By David Moles
12 May 2003
There is a world map projected on the big board in Mission Control, showing the oscillating track of the capsules' orbits. Two lights: red for Sputnik-2, blue for Eden 7. The lights almost touching now, somewhere over Australia. I've always thought of myself as having a good imagination. It's only now that I'm starting to learn how helpless I am with only numbers in front of me. All around me are engineers, men who've made their careers turning pictures in their heads into numbers, and numbers into pictures. Just in front of me, Flynn's eyes are glued to Eden 7's telemetry, and Lorentz's to Sputnik's -- screens and screens of digits and acronyms. If there were men in those capsules they'd know less of what was going on up there than the ground controllers do.
But the screens might as well be full of Linear A, for all the good they're doing me.
Flynn used to be in military flight testing, and Lorentz worked on the rocket plane program, out in the high California desert. They're used to this. But didn't they have test pilots in those programs, men in the machines along with the instruments, words along with the numbers, someone to tell them that the situation was nominal, that everything was under control?
Do they really, I wonder, trust Adam to tell them that?
And then I realize, with a chill, that they're taking my word that they can.
We'd been in the playroom at Holloman, watching the Sputnik-2 mission on TV. Adam's mission, MA-5, had been scrubbed again, this time less than twenty hours before liftoff, postponed for at least a month.
Officially the delay was to fix a possible design flaw in the gimbal system for the attitude jets, but all of us knew it was really a sop to the Russians. They were falling farther and farther behind in the space race, and Ike knew that embarrassing Khrushchev would only give ammunition to Stalin's holdouts. Adam's Atlas rocket was trucked slowly back to the vehicle assembly building, and he and I flew back here to New Mexico, while we waited for the Russians to launch their second test satellite.
The TV coverage of Sputnik-2 was mostly still pictures from Izvestiya, along with a few seconds of film, probably from some other launch, and a parade of NACA eggheads, most of whom I knew.
But now that it was all going wrong, Walter Cronkite was on as well. He wasn't Uncle Walter then, not yet, but since the '52 Democratic and Republican conventions, every TV viewer in America knew his face and voice, and even Adam was occasionally looking up from his blocks and his stuffed animals.
There was a knock at the glass wall of the playroom, and I looked up to see the Director himself, Bob Akers, on the other side of it.
"Bob," I said as I went to let him in. "I thought you were in Washington."
"Hello, Phil," said Akers. "I was. At the White House, actually." He looked up at the television. "The Russians can't get their dog back."
"I heard," I said. "We've been watching TV."
"We--?" He looked over at Adam, and smiled. "Right," he said.
"So what's the inside story?" I said.
Akers shrugged. "The heat shield story they're giving on TV is as good as any," he said. "No way the capsule can reenter without burning up. Our guys think she's got air for maybe a week -- ten days, tops."
I glanced up at the TV; they were showing pictures of the Russian wonder dog again. They said she was part Samoyed, but I couldn't see it. Maybe they'd shaved her coat. In those blurry pictures she looked skinny, with big floppy ears. She looked like the Jack Russell terrier Adam used to play with, back in the language program in Kentucky, back before he started training for space.
"Listen, Phil," Akers said. "The President wants NACA to mount a rescue mission. We've got MA-5; the team at the Cape says the launch could be moved up again."
I laughed. "You've got to be kidding," I said. "What are they going to do, try to cram a grown man into an acceleration couch built for a forty-pound chimpanzee?"
"Nope." Akers's eyes went again to Adam, who was watching the television intently. I suddenly had a terrible suspicion.
"No, Bob," I said.
"No!" I said. "Let the Russians save their own damn dog!" I glanced at Adam, who had left the toys and the television and gone over to his symbol translator.
"Phil," Akers said calmly, "you know their manned capsule program's at least two years behind ours. They've got no way to save her. None."
"You're not sending Adam up there," I said. "Period. You're not sending him with no tools, no training, no mission profile--"
"We'll have all that," Akers said. "As much as we can squeeze in, anyway. Look, you're always saying how smart your chimps are. Now's the time to put your money where your mouth is. He's got to go up sometime."
