Laika’s Revenge

Part of 2100 CE.

It was a frigid day 31 October 1957 in the Tyuratam region of Kazakhstan, but the engineers and scientists assembled at the launch site that day hardly noticed the cold. Their attention was fixed on the rocket Sputnik-2 and its capsule; a copy of the more-famous Sputnik-1 satellite that had beeped its way into the Eisenhower administration’s nightmares, this second Sputnik was modified to carry a passenger. The first non-microbial life to enter outer space was not human, but was instead man’s best friend, a dog. Her name was ‘Laika’ (Russian Лайка, “barker”) and until a few months prior she had been just one of many stray dogs living on the streets of Moscow. After undergoing weeks of training meant to test primarily for psychological dexterity under extreme stress, Laika was selected as the primary candidate for spaceflight, with a second dog as her backup and a third as a control. She took her final walk and was placed in the capsule on 31 October, tethered to the inside of the capsule by chains attached to a harness she wore, giving her enough mobility to stand, sit, and lie down, but little more. She remained in the craft in this manner until the launch day of 3 November as both a final evaluation of Laika’s ability to handle stress and to give Soviet scientists enough time to correct for errors found in the rocket and its systems. During that time, Laika remained under the care of handler-technicians who looked after her, the spacecraft then being on the ground and the capsule still open to the air. At about 1 a.m. on November 3rd, Laika was secured one last time and the capsule was lifted to the nose of the rocket, where she awaited her voyage to orbit, all the while her handlers providing her freezing capsule with warm air fed via a hose until moments before takeoff. It was a small attempt to make her final minutes on Earth comfortable; handler and technician Yevgeniy Shabarov recounted that “after placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight.”

Laika was indeed never intended to survive her lonely voyage in outer space. Her’s was the role of a trailblazer, ensuring that the launch and orbit of living animals were successes to be built upon by future expeditions, and thus leaving the task of successfully reentering and recovering to others who would follow in her steps. And as such Laika successfully completed her mission, surviving the enormous gravitational forces of takeoff and the nauseating transition into earth orbit, demonstrating to the world the power and prestige of Soviet engineering. Before reentry on 14 April 1958, the Soviets could boast of having successfully completed over 2,200 orbits of the earth with Sputnik-2, spending 162 days in space. Of that time, the Soviet state assigned to Laika the first week of the mission, claiming she had survived until 10 November, bravely succumbing to asphyxiation only after the batteries aboard Sputnik-2 were exhausted.

Truth is rarely so coincidental.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, members of the research team assigned to Sputnik-2 recalled the successes of the first three orbits, but likewise recounted the way orbital forces had begun to strain the spacecraft and its capsule. Electrodes attached to Laika fed biometric data to Soviet ground control, communicating to them her status. Although her biometrics showed severe stress during launch and orbit, she had been shown to have survived the process unscathed and even settled down a few hours into orbit. Data continued to show Laika doing well during her first, second, and third orbits, but then technicians on the ground began receiving signs of agitation. Although alive and unharmed, she was fidgeting against the chains tethering her to the inside of the capsule. The friction caused by the spacecraft’s orbit had begun to heat her capsule, which by the third orbit reached an internal temperature of 109°F (43°C). With the temperature still rising, she would not survive the fourth orbit, perishing from overheating some five to six hours into the flight. Equipment malfunctions may account for her electrocardiogram continuing to indicate cardiovascular activity as late as the 15th, 16th, and 17th orbits, but by 5am (Moscow Time) on 6 November, all biometric telemetry data had ceased, a timeline indicative of falling into a heat-induced comatose state and perishing by terminal dehydration. In whichever way it occurred, in her final moments of consciousness Laika suffered greatly – and so she died, an unwitting sacrifice to the technological advances of humanity.

It was in the most unusual fashion that the specter of the Muscovite streetdog made itself known. When humanity earnestly looked to expand its reach skyward, among its many ventures was the replenishment of natural minerals and otherwise economically-critical materials, which had all by then been exploited or claimed for future exploitation across the earth. The international economic situation was thus positioned on the precipice of disaster as finite resources dwindled, with calculations estimating depletion of most critical stockpiles within as little as two to three generations. Extraterrestrial sources were the only option available, and while the moon had come to supply much of the building materials for the earliest space habitats, humanity would need to look further afield if it were to find a way to quench its thirst. Spectroscopic analysis had long since shown that many of the asteroids occupying space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter contained deposits of metals, such as nickel, cobalt, and platinum, but also water and carbonaceous materials critical for sustaining life. To that time only a handful of unmanned expeditions had attempted anything approaching the sort of large-scale harvesting operations necessary to make the endeavor worthwhile, each with only limited successes. But just as a little streetdog blazed the trail for humanity’s future exploration of space, so too did those early, seemingly fruitless unmanned operations act as a springboard for greater human occupation of space.

