism, can-do spirit, and plucky inventiveness) to live off the (Native Americans’) land. If anything, thinking that “working with the environment” is not still somehow on the same spectrum as “trampling the environment” is just wishful naïveté. The key is that we are still separating ourselves from the rest of our surroundings, reifying it into “the environment,” noting how it is harsh and out to get us unless we prove smarter than it, appreciating the “environment” merely for its utility (its usefulness), and always putting our own survival first. From Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, to Lewis and Clarke, to the Dakota Access Pipeline, to Matt Damon and Elon Musk—from a tragic past to an imagined future—there is a continuous line.

And so, what if we envision, dream, and project ourselves onto Mars, but attempt to do so with a new attitude? Seeing it not as an environment, but a world, the world, a place of its own integrity and being? A place that surely doesn’t need us and might not even be an appropriate place for us to visit?

Humans have singled out the Red Planet for nearly four millennia of recorded history.

Senenmut, the great ancient Egyptian architect, included Mars on the first map of the sky drawn more than 3,500 years ago. By the time of the pharaoh Seti’s death in 1279 BCE, Mars was so important that it was being painted on the ceiling of his tomb. Plato mentions the planet in both The Republic and Timaeus, noting the order of the celestial bodies and their distance from the Earth. In 365 BCE, Plato’s student, Aristotle, observed Mars passing behind the moon and concluded that Mars must thus be farther away from Earth. We have been thinking about Mars for a long time. But have we thought about how we have been thinking about it?

It is unclear how Mars got its name, though it seems to have been associated with struggles and war in many different cultures throughout history. Babylonians called the planet “Nergal,” the King of Conflicts. Egyptians referred to it as “Har Decher,” the Red One. The Greeks named the planet after their god of war, Ares, and when the Romans adopted and adapted the Greek god pantheon, they simply renamed it in accordance with Ares’ new name: Mars. Galileo was the first person to look at Mars through a telescope, though because Mars is so small, telescopes have never been extremely helpful at telling us much about the exact details of the Martian surface. We know now that the southern hemisphere is old highlands with numerous impact craters, but the northern hemisphere is more intricate, with lower elevation plains that have been formed more recently. Even the Hubble Space Telescope, though, was not able to fill in these blanks; it took sending spacecraft to visit Mars to find this out.

And so, long before Mariner, Viking, or Curiosity, we have imagined ourselves on Mars, speculating on our relationship to our nearby neighbor. And we have taken our values with us there as well. As Carl Sagan once wrote, “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.”[1] This is a projection that always seems to take place with us. Even when we Earthlings first set our sites on gathering rocks from our closest planetary body: the moon.


  1. One Small Step

In the Anglo-Western world, there are eight phases of the moon: New Moon, New Crescent, First Quarter, New Gibbous, Full Moon, Old Gibbous, Last Quarter, and Old Crescent.


Phase 1: New Moon

Going backwards in time, we begin in the dark. The dark of a new moon. In the darkened theatre with Georges Méliès’, A Trip to the Moon (1902). The NASA Mars recruitment posters find their roots in Méliès and his complicated film celebrating the imagination, wonder, and scientific ingenuity that has increased our knowledge of the universe beyond Earth, but also puts on display important ethical-political questions that often get ignored in all of the excitement.

Figure 5: Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon is a technological marvel, its cinematography, special effects, and narrative structure groundbreaking for its time and influential over the century that came after. In early movies around the turn of the twentieth century, the camera was typically stationary, fixed to a position as if a spectator in the audience at a theatrical production. But Méliès innovated. The most famous scene in the film—the rocket landing in the eye of the moon—is one in which we see from the perspective of the travelers to the moon rather than as a member of the audience. (See figure 5.) That is, we see the moon getting closer and closer to us as if we were one of the scientists on the rocket. This is thematically important, too, for multiple reasons. The landing on the moon is actually presented twice in the film: first the fantastical scene of the moon with a face where we are the scientists, and then the timeline rewinds and we see the landing again, but in a more “realistic” way. And so we have to ask: what meaning is here; why is the director forcing us to take up the scientists’ viewpoint by showing this moment twice? And the answer has to do with seeing this movie as an anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist work of art. In other words, it’s clear that it is a satire.

