Space Exploration and the Urban Heartbeat

The Science Museum is currently running an exhibition entitled ‘Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age’, examining the historic firsts behind Russia’s Space Programme of the 50s and 60s. The striking blue and orange posters in the underground stations got me thinking about the role of the city in the representation of Soviet space exploration and of a passage from one children’s book in particular: Tyapka, Borka and the Rocket (1962). The book is about the 1957 flight of Laika – the first dog, indeed, the first living being, ever to make an orbital flight of the Earth.
The following passage from the book is particularly striking:

Laika, sweet loyal Laika, how happy have you made the scientists all around the world. The faint beating of your heart, fluttering from a thousand–kilometre altitude, to them has drowned out all other sounds.
And on a paper tape, data-recorders traced a pattern that looked like a city sky-line, with peaks like the steeples of high-rise buildings.
It was beating, beating, beating – the beating heart of a living space passenger. [1]

On the one hand this representation of Laika’s space journey is true to fact. The scientists of the Soviet Space Programme really were focused on the animal’s vitals, purely because they wanted to make sure that life could survive the significant stresses and strains of space flight. On the other hand the passage goes beyond mere description. The language and imagery are tinged with ideological symbolism. In the context of the Soviet Space story, this literary image of the cardio-city symbolizes scientific progress and raises space travel and the urban to the status of religion. The authors of this text have made the city corporeal by placing it into the body of a sentient being. Interestingly, by referring to the ‘steeples’ of high-rise buildings, they have also linguistically linked the image of a space-travelling dog to the church. The language used makes space travel almost sacred: Soviet Russia is reaching into the heavens and has created an alternative religion with new icons. Laika – both in the passage above and later when her image became so ubiquitous it could be found on cigarette packets, postage stamps, and children’s toys not only in Russia, but also around the world – is one such icon. Laika’s heartbeat fills the audio-visual world of the passage. Usually a symbol of domesticity, here the dog is metaphorically and literally raised up into the heavens – so much so that she takes on an almost sacred role. The story was written after Laika’s flight, when it was known that she had died in space. As the story unfolds, Laika is seen as a heroic being, a martyr to scientific progress. This city, drummed out by the heartbeat of this martyr thus becomes a kind of Holy Ghost for the Space Age. The city is, quite literally, at the heart of Soviet space exploration. Laika carries civilisation, for which the city is a metonymy, into the unexplored region of space.
Soviet ideology was, from its inception, an ideology based on urban expansion and progress and so this image is not surprising. Yet, while undoubtedly ideologically motivated, this notion of a connection between the city and the heart is not altogether far-fetched and invites us to theorize the city in an interesting and unusual way. It is possible to invert the Soviet image and read the city skyline as a visualisation of the heartbeat of a city: peaks and troughs making up an urban organism’s cardiogram. Skylines can be built up in moments of financial and technological boom; they can also be torn down – dramatically changed by architectural design, changing tastes, and occasionally cataclysmically by moments of violent rupture or seismic motion. Earth’s cities as organisms are constantly growing and dying, changing and evolving. And their skylines can be theorized as an indication of health, an urban ECG.  While cities full of skyscrapers are not necessarily healthy cities, it could be argued that the kind of urban growth associated with the building of high-rises can be linked to a certain kind of economic prosperity.
Furthermore, as we have seen elsewhere in this blog, modern urban spaces are replete with signs: advertising billboards, road-markings, or traffic symbols. Skylines are thus the ultimate expression of the city as they are a conflation of the city and the sign. Just as a cardiograph writes a heartbeat by scratching out a thin line of ink, a city skyline is text, urban writing. It is graphic shorthand for a geography, an iconic signature: permanent and visually distinct, yet as ephemeral and changing as the beating of any heart.

[1] Translation appears in Turkina, Olesya, Soviet Space Dogs, Fuel Publishing, 2014, Translated by Inna Cannon, Lisa Wasserman.

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