First in Space by James Vining
It struck me as oddly coincidental that in the span of a few months two publishers would release graphic novels about animals in space. Laika by Nick Abadzis tells the story of the first dog to reach orbit, onboard the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik II on November 7, 1957. In First in Space, James Vining writes about Ham, the chimpanzee who was the first hominid in space in 1961, sent by the Americans. (The US referred to him as “the first free creature in outer space.”) Both novelists combine history and fiction to show not only what happened to these animals and why, but to also explore how the people who worked with them felt about the launches. I can’t overstate the power the artwork has on the stories here; in both cases the animals are drawn so expressively that readers can not help but consider their feelings about the tasks and projects they were part of. This of course makes the stories that much harder to read; and the endings a lot tougher to bear. These are not happily ever after books.
In First in Space, Vining uses black and white drawings to accompany his look at the American primate space program. Readers follow the adventures of Ham (officially called “Chop Chop Chang” or “Subject 65”) as he learns to perform certain tasks in the space capsule and tested for his ability to withstand such things as high G-forces and isolation. The chimps were kept in individual kennels, and sometimes cages, and Vining shows some of the air force enlisted men who worked with them questioning if the training “might make them go a little crazy.” He draws some dream sequences that show the chimps exhibiting violent or confused behavior, which follows with what modern researchers have learned about their need for community. The book is most revealing when it focuses on the humans as they struggle to weigh the dangers for the chimps (one of whom dies in the book) against the need to be successful as “the world is watching us…we have to do this right the first time.” That pressure to succeed propelled the program relentlessly forward until Ham was launched on January 31, 1961. He survived the flight and in a particularly poignant exchange afterwards, was assured by the airman who served as his handler that “You’re a hero now, buddy! You’ve done more in your life than most folks ever will. And you’ll get a big welcome when we get back to New Mexico! You wait and see… life’s going to be a lot different from here on out.”
But that’s not the way things worked out for Ham, just as there most certainly was not a reward for Laika’s contribution to her country either.
In his epilogue to First in Space, Vining shows that Ham was not allowed to retire with ease after his flight and instead was kept alone and on display at the National Zoo in Washington DC for seventeen years. Only after animal activists pressured the zoo to relocate him was he sent to the North Carolina Zoo where he died in 1983 of natural causes, after finally be allowed to live with some fellow chimps. The saga of the other space chimps does not end there however, as Vining points to a group called Save the Chimps in the final pages of his book. As it turns out the, the USAF, who ran the chimp program, decided in 1997 to discontinue it and sell the chimps as authorized by Congress. With primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall as one of its board members, Save the Chimps formed and submitted a bid to have the chimps retired to a sanctuary. Their bid was rejected and the chimps were awarded to a medical research lab in New Mexico. Save the Chimps filed a lawsuit against the USAF citing the fact that this particular lab was under investigation for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. After a year-long battle the chimps were awarded to Save the Chimps and are now living in a sanctuary in South Florida. (And ironically, the med lab went bankrupt and Save the Chimps ended up with all the other 266 chimpanzees there as well.) Reading about Ham’s sad years in the National Zoo was hard enough, without finding out about what happened to the chimps who followed him in the program.
Both Laika and First in Space should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the space program. I’m still thinking about these animals long after finishing the books. Their stories stay with you and hopefully both novelists will receive some recognition for the impressive work they have done here to finally share Ham and Laika’s truths with readers everywhere.
First in Space by James Vining