"He'll go up when he's goddamned ready, and he'll go on the mission he's been trained for."
"The President's on my ass, Phil," Akers said. "If you won't send Adam, we'll have to send Cal."
"Cal!" I said. "That's not even a joke, that's just nuts." In the background I heard the bing of Adam's symbol translator, but I ignored it.
"Look," Akers persisted, "I know you and Roper don't get along. But Roper's got Cal, and he's been training him for MA-6. If you won't agree to send Adam, who am I supposed to go to?"
I shook my head. "You're not going to get me that way," I said. "That poor bastard Cal couldn't puzzle his way out of a telephone booth, after six months of Roper's so-called training. Electric shocks and banana pellets, rote memorization -- you might as well send an empty rocket up and pretend it's a rescue mission, and you know it."
Adam was tugging on my pants leg. "Not now, Adam," I said.
"Phil--" Akers said.
"No, Bob. You want me to say no to the President for you, too?"
"Phil, you better look at what your chimp's doing." He pointed to the screen above Adam's symbol translator.
CAPSULE DOG HELP ADAM GOOD HELP DOG.
"Looks like we've got a volunteer," Akers said.
Adam grinned at me, and tugged his ears in embarrassment.
On the big board in Mission Control, the two lights are now perfectly synchronized. Adam has spent the last half hour maneuvering the Mercury in between Sputnik-2 and the sun, in an effort to keep the Russian capsule from overheating.
CAPSULE SEE DOG, says the symbol translator screen. GOOD DOG SEE.
"Good job, Adam," I say into the microphone, hoping it's true.
"How's the dog doing?" Akers says.
"I'll ask," says Lorentz. Joe Lorentz is Air Force, and an expert -- as close as we have to an expert -- on the Russian space program. In the last week he's gotten maybe ten hours of sleep; the rest of the time he's been in meetings and on conference calls with the Russian engineers, our engineers, interpreters -- maybe the CIA and the KGB, too, for all I know.
If Lorentz were one of my chimps I'd probably have sedated him by now. He looks that bad.
But then, so do the rest of us.
"The Russians say she's fine," Lorentz says, after a lengthy spell on the telephone.
It's frustrating, trying to tell from Mission Control what's going on hundreds of miles over our heads. There are no TV cameras up there; all we've got is the telemetry, ours and the Russians', and Adam; and Adam's vocabulary just isn't large enough to be much help. ADAM GET DOG is about as far as it goes, and even then it's only blind chance when he gets the word order right.
"Are we close enough?" I say to Flynn.
He shrugs, and waves a hand at the symbol translator screen, which still reads GOOD DOG SEE.
"We've got no radar up there," he says. "No cameras. We'll have to take Adam's word for it."
"How's he going to get her across?" I said. We were looking down into twenty feet of water. It was less than a day after Akers had shown up at Holloman, and already they had Adam down in the neutral buoyancy tank, in a weighted, radio-equipped dry suit pressurized to two atmospheres. There were two frogmen down there as well, and two life-sized sheet-aluminum capsule mockups, the flattened cone shape of a Mercury and the longer, skinnier, lumpier cone of Sputnik-2.
The screen on Adam's control station was blank; he hadn't said anything since we put him in the water. I couldn't tell if he was concentrating or just confused.
God help the frogmen if he panics, I thought.
Akers hadn't answered. I repeated my question. "How's he going to get her across?"
"What?" Akers said.
"The dog," I said. "How's he going to get the dog across? There's no air. Does the dog have a flight suit?" Into the microphone, I said: "Adam, open the hatch now."
Akers looked blank. "I don't know," he said.
"No," said Lorentz. "The dog doesn't have a suit. There's some kind of pressurized can. It's part of the mockup."
"Look," Flynn said. "There he goes."
"If Adam cuts into that can, you haven't got a dog," I said. "You've got dog food."
