Before Laika: the Soviet Space Dogs

This is a very interesting post on Medium about the dogs the Soviets sent into space in the 1950s:

While the US test rocket programme used monkeys, about two thirds of whom died, dogs were chosen by the Soviets for their ability to withstand long periods of inactivity, and were trained extensively before they flew. Only stray female dogs were used because it was thought they’d be better able to cope with the extreme stress of spaceflight, and the bubble-helmeted spacesuits designed for the programme were equipped with a device to collect feces and urine that only worked with females.

Training included standing still for long periods, wearing the spacesuits, being confined in increasingly small boxes for 15-20 days at a time, riding in centrifuges to simulate the high acceleration of launch, and being placed in machines that simulated the vibrations and loud noises of a rocket.

The first pair of dogs to travel to space were Dezik and Tsygan (“Gypsy”), who made it to 110km on 22 July 1951 and were recovered, unharmed by their ordeal, the next day. Dezik returned to space in September 1951 with a dog named Lisa, but neither survived the journey. After Dezik’s death, Tsygan was adopted by Anatoli Blagronravov, a physician who later worked closely with the United States at the height of the Cold War to promote international cooperation on spaceflight.

They were followed by Smelaya (“Brave”), who defied her name by running away the day before her launch was scheduled. She was found the next morning, however, and made a successful flight with Malyshka (“Babe”). Another runaway was Bolik, who successfully escaped a few days before her flight in September 1951. Her replacement was ignomoniously named ZIB — the Russian acronym for “Substitute for Missing Bolik”, and was a street dog found running around the barracks where the tests were being conducted. Despite being untrained for the mission, he made a successful flight and returned to Earth unharmed.

A good piece of trivia from the piece: Laika wasn’t the original name for the most famous of Russian space dogs; it was named Kudryavka (Russian: Кудрявка, meaning Little Curly) before its name was changed.

The Space Race and The Lebanese Rocket Society

During the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for supremacy in space. But little known at the time, there was another contestant in the race: the Lebanese Rocket Society, a science club from a university in Beirut and the subject of a recently released film. The BBC investigates in a radio program and this story about Manoug Magnougian and his founding the Lebanese Rocket Society:

Manougian’s passion for space began as a boy in the 1940s growing up in Jericho in the West Bank. Inspired by Jules Verne novels, he would climb the nearby Mount of Temptation and gaze at the night sky. At school he carved rockets onto his desk.

A maths and physics degree from the University of Texas followed, before Manougian returned to Lebanon for a teaching post at Beirut’s small Haigazian College at the age of 25. In an attempt to drum up numbers, in November 1960 he renamed the science club the Haigazian College Rocket Society.

“To my surprise a number of students decided to join,” he says. “I had no finances and there was little support for something like this. But I figured I could dip into my meagre salary and convince my wife that I could buy what I needed for the experiments.”

It was a successful program, albeit “in the slow lane” compared to the U.S.S.R.:

The Cedar IV launched in 1963 was so successful that it was commemorated on a stamp. It reached a height of 90 miles (145 km), putting it close to the altitude of satellites in low-earth orbit.

For those curious, below is the trailer for the film, The Lebanese Rocket Society:




Readings: Silicon Valley, Twitter Influence, Mark Armstrong on Reading, Cosmonaut Crash

A few good reads from this week:

1) “Silicon Valley Hiring Perks: Meals, iPads and a Cubicle for Spot” [New York Times] – a good piece reflecting the current state of Silicon Valley. I was surprised by how well Google is paying:

Then there are salaries. Google is paying computer science majors just out of college $90,000 to $105,000, as much as $20,000 more than it was paying a few months ago. That is so far above the industry average of $80,000 that start-ups cannot match Google salaries.

Perhaps the most telling line, representing the culture shift in Silicon Valley (how long has it been in the making?):

And there has been a psychological shift; many of the most talented engineers want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg not work for him.

2) “A Better Way to Measure Twitter Influence” [New York Times] – Do you think the most influential Twitter user is Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga? I agree with the premise of this post, that follower counts on Twitter mean less for influence than actual engagement (replies, retweets):

But it turns out that counting followers is a seriously flawed way to measure a person’s impact on Twitter. Even one of Twitter’s founders, Evan Williams, made the point to me recently: someone with millions of followers may no longer post messages frequently, while someone followed by mere tens of thousands may be a prolific poster whose messages are amplified by others.

According to research by Twitalyzer, the most influential Twitter user is Rafinha Bastos from Brazil. Yes, this is a surprise to me too.

3) “Mark Armstrong: What I Read” [The Atlantic] – Mark Armstrong, founder of long reads (one of my favorite sites on the Web), reveals his daily media/reading diet:

Most weekday mornings, the first thing I’m reading is my iPhone. I’ll start with a quick check of the Twitter app, dipping into the real-time stream and checking the latest stories that readers have shared using the #longreads hashtag. (It’s for sharing any outstanding story between 1,500 and 30,000 words.)

Also, Long Reads wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the community, as Mark attests:

Twitter is also my main source for new stories that get featured on Longreads. The community is incredible when it comes to finding and sharing great stories using the #longreads hashtag: @hriefs, @michellelegro, @jaredbkeller, @sherlyholmes, @legalnomads, @katesilver, @nxthompson, @weegee, @eugenephoto, @petersm_th, all recommend excellent links—from magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic to regional publications doing outstanding journalism like Texas Monthly, 5280 Magazine, Atlanta Magazine, and alt-weeklies like Minneapolis City Pages and The Stranger.

I’ve bookmarked Mark’s post because I need to go through the links he has included in there more than a few times. Related: my most popular post on this blog is from last year, where I rounded up The Top Five Long Reads of 2010.

4) “Cosmonaut Crashed into Earth Crying in Rage” [NPR] – probably the most fascinating story I’ve read all week. If you’ve ever doubted that the space race wasn’t risky, read this story. If you click through the link, there is a disturbing photo at the top of the page. This is an incredible account of Vladimir Komarov, friend of the Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin (the first man to enter space). The background:

In 1967, both men [Komarov and Gagarin] were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn’t back out because he didn’t want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.

But as detailed in the new book Starman, by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, Gagarin and some senior technicians had inspected the Soyuz 1 and had found 203 structural problems. Gagarin even wrote a 10-page memo on his findings, gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev, but nobody dared send it up the chain of command (to Brezhnev). So both Komarov and Gagarin knew of the dangers…but what would have happened if Komarov refused to go?

“If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead.” That was Yuri Gagarin. Vladimir Komarov couldn’t do that to his friend. “That’s Yura,” the book quotes him saying, “and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.” Komarov then burst into tears.

An absolutely harrowing account. A must-read.