Translated by Eric Dickens
This article appeared in the 2012:1 issue.
A cool, grey dawn slowly casts its translucent shadows over the stone floor and walls of the east wing of the Peter-Pavlovsk fortress. The executioners tramp through the long stone corridors with jangling keys, and stop in front of the iron door that leads to Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich’s cold and damp cell. It is not my first. Twenty days previously he killed the Czar and will now be led to the scaffold, at the age of twenty-seven. I constructed the bomb that Narodnaya Volna set off. During the last night of his life he has hurriedly scribbled down his theories and plans, sketches for a machine that will relieve mankind from the bonds of the earth. He draws a hollow cylinder with an opening at one end. If the cylinder is stood upright with its closed end at the top, and a certain pressure is expelled it will lift off the ground. This is the culmination of eighteen years of study. But the solution, the final one, came to mind while he was putting the finishing touches to the bomb that blew the Czar to smithereens. What counts is that two times two is four, all the rest is crap. Before dawn breaks he has given the sheet of paper to the guard. Plus a request to be allowed to live for another few days so he can explain the drawings to a number of scientists, if they can be brought. His request is refused and his plans are locked away by the czarist police. I believe in the feasibility of my plans and this faith buoys me in my terrible predicament. If, by careful study by specialists, my ideas prove practicable I will be able to enjoy the fact that I have done my native country a service. Then I will be able to calmly go to meet my death in the knowledge that my idea will not perish with me, but will live on among mankind, for which I have been prepared to give up my life. (pp. 29-30)
Not until the next morning did I understand the length and breadth of the miracle I had witnessed. The light in the sky was no star. Nor was it the light from a machine flown through the atmosphere by a man. It was a light that moved in outer space where light created by man had never moved before. The light in the sky was our first Sputnik, with both halves of the metallic sphere polished so much that any heavenly body that it met in its path would for the first time be able to see itself reflected in its surface. It described one orbit every ninety-seventh minute. Sailed peacefully and without resistance through space until its batteries died on the fourteenth of November. Then, no longer sending any scientific data, it cruised for a further nine weeks until its orbit ceased and it perished in a streak of fire glowing white against the hard friction of the atmosphere.
So I saw mankind’s first steps towards the universe. So I witnessed the first struggles with the enormous forces of gravity. So I experienced the first progress made by human thought. Yuri chimes in. The first swallow, he says, had come with news of a new spring.
In October two years later, recruitment agents arrive at the larger flight bases. Men in dark suits, in uniforms and in white coats. When they reach Leningrad he is standing there ready to be taken up in the machine. But the weather turns. A strong wind gets up, gusts of wet snow blow across the field. A black car approaches, ripping a track in the wet gravel. Low clouds and mist suddenly cross the area, sweep down across the valleys into Leningrad and out across the airfield. The flights of the day are cancelled and he is just about to go back into the huts when he hears someone calling his name. He turns around. The commandant’s messenger is nodding to him and pointing. Behind this messenger he can see the car, its door open and the engine running. Come here! And don’t waste time. The commandant wants to see you right away in his office. Quick march! They are waiting. He jumps in and the car tears away in a cloud of mud and slush. (53-54)
The 28th February 1940. Comrades! The first true rocket plane, the Roketo, has risen into the sky, guided up by Comrade Fyodorov. A complete success! Its motor was powered during take-off by nitric acid and paraffin and weighed one hundred kilos. The plane was towed up until it reached a suitable height. There the two aircraft separated and the Roketo’s rocket motors were switched on. The pressure in the combustion chamber was eighteen atmospheres! Just imagine!
Note: The Commission for the Study of the Stratosphere has been reorganised and will henceforth be known as the Commission for Research Into the Upper Atmosphere.
The 24th May 1949. The launch of the first R-1A equipped with scientific instruments. Before the launch special glass containers are emptied of air, hermetically sealed and added to the payload. After the launch, when the engines have been switched off and the necessary height reached, the glass support is crushed, the seals broken, and the air rushes in which is later returned to the Earth. Watch out that you don’t cut yourself on the shards. Don’t inhale it!
Object D. Let’s call it the Sputnik! We walk up to the launchpad in procession.
Our first Sputnik weighs 83.6 kilos. It is sent into space on the fourth of October 1957 at the first cosmic speed and reaches a height of 900 kilometres above the Earth. There it sails, the world’s first artificial satellite, at a 65 degree angle to the Equator. People write poems about it. A leap into the future. Reconnoitring the depths of space. 60,396 telegrams and letters are sent to the address: Sputnik, Moscow.
Late at night Oleg Gasenko wanders the streets of Moscow. Every time he hears a whine or a woof he gives a start and stares into the darkness. Constantly looking for new recruits. Yesterday evening I found, on Pyatnitskaya Street, one with a curly coat, that is just the right size. Not too big and not too small. Beautiful, with dark brown soulful eyes. I’m going to call her Little Curly, Little Insect or Lemon. Beyond the doors of the institute, and in outer space, she will be known as Layka. [...]
Early that morning they are shot up so that the rocket will reflect the rays of the rising sun. Then six other nameless ones. Then Lisa and Ryjik. Then eight nameless ones. Then Riyaya and Damka. Then Layka.
Layka travels in our second Sputnik, the third of November 1957. The rocket weighs half a ton and reaches a height of 1,600 kilometres. She stretches towards her food when a small bell is rung, dies of a lack of oxygen, and is given a cosmic cremation according to burial rites that stretch out over a ten billion kilometre orbit around the Earth. (98-100)