Alternate Histories

The Cold War, and particularly the space race, is a period of history I think about quite a bit. So, when I was visiting my grandmother last month in D.C., I made it a priority to get myself to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and see some of their space race artifacts. I had fun.

Here is a Soviet space suit from the moon landing that wasn’t.

Soviet Space Suit

Here are me and my friend T. showing how to properly pose as a space explorer.

explorers

The Air and Space Museum is kind of weird. Its collection of artifacts is stunning, but the presentation is often tonally strange. It’s a patriotic endeavor, funded by the government with the help of large contributions from American air and space companies. There are a lot of sly digs at the Soviet space program. Sputnik may have been the first satellite in space, say the placards, but the Discovery was far superior in design.

I kind of wanted to go through the museum with a fine-toothed comb and a Wikipedia search bar open. The museum didn’t lie, exactly, but it certainly glossed over some pretty critical, if unsavory, elements of the American space program.

One of which is the import of Nazi rocket scientists to the United States after the end of WW II.

The fact that the U.S. poached Nazi scientists to work on American projects is by no means a secret. It was common knowledge even in the 60s. The character of Dr. Strangelove, for instance, is one long joke about Americanized Nazi scientists.

A comic I have been enjoying lately is  The Manhattan Projects,  a mad science fictional take on the Cold War. I have my particular nerdy nitpicks about the series, but overall I think it’s great. The Manhattan Projects is an alternate history that includes aliens, robots, and transdimensional Toji gates powered by death Buddhists.

Wernher von Braun appears in the series with a robot arm.

von Braun w/ robot arm

Wernher von Braun appears frequently in the Air and Space Museum. There is no mention of his Nazi origins, or Operation Paperclip. In fact, it’s never even mentioned that he was originally from Germany. Wernher von Braun suddenly appears in the post-war pictures, with no mention of his origins. For anyone with a basic knowledge of space race history, it’s a pretty glaring omission.

In  The Manhattan Projects, von Braun’s Nazi origins are gleefully examined. Nazi scientists are a staple of the sort of pulp adventure stories the series draws from, and The Manhattan Projects portrays von Braun as a ruthless pragmatist whose primary loyalty is to science.

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I think history is important. American history, in particular, often gets distorted through a patriotic lens. It’s especially telling, however, when an enthusiastically absurd comic book is willing to address elements of history that a national museum is not. The Air and Space Museum tells its own alternate history, one in which Soviet engineering is always inferior, the American moon landing was predestined, and Wernher von Braun coalesces from the ether after World War II and helpfully takes us into space.

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Laika (Transmission)

Here’s a story.  Laika was a stray like Sharik.  She lived in Moscow.  The program used street dogs because they thought the dogs would already know how to be cold like space is cold.  Laika was a mongrel.  She was part terrier.  Her other names were Kudryavka, Zhuchka, and Limonchik.  The American press called her Muttnik.

The other two dogs were Albina and Mushka.  One of them flew in a rocket but neither of them went to space.  Gazenko put Laika in a centrifuge and fed her high-energy gel.  The dogs were trained to live in smaller and smaller cages because in space they wouldn’t be able to move at all.

Laika was put in the satellite on October 31, 1957.  Laika left the earth on November 3, 1957.

There are three stories about what happened to Laika.

First she died when the oxygen ran out, or when she was euthanized with a serving of poisoned food.

Second she died on the fourth day when the cabin overheated.

Third she died five to seven hours into flight from overheating and stress.

On April 14, 1958, her body and her ship disintegrated as it fell through the atmosphere.

There is a statue to Laika in Star City.  Star City is a real place.  They train cosmonauts there.  It feels good to say, “Laika is in Star City now.”

Gazenko said, “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.”

No one cares about space anymore.  Laika, you were supposed to be important.

Laika I believed in you.  Laika I still believe in you.  Laika we miss you.  Laika we have been writing about space for a long time because we know this world is done with us.  Laika there are no more ships behind you.  Laika we are stuck on the ground.

Laika good dog Laika.  Good dog good dog Laika good dog.

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Better late than never.  Included in my thesis collection were two thematic vignettes.  One of them was what you just read.  The other is called “Lake Monsters of North America”.  I think this is the better of the two.  The overarching theme of my thesis collection was what I called “the disappointing fantastic”.  I wanted to take unusual or fantastic situations and take them apart until they were at least a little sad.  One of the inspirations for this feeling was the Cold War, particularly the technological race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.  The space race in particular seemed to embody a scientific optimism that ultimately didn’t take us very far at all.  Given my age, I experienced the Cold War only in retrospect: in history, media, and propaganda.  The way I perceive it might as well be the same as how I perceive fiction.  I was also interested in history as narrative, an ongoing body of work that is constantly edited and revived as new narratives replace old ones.  The goal of this vignette was to take historical facts and fictionalize/emotionalize them.

Obviously, if you haven’t already, you should read Nick Abadzis’ LaikaIt does exactly what I’m talking about.

I’ve been slow about posting my thesis stories because I’m not entirely happy with how some of them turned out.  I was pleased with the project as a whole, but there are definitely some clunkers in there.   I’m tempted to just post my favorites and leave out the mediocre ones. I think posting it in its entirety, though, may be helpful in exorcising it from my brain.  I’ve taken lots of notes this summer, but I  haven’t written a single full story.  Maybe when I put my thesis behind me I’ll be able to start fresh.