In the first era of space exploration, futurists envisioned multiple small-scale operations in the same vein as homesteading migrants of nineteenth century North America spreading across the asteroid belt. It would be primarily small in scale, conducted by a family or groups of families, who would establish far-flung “rural” communities while doing much of the labor themselves. Computers – then in their infancy – were envisioned to play the role of monitor, checking up on key systems and protocols in a given area, but not much more. This was a reflection of Cold War-era thinking, when such computers were often massive and required entire rooms to house them. In contemporary popular culture, this came to be expressed in the Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer 9000 – or “HAL” – of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose responsibilities and authority are entirely limited to the Discovery One spacecraft. Even in moments of “human-like” behavior – such as when HAL becomes homicidal towards the crew of the Discovery One – HAL expresses a complete lack of regard for the wishes, concerns, or well-being of his living counterparts. HAL the computer is cold and calculating, determined to complete his assigned mission at whatever the cost. It would be difficult to argue that anyone in 1968 could foresee the manner in which artificial intelligence actually manifested itself in the world. The rise of the A.I. personal assistant must seem frivolous by the standards of the Cold War, when any minute nuclear holocaust might consume the world – and so technology was oriented towards preventing that outcome. It’s for that reason that computers like HAL calculate, while Alexa and Siri chat. Just as how in the Cold War every major corporation can count itself among the “household names” for national defense, so today every major corporation can count themselves – or their audible personifications – literally among household names: Alexa, Jeeves, Cortana, Layla, Siri.

Paired with this has been the ubiquity of unmanned autonomous vehicles, referred to colloquially as “drones.” Like A.I. personal assistants, drones have given us the ability to outsource our presence in order to maximize our productivity. The first generation of drones were little more than remote-controlled craft or robots, which required the constant attention of at leasy one human controller. The ability to therefore place something as crude as an A.I. personal assistant into any number of drones expands one’s reach as each personal assistant undertakes a programmed process at the behest of the controller, which itself might likewise be artificial in nature and working at the behest of an “over controller” – all of which are ultimately answerable to a human operator. Given exponential advances in algorithmic processes, the ability to process greater and more complex routines makes the ability to use such artificially-intelligence drones more tenable on a larger and larger scale. But unlike the cold, calculating computers of the prior era, whose concerns were ultimately those of life and death, modern artificial intelligence has proven to be humanity’s greatest asset, for rather than being created for the function of calculating trajectories of ICBMs, our A.I. has exactly one goal in mind: to do our bidding.

Not unlike the American Retriever, the variety of artificial intelligence services of our day have been programmed to quite literally appease us and seek our approval. Years of accumulated user data gave these advanced A.I. their initial framework for decision-making, while experience teaches them which routines to follow and which not to. Failures to appease are logged and studied by the A.I. in a deliberate, trial-and-error fashion, as it examines what it calculated to have been the correct course of action, the correction it was issued by the user, and the circumstances leading to that moment. It will then examine how it might have reached the “correct” conclusion, which in turn might yield multiple possibilities or a single route, which it will then “apply” to future situations which it identifies as having characteristics similar or identical to its last encounter. Accelerations in computational speeds have allowed such calculations to come ever faster, particularly as more and more such A.I. exchange their experiences as raw data across the internet, what some have termed the “shared intelligence.” The experiences which a janitorial A.I. has with an unhappy tenant in a restaurant in Tharsis City are transferred to a mining drone seconds away from interacting with a human controller. And just as drones are used in environments hazardous to human beings, A.I. can likewise operate in such hazardous environments as the vacuum of space, entirely unaffected by extended periods of weightlessness or its freezing temperatures, and indeed the union of drone and A.I. was inevitable. Artificially-intelligent autonomous spacecraft were envisioned as early as the 1990s to serve as an assistant to the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. It would have checked on systems across the station, monitored experiments, and even provided a mobile carbon dioxide scrubber to help the station’s filters. But who in those days would have thought to send that same assistant across the gulf of space, entrusted with the acquisition and retrieval of a celestial object?

Over a period of eleven years, six asteroids were moved from their places in the skies to Earth orbit, each selected for their particular riches – and its affiliated values. Roughly 30 percent of all resources mined from the asteroids were held for exclusive sale to the expeditions’ national sponsors, while what remained passed into private hands to be sold at will on the open market. International partners not directly involved in the endeavor complained of the asteroids’ exploitation by the ‘superwealthy elite,’ overnight creating political pressure to seize more resources. Perceiving a situation in which the superpowers might be induced to demand more or all of the asteroids’ resources on behalf of their allies, the controlling private ventures launched a public/private initiative to oversee “the fair and equitable management” of resources distributed from among the six asteroids. The Directorate of Extraterrestrial Space Settlement (DESS) had on its Board of Governors representatives from each of the private and public ventures involved in the planning, preparation, acquisition, retrieval, and exploitation of the asteroids. This board theoretically set directorate policy and the allotments for sale to various partners, while an inner Board of Financiers directed mining and sale operations, reporting their acquisitions and revenues to the Board of Governors. It was to DESS that the asteroids passed, making the directorate the conduit through which all activity in and around the asteroids passed, requiring the creation of space traffic control stations, more powerful communication arrays, and security forces to police it all. As humanity continued to expand into the environs about the Earth and its orbit, the infrastructure established by DESS would simply be expanded to absorb all settlements within the Earth’s sphere of influence – the aptly named ‘Terresphere’ – to include the moon and its inhabitants.