I looked down; Adam had opened his hatch, and was hammering on the side of the mock-Sputnik with a crowbar, gripping the capsule with his feet. A tether like a thick umbilical cord, medical telemetry and air supply, trailed back to the mock-Mercury.
"The can's small," Lorentz said. "Less than three feet across. McDonnell's modified the real capsule to use the Gemini hatch. He should be able to bring the whole thing back."
"Should be able to?" I said.
Lorentz grimaced. "We don't have a blueprint for the can," he said, "or, for that matter, for Sputnik-2. We've just got the approximate dimensions. The Russian telemetry says pressure in the can's down a hundred millibars. It might be a leak that's plugged itself, or it might be that the can's expanded since it was launched."
"Then there's Adam's suit," Flynn said. "We've got an extravehicular activity design on the boards for Gemini, but what Adam's got is just an ordinary flight suit. Once he opens the Mercury's hatch, it's going to blow up like a balloon."
"Great," I said.
"It'll be touch and go," said Lorentz.
Adam had worked the crowbar in under a body panel. He yanked on the free end. An adult chimpanzee is three times stronger than a man. First the panel bent, and then bolts were popping out, and then the panel came completely loose, falling slowly to the bottom of the tank.
"Does he understand what he's doing?" Flynn said. "Does he know this is just practice?"
"Phil would say so," Akers said. "Wouldn't you, Phil?"
I didn't say anything.
Adam let the tethered crowbar drop, and tapped at the symbol panel on the belly of his dry suit.
OPEN ADAM CAPSULE FAKE DOG GET FAKE, said Adam's screen. In the tank, he turned and looked up at us, and I could see his grin through the diving mask.
"Attaboy," I said into the mike.
"I guess he does know," Flynn said.
"That's quite an astronaut you've got there," Flynn says to me quietly. "A real pro."
"Thanks," I tell him. I want to believe that's the truth. I've staked my whole career on that being the truth. But now that it's being put to the test, all the doubts are coming back.
Someone comes around with coffee and sandwiches. The sandwiches are bologna, margarine, and mayonnaise on cardboard-dry Wonder Bread, and the coffee tastes like gunpowder cut with iron filings. I wolf it down all the same.
I tell myself that Adam's not doing too badly. He's got Eden 7's hatch open; and according to the Russians, he's got Sputnik-2 pretty well in pieces. He's taken out the can with the dog in it -- or at least disconnected it from the Sputnik's radio, because the Russians aren't getting the dog's medical telemetry any more.
Adam seems calmer than I am; his heart rate and blood pressure are fine, much better than the last numbers posted by the Russian dog.
More words appear on the screen: DOG ADAM PUT CAPSULE.
I hope so. I'm trying not to think about Lorentz and Flynn's touch and go.
"Go get her, Adam," I tell him.
"Dr. Akers," said a TV reporter. "What do you say to the charge that this is all a waste of money?"
Adam's Atlas was back on the launch pad, and I was back in Houston. I'd wanted to be there at the Cape, but I couldn't really be with Adam there anyway, and I needed to be here even to talk to him. Unfortunately, that also meant participating in Akers's last-minute press conference.
"I don't think it's a waste of money," Akers said. "The President doesn't think it's a waste of money."
"But, Dr. Akers," the reporter said. "People are saying it's a lost cause; that we're spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money, just to end up with a dead monkey and a dead dog."
"You wouldn't be asking that if it was a man up there, would you, son?" Akers said.
"But it's not a man up there," said the reporter.
"Son--" Akers began, and stopped. "Is this going out live?" he said.
"Son," said Akers, "have you ever owned a dog?"
"No, sir," the reporter said.
"Then shut up," Akers said. "Next question, please?"
I was still working at Yale when I came up with the idea for the symbol translator, still working under Roper. There was -- I thought -- plenty of evidence that apes could understand human speech, up to a point anyway; but all attempts to teach them to speak themselves had foundered on the inadequacies of their vocal apparatus. What they needed, I thought, was some way to communicate without speech.