The scientists are shown as buffoons. But it is also obvious that they are horrible people in general: the moon is harmed by their going there. The moon, personified, is assaulted by humanity’s landing on it. And once the scientists arrive, things only get worse. They murder the natives—unprovoked and without any apparent emotion other than joy. They swat the natives with their umbrellas and pulverize them, marveling at the wonders of this new world they have discovered while destroying it at the same time. Later, when the colonizers return home, they bring with them one of the natives, forcing him to dance and entertain the masses, even dragging him along in bondage to be part of the celebration that ends with the parade taking everyone to a grotesque statue of an imperialist scientist stomping on the moon, the moon’s face a twisted vision of pain with the lunar rocket stuck in its mangled eye. Here, then, is one of the earliest depictions of our voyage beyond the Earth. And it is set clearly within the world of violence and empire-building.


Phase 2: New Crescent

But of course this is not the earliest version of such a lunar story. It’s not even the earliest version of this story, since Méliès was heavily influenced by Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon. In Vernes’ novel, the scientists are replaced by the United States Baltimore Gun Club. The US Civil War having just ended, these weapons-enthusiasts are looking for new adventure, and new purposes for their cannons, and so they plan to build the Columbiad “space gun” to carry them to the moon. It is a scenario that will recur in only a slightly different manner nearly a century later in the real world when the United States, fresh from World War II, embraces Nazi scientist Werner von Braun, whose German V-2 rockets were fired more than 3,000 times at civilian targets (mostly at civilians in London), but who—we think—might help us win the space race to the moon if we could just get him to work on rockets that carry humans up rather than rockets that carry explosives down. The violent technologies of the war angled now toward exploration, one must pause to ask whether it is possible to point the values of those tools anew as well, or if a technology of war, slightly repurposed, will always be a technology of some sort of war.

I was born just a few miles from where Neil Armstrong was born. Though our births were separated by nearly four decades in time, they were separated by very little space. Growing up, I felt a strange connection to him, and would go to the little museum there in Wapak, Ohio, marveling at his boyhood bicycle, his school report cards, his Apollo spacesuit, and a genuine moon rock collected from Neil’s two-and-a-half hour lunar walk in July of 1969. To be honest, though, I could get to the public library far more often than I could the museum, and there I read books about the engineers who made the Apollo program happen. I came to idolize those scientists as much as I did the astronauts—especially the Ohio astronauts—who had the more glamorous position in the public eye. I grew up enthralled by space and space-travel, a member of Carl Sagan’s Planetary Society, a celebrator of all things beyond Earth, an amateur astronomer with crazy dreams that because the same corn and soybean fields that surrounded me had also surrounded Neil, perhaps we were not so different.

Armstrong’s most famous speech was that business we all know about small steps and giant leaps when he first set foot on the moon. But just as interesting is a speech he made as commander of the Apollo 11 mission while he, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin were traveling back to Earth. One day before arriving home, still thousands of miles away, Armstrong addressed the world in a TV broadcast saying: “A hundred years ago, Jules Verne wrote a book about a voyage to the Moon. His spaceship, Columbia [sic], took off from Florida and landed in the Pacific Ocean after completing a trip to the Moon. It seems appropriate to us to share with you some of the reflections of the crew as the modern-day Columbia completes its rendezvous with the planet Earth and the same Pacific Ocean tomorrow.”


Phase 3: First Quarter

When the history from which we take our narratives is a history of colonialism, empire, capitalism, and violence, we must be sure to make our small steps—and our giant leaps—carefully and thoughtfully. We are not the first to ask such questions, of course. Even while most of the country was marveling at the space program and the truly incredible feat of having reached the moon, there were those who questioned why we were going and why the focus of our spending was on the space race rather than social problems at home. Chicago native Gil Scott-Heron was something like a mixture between John Coltrane and Malcolm X: a spoken word, be-bop revolutionary whose beatnik poems and songs always forced us to rethink everything about our culture. He was best known, perhaps, for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but when he released “Whitey on the Moon” on the same LP—just weeks after the Apollo 11 crew made their historic rendezvous with our natural satellite—he gave voice to a sentiment with which a large part of America that wasn’t otherwise being heard agreed.