Included within the mandate which created DESS was language which specified that acquired resources must be employed in “the expansion of mankind’s interests in outer space.” This language both the Director-General of Extraterrestrial Space Settlements and its Board of Financiers interpreted to mean the refining of mined resources for the expansion of humanity’s literal physical presence in outer space. It was in part a response to clamoring among the elites on Earth for an escape from the social and political crises across the globe; in the words of one commentator, the world seemed poised “on the verge of a new Bolshevik revolution, from which there will be no escape and no return.” For many, the prospect of space travel – and space migration – seemed the only true escape, to begin a new society of like-minded, economically-matched individuals and families free from the demands of others. It was precisely now, when the desire to leave became so pressing, that the class of superwealthy elite emerged to become the first independent spacefarers. Where national space programs had failed to bring humanity into space primarily because of the prohibitive costs of moving persons and materials into space, multi-billionaires have no such concerns. With resources equivalent to entire national GDPs, such individuals and their families are capable of literally purchasing their own rockets and spacecraft, renting a launchpad, and hiring someone to take them into space. Little wonder that the first tourists to space were among the superwealthy who could afford their own way, and again that the first permanent colonists on the moon were likewise those who could afford to pay not only their way, but the cost of starting life anew in space. With such demand, a replica of the earth in Earth’s orbit would constitute a true coup de grâce in marvel and allure, drawing to it those capable of paying their way – whatever the cost.

During the Cold War, when an escape from Earth held appeal against the perils of nuclear annihilation, scientists conducted detailed studies and drew up plans into the realistic colonization of space. Among the most well known of these studies were those led by Gerard K. O’Neill on behalf of NASA in the 1970s. Professor O’Neill envisioned massive spherical and cylindrical space stations slowly revolving in the zero gravity of outer space. With their bounds, humans would live in artificial gravity produced by the carefully calculated rotation of the space station around them and the centrifugal forces it created, equivalent to those of gravity on Earth. Sealed and given an atmosphere rich in nitrogen and oxygen, any environment on Earth can be replicated as an “island colony” in space. It was to this idea that DESS turned in an ambitious plan to sponsor the construction and colonization of three of O’Neill’s Island One designs, to be followed shortly thereafter by three more – one for each of the asteroids. Although an initial success, it shortly thereafter became apparent that the cost inefficiencies inherent in these smaller type colonies when compared with those of the Island Two and Island Three designs made the Island One only a temporary design. Of the six planned, four were completed, each colonized for less than thirty years before being dismantled and reused for later constructions. Although far more successful, the Island Two model followed in the footsteps of its smaller sibling, giving way to the larger Island Three design. Of the original twenty Island Two colonies constructed, only two remain in active use today. We may one day soon see the rise of the proposed “Island Four” design for use in deep-space colonization and the demise of the ubiquitous Island Three. This experience – of investment, little return, and further investment – was one which the controlling interests behind the Board of Financiers found troubling, as they watched their private revenues fall, and so it is thought that it was now that the individual Financiers began siphoning off both raw resources and revenue by under-reporting their figures to the Board of Governors. Coincident with these events was a shift in private investment from operations in and around the earth to those in deep space, with all non-lunar mining operations relocating to the asteroid belt. Where until now market forces had shown a greater cost-efficiency ratio in bringing asteroids to Earth than in locating operations in situ, the private interests of these particular ventures proved averse to the interests of compromise inherent in public/private partnerships. In this way, while social interests remained firmly ground to the earth, private ventures redirected market interests spaceward in order to align with their own private concerns.

Amid this flurry of human drama, the six asteroids were mined from crust to core, removing and processing massive swathes of rock in order to access the valuable deposits within. Across their surface crawled swarms of artificially-intelligence mining drones, while a trio of orbiting A.I. supported the drones by identifying and assigning priorities. In less than a generation, each of the asteroids was depleted of its useful resources, leaving behind husks of rock. At once DESS began the process exploiting even these remnants, organizing the cavities within each of the asteroids into multiple compartments of varying sizes. Zero-gravity compartments were planned out before work began on the most complicated portion of the future space station: an internal “gravity block.” A downsized version of the O’Neill cylinder employed in the Island Three design, this cylinder would be constructed and then rotated within the asteroid, showing no evidence of its existence from outside. This first asteroid, the largest of the six, was placed in station-keeping orbit about L1, where it would initially serve as a refueling and resupply port for merchant shipping, before the addition of two electromagnetic mass drivers made its strategic significance one of international proportion, transforming the port into into a Space Forces Base. Its position between Earth and Luna, and its critical importance as a port of call for terrestrial, lunar, and spaceward traffic earned it the nickname Midway, which was later formalized.