Roper didn't buy it. Communication requires language, he said, language requires thought, and apes don't think. Only humans think. Apes might be faster than rats, say, or pigeons, at picking up the tricks we taught them, but that didn't mean what they were doing was thinking. Stop anthropomorphizing, he told me, and reassigned me to a part of the program where I wouldn't be in direct contact with the apes. When I was ready to stop being a romantic and start being a scientist, he said, he'd let me back in.
I didn't wait around for that, though. As soon as I found out the University of Kentucky had a federal grant to start a primate communication research program, I jumped ship.
My first idea was sign language, but the Kentucky grant was for the Army, and it required that the apes be able to communicate by radio. When I got to Lexington, they were thinking about Morse code, and -- as I could have told them -- getting nowhere. Chimps weren't very interested in anything that required mathematics, or counting; but they were brilliant when it came to shapes and colors.
So I developed the symbol translator. It had a vocabulary of about two hundred ideograms, mostly simple nouns and verbs like PERSON, FRUIT, EAT, PLAY -- and, in the case of Adam and the other chimps we were training for the space program, CAPSULE. The ideograms were constructed on the Chinese model, though drastically simplified: six radicals, each of which could appear either on the left or on the top, and eighteen other glyphs that combined with the radicals to produce the final symbols. With two fat bars for CLEAR and SEND, we had a keyboard small enough to hold in one hand, even with keys big enough for gloved ape fingers (or toes) to press.
It worked . . . well enough. Adam was the most articulate of our chimps; he knew and used most of the symbols, never seemed to get a symbol wrong, and even, sometimes, seemed to be trying to make up his own compounds, like HAIR FRUIT for coconut. But even Adam's utterances didn't conform to any rules of word order or syntax, which was enough to keep the MIT grammarians from accepting them as language, and Roper from even accepting them as communication.
Sometimes I had a hard time accepting them myself.
Another reporter stood up, one of the newspaper men. "I have a question for Dr. Schulman," he said.
"Go ahead," I said.
"Does the chimpanzee--" the reporter began.
"Adam," I said.
"Does Adam understand what he's doing?" said the reporter. "Or is he just repeating something he's memorized, like a dog doing tricks? I mean, everyone knows apes can't really think."
"Where'd you get that idea?" I said.
"Well," said the reporter, looking uncomfortable, "my paper recently ran an interview with Dr. Theodore Roper of Yale--"
I interrupted him. "I consider Ted Roper a close personal friend," I lied, trying to keep my voice level. "But when it comes to primate cognition, he and his behaviorist friends couldn't find their asses with both hands." As the reporter turned red, I added: "You can quote me on that."
"All right," Akers said hurriedly. "I'm afraid that's all we have time for, gentlemen; we have a rocket to launch."
ADAM HATCH BAD HATCH DOG CAPSULE CLOSE, reads the screen.
"What the hell does that mean?" says Akers.
I have a bad feeling that I know. I don't smoke much, as a rule -- the chimps don't like it -- but I started chain-smoking two or three hours ago, along with everyone else. Outside it's gone noon, but in Mission Control it's still the same air-conditioned, fluorescent night, and the air has a sticky feeling, a used feeling. It might be the accumulation of stale sweat; it might be the cigarette smoke, or the ubiquitous cups of boiled coffee, many of them gone cold.
CAPSULE ADAM GO DOG.
"Adam," I say into the microphone, "is the dog in the capsule?"
DOG GOOD. BAD ADAM DOG HATCH.
Flynn is watching the telemetry screen. Lorentz has a slide rule out, and a pad of paper, and a schematic of Eden 7. He knows what Adam means, too.
"The acc couch is the bastard," Lorentz mutters. "He's got to squeeze past the can to get into it, but then how's he going to close the hatch?"
I'm trying not to listen. "Adam," I say, "are you in the capsule?"
No response. I try again.
DOG HATCH ADAM CLOSE.
"Telemetry shows the hatch is still open," Flynn says.
"Adam," I say, "you have to close the hatch."
Lorentz puts down his slide rule, takes off his glasses, and rubs his eyes.