A rat done bit my sister Nell
(with Whitey on the moon).
Her face and arms began to swell
(and Whitey’s on the moon).
I can’t pay no doctor bill
(but Whitey’s on the moon).
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still
(while Whitey’s on the moon).
The man just upped my rent last night
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon).
No hot water, no toilets, no lights
(but Whitey’s on the moon).[2]

It is almost surely a false-dilemma to say that we either fund NASA or we fund social programs, but there is a deeper truth that Scott-Heron is getting at here other than just budget decisions—a truth that forces us both to consider what we mean when we say that “we” chose to go to the moon and also that “we” accomplished something by going there. If Armstrong’s first sentence while on the moon was, unfortunately, of the times in terms of its sexism—one small step for Man—then we also have to ask, even if we expand it to mean that “humankind” has now reached the moon, who, exactly, gets to count inside that “humankind”? Since the Enlightenment, we have had the tendency to think that tools are value-neutral and our technical achievements are similarly abstract and aloof from the politics of our time. “Humanity” has now been to the moon. But is this even true? Does “humanity” really just mean “whitey”?


Phase 4: New Gibbous

To put the point a slightly different way, Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan once sang, “Man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon.” When Rolling Stone magazine asked him to elaborate on that, Dylan responded,

I mean, what’s the purpose of going to the moon? To me, it doesn’t make any sense. Now they’re gonna put a space station up there, and it’s gonna cost, what — $600 billion, $700 billion? And who’s gonna benefit from it? Drug companies who are gonna be able to make better drugs. Does that make sense? Is that supposed to be something that a person is supposed to get excited about? Is that progress? I don’t think they’re gonna get better drugs. I think they’re gonna get more expensive drugs.

If we thus approach the moon with a bit of skepticism as to the purity of our intentions, let’s also remember the history of why we eventually decided to go there. The reason JFK dared to say that we’d be on the moon within a decade was mainly to beat the Soviets.

Starting in 1959, and over the course of seventeen years, the Soviet Space Program Luna sent robotic missions to the moon. Luna 1 missed the mark and ended up orbiting the sun, but Luna 2 (in September 1959) was the first human-constructed object to crash on the moon. Early in 1966, Luna 9 became the first probe to touch down softly. This was important for showing that a lander wouldn’t sink into the lunar dust. It turns out that NASA, too, had been crashing probes into the moon before Luna 9 landed. In the 1960s, NASA’s Ranger Program was sending up spacecraft with the specific intention of hurtling them at the moon and taking photos throughout the process. Costing about $1.3 billion dollars (adjusted for today), the first 6 Ranger probes all failed in one way or another. Rangers 7, 8, and 9, however, all hit their marks and returned their catastrophic images.


Phase 5: Full Moon

Which brings us to the full moon, the brightest moment that allows the moon to shine with reflected light and reveal, from its perspective, what it has gained from our travels there. And unfortunately, the only thing that the moon has gained from all of this probing is a black eye. Méliès was prescient.

Not only have we bombarded the lunar surface without mercy, but in our many visits there, we have taken a great deal: samples, dust, rocks, and data. Yet all that we have left behind in its place has been a heaping mound of trash. More than 413,000 pounds of trash. Some things we abandoned when we pulled up stakes and left after the various Apollo missions from 11 to 17, and some is made up of things that we purposefully crashed. Probes, rocket parts, descent stages of landers, satellites, and three moon buggies—these are the items most people might think of if asked to name garbage on the moon. But it is the small stuff that is much more telling. That list includes such items as six American flags, Alan Shepard’s golf balls, commemorative plaques, pins, jewelry, a gold-plated telescope, a silicon disk with written greetings from 75 world-leaders, a photo of astronaut Charlie

Figure 6: Moon Museum

Duke’s family, a piece of lava from Devil’s Lake in Oregon, shovels, rakes, boots, hammers, cameras, backpacks, towels, wet-wipes, empty food containers, a medal, a golden olive branch, a fraternity application, an urn containing the ashes of planetary geologist Eugene Shoemaker which is wrapped in brass etched with 5 lines of Shakespearean poetry—and 96 bags of astronaut’s urine, feces, and vomit.