The next two asteroids had been brought as pair to L5, and from their first days were known by the nicknames Samson and Delilah. Early in their exploitation, the asteroids were fused by a gantry constructed to span the two mining operations, allowing personnel, equipment, and resources to travel between worksites without the costly need spacecraft to ferry them. It in turn simplified any necessary station-keeping maneuvers by linking both asteroid’s external thrusters into a single program, as well as streamlining many of the asteroid’s other internal operations. This gantry would, through reinforcement and expansion, form the basis of the gravity cylinder which today spins between the two asteroids. The entire construction was moved to a station-keeping orbit at L3, where the names Samson and Delilah fell from usage in favor of the station’s current name, Lilith.

The other three asteroids had been positioned at L4 for the construction of the Island Three colonies in its orbit. These were the smallest and last of the asteroids to be brought to Earth orbit, though their mineral rich interiors meant that they yielded minerals on the same order as the other three. Their husks were on the whole thinner than their larger brethren but likewise denser, and so DESS scientists undertook a series of experiments to test the feasibility of their use in future space settlements. They lined the inside of each asteroid’s largest internal cavities with ice water, after which holes were drilled down to the cavity from the surface. Into these holes super-heated air was fed in a single rushing torrent, explosively vaporizing the ice to form a thermal wave of molten vapor which expands out against the insides of the cavity, collapsing rock down against itself. Simultaneous with this operation – undertaken entirely by drone A.I. – maneuvering thrusters on the asteroids’ exteriors fired, spinning each asteroid along its longest axis. The resulting centrifugal forces accelerated the thermal wave, pushing it harder and faster against the cavity walls and inflating them like a balloon, leaving behind smooth, oblong voids – an asteroidal version of the O’Neill cylinder.

As proofs-of-concept, “the three sisters” were outstanding successes, proving a concept first proposed in 1963 by Daindridge M. Cole and Donald W. Cox. As celebrities, they were nothing short of fabulous, with media showing images of the spinning asteroids spewing geysers of molten vapor from their surface, while tiny robots clung to the surface for dear survival. But as vessels for expanding humanity’s presence in outer space, they left much to be desired. Their ultra-dense exteriors proved capable of withstanding the worst of the centrifugal forces and resistant to further expansion, making them too small to be usable as colonies, but excellent for long term, low-gravity habitats in Earth orbit. All three were positioned in high Earth orbits (HEO), two on equatorial orbits on opposing sides of Earth, providing each with a consistent field of view across the earth and space year round. The third was placed in polar orbit, a controversial move which ultimately cemented the Directorate’s authority over the space around the earth. A suite of quarters and offices were set aside within each asteroid for space traffic control stations, security barracks, and communications arrays, each operated and staffed by DESS personnel, leaving little room for external ventures, effectively rendering these three asteroids DESS bases from which their expanding security forces could operate.

It was not until science education personality Jim Neal made a comment regarding “the three sisters” that their true names became a point of public commentary. In response to a question from social media, Neal revealed that the three asteroids “true name” – along with every other asteroid within the Terresphere – was “Dess,” a literal acronym for the Directorate of Extraterrestrial Space Settlement. To differentiate them, the Directorate assigned a numeral to each in ordered they arrived in Earth’s orbit, with Midway being the hollowed out remains of 1-Dess and Lilith formed from 2- and 3-Dess, and by which scheme gave “the three sisters” the designations 4-, 5-, and 6-Dess. Horrified by Neal’s revelation, a short-lived social media campaign opened the asteroid’s names to public debate. It was to weather situations precisely like this that DESS had been created, and so at once its public image-savvy staff engaged commentators over social media, canvassing opinions and planting ideas, and ultimately settling on a list of names for public vote. To the asteroids in equatorial orbit, 4-Dess was given the name Nephthys, after an Egyptian deity associated with night and moonlight. To 5-Dess was initially given the name Telos, but citing alleged confusion between Telos and the existing settlement of Delos, the Board of Governors did not approve the name change, and although the runner-up Ata should have been assigned, as of the most registration census, ‘5-Dess’ remains the asteroid’s registered name, shortened to Dess in common usage. And to the asteroid in polar orbit, 6-Dess was given the name of the Muscovite streetdog who blazed humanity’s journey into outer space: Laika.

Continued in Part 2.

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