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Laika, First Dog in Space

On October 4, 1957, the first manmade object was successfully launched into orbit.  It was Sputnik, the Soviet satellite.  Sputnik circled the earth in low orbit, giving off radio signals, beeping regularly for all its life.  Sputnik’s life was never expected to be very long, since it was battery powered, and there was no one in orbit to provide fresh batteries.  It kept beeping for about three weeks before it went silent.  Sputnik was a triumph for the Soviets in the Space Race, and a source of embarrassment for Americans, who couldn’t stand the thought of trailing the world’s foremost communist power in this contest.

Replica of Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite.

The Soviets had no intention of slowing down.  While Sputnik 1 was still beeping around the earth, Premier Nikita Khrushchev told Soviet scientists that he wanted to see Sputnik 2 up and operational in time for the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution.  This was a big ask, since the 40th anniversary fell on November 7, 1957—just 34 days after the launch of Sputnik 1.

Who are scientists to tell Khrushchev that this can’t be done?  They got right to work, but had to rush quite a bit.  In fact Soviet scientists had already been working on a more sophisticated satellite, but it wouldn’t be ready until December.  Khrushchev didn’t interfere with that—he just spurred the scientists to get another one out first.  The one they were working on was indeed launched in December as Sputnik 3. 

Regardless, Sputnik 2 was going to be something special.  Sputnik 1 had proven that a satellite was possible; now we had to show that there was a use for having them up there in the first place.  Sputnik 2 was equipped to measure cosmic rays and solar irradiation, gathering data for the scientists back on earth.  In addition, it was to have a small life support system, providing fresh oxygen, and a fan that would activate when the temperature got above 15ºC (59ºF).  Someone was going for a ride in space.

That someone was a dog.  Her name was Laika, a three-year-old stray picked up on the streets of Moscow.  Scientists felt that a Moscow stray would be a better subject, since they would have been used to extreme weather conditions (particularly cold) and hunger.  Laika’s ride would feature a week’s worth of gelatinous food for her to eat, and she’d be fitted with a bag to collect her waste.  There wasn’t much room on Sputnik 2 to move around, but to make sure she didn’t, she was held in place with chains.  An EKG was placed on her chest to monitor her heart rate.  Laika’s exact breed was never established.  The American press at the time dubbed her “Muttnik,” but today NASA describes her as “part Samoyed and possibly part terrier”.

Space dogs in training, 1957.

Laika wasn’t the only dog considered for the mission.  The scientists gathered a number of other strays and took them to the lab for training.  To get them used to the cramped environment of Sputnik 2, they put the dogs in smaller and smaller cages to see how they would handle it.  Some dogs got more and more nervous as the cages got smaller, and found it more difficult to defecate.  

In the end, the scientists selected three dogs for the experiment.  Laika would be the flight dog, the one who actually rode in the satellite.  Albina was selected as a backup for Laika, in case one was needed.  Mushka was the “control dog”, as they called her.  She would stay on the ground and test Sputnik 2’s instrumentation and life support, to mimic on earth what was happening on the satellite.

Sputnik 2 was finished in just a few weeks.  Laika was placed in the satellite’s capsule on October 31, 1957, just three days before the November 3 launch.  She was watched by space program personnel during this time, just to make sure everything was proceeding properly.  Laika was said to be a quiet, sweet-tempered dog who gave no one any trouble.  The night before she was placed in Sputnik 2, scientist Vladimir Yazdovsky took Laika home to play with her.  “I wanted to do something nice for her: she had so little time to live.”

Laika in the compartment that would later be placed on board Sputnik 2.

It’s true: no one expected Laika to come back from Sputnik 2 alive.  Soviet scientists had no way of assuring that any living creature reëntering the atmosphere could survive.  The plan was to euthanize Laika after her week in orbit with poisoned food, since she would otherwise starve to death by the time Sputnik 2 fell to earth the next year.  The launch went well enough, but plans to keep the compartment at a steady 15ºC did not go so well.  The heat control system did not operate anywhere nearly as well as planned.  The temperature soared to 40ºC (104ºF).  Laika’s heart rate soared, too, leaping from a normal 103 beats per minute to 240 beats per minute.  Hours after launch, her heart rate dropped back down to a more normal 102.  Equipment monitoring her vital signs showed that she was stressed, but was managing to eat.

Laika’s vital signs continued to report back to Moscow for about eight hours, when they completely stopped.  It was not clear exactly what had happened.  The official Soviet line for years was either that Laika was asphyxiated when the batteries for the oxygen system failed, or that the scientists had euthanized her, taking pity on her condition.  In 2002, Russian scientist Dimitri Malashenkov stated that Laika died when the cabin overheated after Sputnik 2’s fourth orbit around earth.  Due to the time constraints, Malashenkov said, it wasn’t possible to build a system that could regulate the internal temperature.  Sputnik 2 completed 2,570 orbits, finally disintegrating in the earth’s atmosphere, as planned, with Laika’s remains, on April 14, 1958.

Laika’s death, even though it didn’t occur the way the scientists had planned it to, still sparked worldwide discussion about the use of animals in scientific testing.  The controversy was not discussed as much in the Soviet Union, where criticism of any government action was forcefully discouraged.  This was the case throughout the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact nations, though there was one notable article written by a Polish scientist who dared to call Laika’s death “regrettable”, and criticized the Soviet scientists for not bringing the dog back to earth alive.  After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, Russian scientists who worked on Sputnik 2 also chimed in to express regret for having sent Laika up into space with no intention of bringing her back alive.

The Soviet Union sent more dogs into space.  Between 1957 and 1961, they placed at least thirteen dogs in rockets, all but two, who died in an explosion on the launchpad, made it into space.  The first dogs to be launched into space and make it back alive were Belka and Strelka, the passengers aboard Sputnik 5 in August, 1960.  After Strelka returned to earth, she had puppies, one of which was given as a gift to young Caroline Kennedy.

Soviet satellite states celebrated Laika’s voyage in many ways, including commemorative stamps.

The first human being launched into orbit was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961, whose successful trip was paved by all those dogs.  Today Laika is remembered in a number of monuments in Russia honoring the early days of the Soviet space program.

Monument to the Conquerors of Space, Moscow.  Note Laika in the her compartment in the middle.


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