And art. In fact, there’s actually an art museum on the moon. (See figure 6.) Carried aboard Apollo 12 and designed by Forrest “Frosty” Myers, the ceramic wafer—slightly smaller than a postage stamp—contains works of art by six prominent artists of the times. Most art critics tend to focus on Andy Warhol’s penis doodle (which he claimed was just his initials—an A and a W—in a stylized juxtaposition, but…no). Objectively speaking, though, the single line drawn by Robert Rauschenberg is the star artistic attraction on the lunar gallery.

In many ways, then, this tells the whole story: our best and our worst. We take both with us wherever we go. But maybe we shouldn’t go everywhere. It’s one thing to think about the romantic notion of a museum on the moon. It’s another to leave our poop behind. The logic, of course, makes perfect sense: why cart the latter back? Why use up space and weight—and thus fuel—on the return vehicle to bring back something no one here wants? But that’s the problem with logic. It does make perfect sense. The logic of colonialism, empire, and subjugation has never been under question. It’s the ethics of it all that damns us.


Phase 6: Old Gibbous

It turns out that the moon’s black eye gets erased every 81,000 years. Given the extremely thin lunar atmosphere, tons of space debris (mostly rocks), hit the surface of the moon without breaking up upon entry. This churns up the dusty surface, mixing up the top inch of moon dust so much that it amounts to a complete resurfacing. But the truth of the past is never so easily obscured.

The reason that the moon shines so brightly is, of course, that it merely reflects light from the sun. But in reality, it is actually a horrible reflector and is mostly black. It’s just that given how dark the rest of the sky is, even a 3% solar reflecting ability makes the moon look bright in comparison to the vast emptiness of space. And we Earth-bound animals have looked up to the brilliance of the moon surely as long as we have had eyes to do so.

Late in his life, when Albert Einstein was at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, he glanced up. Walking through campus with a well-known quantum physicist, Einstein and his friend had been debating the apparent absurdities of some of quantum theory’s commitments. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, certain qualities of objects, and perhaps even things themselves, are said not to exist until a measurement is taken on them, until they are observed. Macro-objects are made up of these quantum-particles, of course, and so Einstein asked, “Do you really believe that the moon only exists when you’re looking at it?” Today the most agreed-upon answer to that question is, “The moon is there all of the time, but only…probably.”

When I was very young, apart from those scientists and astronauts I idolized, the most important people in my life were my boyhood dog and my great-grandmother. They taught me what it is to love. I hated leaving my great-grandmother each evening, heading back to a less than happy home and always worried about being apart from her. But she told me to look up at the moon through my bedroom window and remember that she was looking at the exact same moon, too, even if we were not in the same place, because in this way we were together. We were both there with the moon. We were both there on the Earth beneath the moon. For me, this is what it came to mean to be here. To be together. With the moon.


Phase 7: Last Quarter

Figure 7: Apollo 17 Moon Rock

The moon has done so much to help us learn how to love. I wonder if it is not mere sentimentality but an actual foundation for an ethic to think about that love, to think about our dependence on the moon, to think about how we might learn to tread lightly on the Earth and also tread lightly, if it all, on the moon, even when merely looking. Because looking can trample, too, and looking always carries values as well.

Ethics is so often a matter of widening the net of inclusion. In the west, it begins with only white, property-owning, males having moral standing. Then, perhaps, white males in general. Then white women.

Then non-white men and women. Then non-white humans who don’t wish to identify as one sex. Then, maybe, animals. Perhaps eventually plants. The history of ethics reads like an exclusive country club that, little by little, gets more progressive and allows a few select others through its doors, over its walls. But perhaps this has been wrong in spirit all along. Perhaps accepting the need for a wall is always wrong—starting the discussion about ethics in exactly the wrong way because then morality is reduced to debating who gets to be on which side of that wall, and never really debating the wall itself, never really debating the presuppositions of our traditions and concepts.