"Last telemetry we had from Sputnik," he says to Akers, "that dog wasn't looking so good. If we don't get her down on this orbit, we may not get her down at all."
HATCH GO DOG ADAM CAPSULE GOOD.
Does Adam understand what he's doing, what he needs to do? That's the problem with animals, even the ones like Adam that can almost talk. You never know what they're thinking and feeling; you never know if they're thinking and feeling at all, or if they're just doing a clever imitation of it, to please you.
But then, maybe that's the problem with people, too.
I look at Flynn.
"Hatch is still open," he says.
"Adam," I say, "go to the dog. Go into the capsule and close the hatch."
CLOSE ADAM DOG CAPSULE HATCH DOG.
Akers stubs out his cigarette. "Christ, Phil," he says, "what's your monkey doing? That's just gibberish--"
"Shut up!" I say. And into the microphone: "Adam, you get in that capsule and you close that hatch, do you hear?"
HEAR GOOD PHIL.
"Hatch is still open," Flynn drones. Then: "Jesus!" he says. "I'm losing Adam's medical telemetry. He must be pulling out his tether."
GOOD DOG, says the screen. GOOD PHIL.
"Adam!" I yell. "Put the tether back! Get into the capsule!"
"No good," says Flynn. "We've lost him completely. Medical, communications, the works."
Maybe the tether was tangled, I think. Maybe he had to pull it loose to get into his couch. Maybe it's still plugged in, and it's just a problem with the electronics.
But I can't make myself believe it.
"Hatch closed," says Flynn. "That's it."
Lorentz turns to Akers. "Sir, if they're going to make it on this orbit we need to start the burn now."
"Do it," Akers says.
I grab his arm. "Bob, no!"
He shrugs me off angrily. "Phil," he says sharply, "either your monkey is in that capsule or he isn't! If he isn't, he's dead already, do you hear me? -- Flynn, I said do it."
"Start the burn," Flynn tells the techs.
I still have the picture that Life photographer took, on the deck of the Valley Forge, when they got Eden 7's hatch open and the Navy pried the top off that Russian can. Little Laika, looking wide-eyed and pathetic, upside-down in her big padded harness. The photographer was good; you can't see that she's covered in her own urine and vomit.
He said it was worth the smell, though, when she wagged her tail, and tried to lick his hand.
I don't know about that.
Chimps have walked on the moon, now, and dogs, too -- the Russians are stubborn about their furry cosmonauts, even after seeing the advantage of having not just two but four opposable thumbs. I'm not a dog person, but I still treasure that film of Bondarenko and Chaffee, playing "fetch" with Mushka in the Fra Mauro, with the Earth rising over their LEM. But Adam is still their patron saint; the first chimpanzee in orbit, the first primate, human or chimp, ever to make a solo EVA -- the first to die to save the life of a comrade in space.
I still wonder what Adam was thinking, those last few minutes; even more, I wonder what he was feeling. Do animals feel compassion, or courage, or fear, or love? Maybe Adam was brave; maybe he understood what he was doing; maybe he, like the photographer, thought one lost dog was worth the trouble. Or maybe he was just alone, and scared, and tired; maybe after all the work he'd done already, he just couldn't face the effort it would take to get Laika's can back out of the capsule. Or maybe -- and this is the one that keeps me awake at night -- he didn't understand; maybe he was just trying to do what we told him, trying to make us happy.
Trying to make me happy.
There's a tree planted for Adam in Baikonur, on that walk where the Russians plant trees for all their cosmonauts, living and dead. So far Adam is the only NACA astronaut on the row, though I don't think he'll be the last. I've been out there once or twice. It's very peaceful. Laika's been known to mark Gagarin's tree, or Leonov's, on some of our walks, but never Adam's; she only stops sometimes, and sniffs at the plaque with Adam's name on it, and then moves on.
Copyright © 2003 David Moles
David Moles has lived in six time zones on three continents and hopes some day to collect the whole set. His work has appeared or will shortly appear in Century, Polyphony, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. His favorite color is blue and his favorite heresy is antinomianism. For more about him, see his website.