The narrator of ‘‘Dog Star’’ is a professional astronomer, with the story revolving around the future of astronomy. Clarke believed that once space travel became routine, older earthbound astronomical observatories would replaced by instruments located away from Earth: ‘‘The stories of Mount Wilson, Palomar, Greenwich, and the other great names were coming to an end; they would still be used for training purposes, but the research frontier must move out into space.’’ Clarke’s vision of the future certainly has some parallels in history as it has unfolded since the 1960s. Clarke mentioned the problem of astronomical observation through Earth’s atmosphere, but almost as great a concern is light pollution from nearby cities, which makes physical observation difficult. The first reaction to these problems was to move new observatories up and away from cities, though not as far as space. Important new observatories since the late 1960s have been built on isolated mountain tops, both to avoid light from human habitation and to get above as much of the atmosphere as possible. Such observatory sites include volcanic mountains at Mauna Kea in Hawaii and La Palma in the Canary Islands, as well as several locations in the Andes mountains in Chile. The expansion of such sites continued unabated even after the launch of NASA’s space-based telescopes. One reason this is so (which Clarke did not foresee) is the ability of recent computers to compensate for atmospheric distortions and produce images (even from Mt. Palomar, outside San Diego) that are comparable to those produced by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Soviet Space Dogs
Laika (which means ‘‘barker’’) in ‘‘Dog Star’’ is named after the Russian space dog, the first animal to make an orbital flight. Clarke had no need to mention this explicitly since in 1962 Laika was a world-famous celebrity. On November 3, 1957, Laika orbited in Soviet satellite Sputnik 2. Unfortunately she died a few hours into the flight due to overheating. (Until 2002, the Soviets claimed it was a planned death because of the limited amount of oxygen the small satellite could carry.) Her flight was an intentional humiliation of the United States in the space race; the mission seems to have been planned only after the United States announced it would put a chimpanzee in orbit in 1958.
The rationale for putting animals into orbit was to determine if any unforeseen conditions in space might be dangerous or fatal to human astronauts. The United States chose chimpanzees because they are the genetic species closest to human beings, while the Soviets chose dogs because they could easily be trained to undergo long periods of inactivity. In fact, the dogs were trained in much the same way as human astronauts, undergoing simulated flights and launches, as well as centrifuge training to simulate the acceleration of launch. The testing program encompassed a number of suborbital flights from 1951 to 1960, followed by a series of orbital flights from 1960 to 1966. Laika’s 1957 flight was unscheduled, and of limited scientific value, because it was hastened for propaganda purposes. Dezik, a dog who participated in a 1951 Soviet suborbital flight, was adopted as a pet by one of the researchers on the program. This might have suggested the adoption of Clarke’s Laika in ‘‘Dog Star.’’ However, Clarke’s own favorite dog was named Laika after the space dog.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Arthur C Clarke, Published by Gale Group, 2001.