For the last several years, I have been thinking about an ethic for rocks—thinking that lifeism is one of the prejudices we must overcome. Can the moon be better or worse off even though it is not alive? Just because it is dry and lifeless—like Mars—does that mean we have a blank check to do anything we want with it? Can a rock flourish? I was inspired to ask these questions by that moon rock at the Neil Armstrong museum I saw so often as a child. Perhaps it was the third most important person in my early years. I owe much to it. And yet…. We have taken so much from the moon; maybe it is time to give something back. Perhaps, as hard as it is to imagine, it is time to repatriate some of the moon rocks we’ve taken, sending them home, finding a new way to exist together. (See figure 7.)

Phase 8: Old Crescent

The word “we” is always a loaded word. “We” look up and see eight phases of the moon. But “we” have been conditioned by the Enlightenment to think that there are certain truths to the ways in which the Enlightenment thinkers think. Native Hawaiians, for instance, look up and see thirty lunar phases.

Some things are ambiguous and confusing: I am still not sure how best to proceed with space exploration in general. Other things are quite simple: we are all in this together. And that “we” must never be taken for granted or walled up. That “we” may very well include bodies that are not the bodies we imagined at first to constitute us. Bodies of those whose difference calls on us to rise to the occasion. Ancestral bodies. Bodies of those yet to come. Even planetary bodies, celestial bodies.

And so, with the phases of the moon complete (though that which is cyclic is never truly complete), a new moon comes into view again—into view in all of its unviewable, dark, unlit glory. And we move back in time once more to ask the same ethical questions again. Back to our first moments of reaching beyond our world.



  1. In the Orbit of Laika

Orbits, it turns out, are uncanny. There is something strange and unsettling about them from the get-go. The moon, for instance, isn’t so much orbiting the Earth as it is slowly spiraling away from the Earth. Or rather, the moon and the Earth are slowly drifting apart from each other. This is due to the Earth’s oceans, sluggishly catching up to the rest of the planet’s rotating mass, pushing the moon about one-and-a-half inches father away each year. Few orbits are stable; none are truly stable forever. Most planetary orbits are ones in which, given enough time, everything would smash into everything else because most orbits are actually extended versions of things falling into each other.

As humans, each of us is falling into the ground, into the grave, that same way. Little by little, day-by-day, closer to that smashing ending that awaits each of our individual orbits. Life is so busy that we tend to worry about little unimportant things along the way, forgetting that we are spiraling down the entire time—spiraling, even, as you read these words. But then, if we were only to think about the ending we would never do anything in life. The moon spins and dances. We spin and dance. Perhaps that’s enough for now.

It is too easy to think of ourselves as the still point around which the entire cosmos rotates. This was literally a failing of ours until the Copernican revolution, but it much more importantly continues to be a metaphorical failing for most of us today. We think we are the center of meaning, the center of it all: watch how the universe rotates around us! Even in our daily life, we forget that the moon is not really orbiting the Earth, but that the two bodies are orbiting a point between them that marks the barycenter. The barycenter is the center of mass of the two objects taken as a system. When one object, such as the Earth, is much larger than the other object, such as the moon, the barycenter is typically inside the more massive object, causing the latter to wobble a bit rather than appear to circle around the other. In the Earth-moon system, the barycenter is located about 2,900 miles from the Earth’s core; and since the Earth has a radius 1,000 miles longer than that, the Earth, indeed, merely wobbles a bit as it moves through space rotating around a point “inside of it.”

Even when we accept this, we tend to forget how fast the Earth is also orbiting the sun. And how fast the sun is moving in one of the outer spirals of our Milky Way galaxy, orbiting the massive black hole that sits at the center of our galaxy. And how the Milky Way is orbiting a barycenter outside of it along with several other nearby galaxies in what is called The Local Group. And how those galaxies spinning around each other are moving through space, which is, itself, expanding. The motion of our planet, and of our moon, is relative. Depending on which orbit you’re talking about, it is taking a different sort of curved, corkscrew, elliptical path. Nothing is still. There are no still points. We, ourselves, are especially not the still center of anything.

And yet, still….

Orbits are special because they are curved, and because—when we ignore all of these other larger motions in which we are engaged—they seem to return us over and over to the same place, even as that place is changing. It’s harder to see the falling this way. As a metaphor, an orbit is rich. And strange. Always allowing occluding, bodies hiding behind each other; always moving us away and then back. Like truth, always obscuring as much as it uncovers.

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in orbit. Alan Shepard became the first man in space who was an American just a few weeks later, but it would take John Glenn’s February 1962 trip aboard Friendship 7 until an American made an orbit of the Earth. Saying these were the first men in space and the first men in orbit is not merely to adopt sexist language. Importantly, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in orbit, two years after Gagarin, circling the Earth forty-eight times over three days in 1963. All of this is true. And it is true, too, that the Soviets placed the first thing in orbit: Sputnik 1, less than two feet in diameter, reached an elliptical low Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. True, and true again. But Gagarin was not truly the first person in orbit. That distinction goes to a different Soviet. And her story (and yes, it is a her story), begins in 1954 when she was born, and ends in 1957…in space.

Back in 1957, Nikita Khrushchev wanted something big for the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Specifically, by November 7, 1957 he wanted to have Sputnik 2 in the air. And he wanted it to be carrying a live Soviet citizen.

Figure 8: Laika

Laika was found on the streets of Moscow in 1957. She was around twelve pounds, a Husky-terrier mix, though clearly not anything close to a purebred. She had been living on her own for a while, perhaps most of her life. Because such a difficult life had conditioned her to survive in situations of extreme cold and stress, she was chosen to be part of the Soviet program, a candidate for space travel and the inhospitable environment that space might offer a lonely voyager. Vladimir Yazdovsky, chief of the space-dog initiative, wrote that from the very beginning “Laika was quiet and charming.”[3] (See figure 8.)

Laika began her training with the assumption that she would blast off sometime in 1958. When Khrushchev demanded Sputnik 2 be sent in November of 1957, corners were cut and time-lines were compressed. The word came down in October. There would be only one month to design the spacecraft from scratch. As the scientists worked to develop the capsule to carry Laika, and the rocket to take her into orbit, they knew that it would be impossible to bring her back safely. They knew that they were sending Laika to die in space.

She trained every day. Laika learned to eat a specially-designed food in the form of a gel packed with high-nutrition and protein. She learned to eat it because it was the only thing she was given to eat. In order to acclimate to the confines of the small capsule, Laika was kept in a series of cages, each one smaller than the last. She learned to stay alive through all of this, but she didn’t exactly thrive. The confinement and inability to move made her unable to urinate or defecate. Most of the other dogs undergoing the same regiment became listless; their condition deteriorated rapidly. Laika finally became skilled at urinating while sitting and lying down under conditions of extreme stress. Laika held on.

She was taken out and placed in a centrifuge to simulate the g-forces of a launch into space. Loud noises were played in her cage to simulate the racket of liftoff and booster engines firing. Her pulse doubled, and her blood pressure skyrocketed from the stress. Then it returned to normal within an hour. Laika held on.

The day before the mission, Yazdovsky took Laika home and allowed her to play with his children. He wrote in his memoir: “I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.”[4] I think of Laika sometimes, playing with the Yazdovsky children, and I wonder what she was thinking. She must have longed for such a family, for such a home, back when she was on the streets of Moscow. She must have wondered about the incongruity of it all, of this man who was responsible for her torture yet who now took her to a place approximating canine paradise. Outside of her confinement cage, away from the centrifuge, eating—perhaps—scraps from the table, and being part of a pack—a human and canine pack—with little ones eager to spend every moment in play. Did Laika have a good time? Did she think she had found a reprieve? Did she think it would last forever? Laika held on.

Back in the center, Yazdovsky operated on her, sewing into her flesh the cables that would attach to instruments meant to monitor her vital signs. The spacecraft was prepared, as was Laika’s containment area. The oxygen generator and CO2 scrubber were functioning. The cooling fan was working to specification. A bag to collect Laika’s waste was set up, and a six-day supply of food-gel was installed. The gel for day seven was also loaded. It was laced with poison—more humane, it was thought, than having Laika burn up in re-entry or die of hunger. Her fate was sealed no matter what.

On October 31, three days before lift-off, she was welded into her capsule. As the door closed for good, records indicate that a scientist bent down, “kissed her nose, and wished her bon voyage.”[5] And Laika held on.

The launch itself was a great success, though after reaching orbit there were some problems with thermal insulation coming loose and a part of the booster rocket not separating exactly as planned. The dog-cosmonaut was in a panic. After three hours of orbiting, weightless, Laika began to calm down. Her pulse dropped by more than 50%—almost back to normal. The on-board electronics showed that she ate a bit of food. The scientists cheered. Laika held on.

Three hours later, there were no signs of life in the capsule.

The news continued to report on Laika’s position over the days to come, never letting on that she had died. “Look up in the sky and perhaps you’ll see her,” they announced, though she had long since passed. After a week, it was broadcast that Laika had finally completed her mission and was to be euthanized painlessly. It was not until 2002 that we learned the truth: on just the fourth orbit, about six hours into her flight, Laika had died in agony from extreme heat exposure. One of the designers of the Sputnik 2 rocket testified: “It turned out that it was practically impossible to create a reliable temperature control system in such limited time constraints…. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it….”[6]

On April 14, 1958—after five months and 2,570 orbits—Laika was cremated, disintegrating along with Sputnik 2 during re-entry. A fancy way of saying that the capsule fell slowly, like we are all falling, during its last several hundred rotations around the Earth until, finally, sinking too low, it all came to an end.

Laika is a hero in Russia to this day, though in the then-Soviet Union and all around the world, she stirred discussions of animal testing and animal cruelty. Charming Laika had not volunteered to give her life. She had not signed up to be the first person in space. That she paved the way for others is without question. That it was worth it, is unlikely—or at least let us say it is still up for grabs. And all of this, of course, is not to single out the Soviets for having done the one wrong thing in the Space Race. This is all an ethical and political question, of course, but not political in the sense of seeing one side as bad. The U.S. killed its own fair number of nonhumans on the way to space, and today in the name of science we close our eyes to the untold suffering and sacrifices around us as nonhuman animals by thousands are tortured and killed all in the name of “figuring something out” that will supposedly be great for humans. Even if we open our eyes, it is so easy to look up into the sky and convince ourselves that we can still see them, still see her.

We thus end our brief investigation of the space race with this story not in cynicism but to remind us that the demands of ethics and politics do not disappear when we hear the whispered promises of technology. What it means to be a humanist is to remember how complicated these things are, to remember what is occluded when other things are made visible. We who work in the arts and humanities cannot think that science is the enemy. But we must also not think that science is “not our department” or “beyond our concern.” To find moments of joy and triumph in the space race, but also to remember the sadness and the losses—that is an inherently demanding undertaking. To accept that there is something wondrous about the glorious history of NASA, but also to see that it carries with it a history of sexism, racism, lifeism, and oppression—that is a hard task. To know that the Enlightenment “overturned” the science of the Ancient world, but also still to see value and insights for us today in that Ancient way of thinking—this demands much of us.

We must welcome such challenges, celebrating the beauty and admitting the failures of our endeavors to reach escape velocity and achieve a stable orbit, even knowing that such a thing is an illusion because there is no stable spiraling, there is no still point. Not in orbit, not on the moon, and not on Mars. But there is cause for hope. Hope that in our collective care, hands entwined together, Laika might still hold on.


[1]Carl Sagan, Cosmos (NY: Ballantine Books, 1980/2013): 109.

[2]The first three stanzas from Gil Scott-Heron’s, “Whitey on the Moon” (1970).

[3] (Accessed November 21, 2017).


[5]Quoted in Kathleen Walker-Meikle, The Dog Book: Dogs of Historical Distinction (NY: Old House Books, 2014): 140.

[6] (Accessed November 21, 2017).


Works Cited

“Laika the Space Dog,”
(Accessed November 21, 2017).

“Laika’s Trust,” (Accessed November 21, 2017).

Sagan, Carl. Cosmos (NY: Ballantine Books, 1980/2013).

Scott-Heron, Gil. “Whitey on the Moon,” The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Flying Dutchman
Records, 1974.

Walker-Meikle, Kathleen. The Dog Book: Dogs of Historical Distinction. NY: Old House Books,