Amid the Cold War‘s heated rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, an extraordinary tale unfolded outside of the spotlight of politics, warfare, and ideology.
It took place hundreds of kilometers above the Earth’s surface.
This is the captivating story of Laika. She was an ordinary stray dog plucked from the streets of Moscow and propelled into the cosmos, forever etching a place in history.
Laika had a spirit and bravery uncommon even among humans. She was the first dog to venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere and would do so years before the first human would accomplish the same feat.
The captivating history of this intrepid canine cosmonaut, while extraordinary and exciting, also forces us to grapple with difficult questions: What motivated the Soviet Union to send a dog into outer space in the first place?
What were the ethics of such an audacious decision? And, in the end, what was the true cost of Laika’s pioneering journey and ultimate sacrifice?
Either way, the extraordinary tale of Laika, the trailblazing astronaut of the animal kingdom, is certainly one for the ages.
The Decision to Send a Dog Into Orbit
Following the success of Sputnik 1 in October 1957, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution by launching a new spacecraft on November 7, 1957.
The Soviet space program was tasked with expediting the development of a mission that would replicate the triumph of Sputnik 1 – an orbital flight featuring a canine passenger.
But why space dogs? In their pursuit to eventually send a human to space, the Soviets had long planned to first test with another living animal. To them, a dog was the natural candidate. They had even already done so with suborbital ballistic flights.
Therefore, the decision was made to send a canine astronaut named Laika into the cosmos.
Laika was a small, calm-mannered mixed-breed dog of around two years old. She was among several stray dogs rescued from the streets and enlisted in the Soviet spaceflight program.
With less than four weeks to design and construct the spacecraft, Sputnik 2 became a rushed project. To ensure Laika’s survival, a life-support system consisting of an oxygen generator and carbon dioxide absorption devices was implemented.
Other mechanisms were also in place to prevent oxygen poisoning, regulate cabin temperature, and provide Laika with gelatinous food for the anticipated seven-day flight.
Laika was fitted with a waste collection bag, a harness, and chains to restrict her movements to standing, sitting, or lying down. The cabin lacked space for turning around.
Various instruments, including an electrocardiogram, were set to closely monitor her vital signs and physiological responses throughout the mission.
Amidst tight deadlines and the pressure to meet Khrushchev’s demands, the Soviet engineers embarked on the mission to send Laika to space.
First, Laika needed to be trained. In preparation for her historic journey, Laika needed to adapt to the unique challenges she would face aboard Sputnik 2.
Soviet scientists believed that Moscow strays were accustomed to enduring extreme cold and hunger. Therefore, they would already possess most of the resilience needed for such a mission.
Leading Soviet space-life scientists, Vladimir Yazdovsky and Oleg Gazenko, undertook the training of the three dogs chosen for the Sputnik 2 flight, including Laika.
To prepare them for the cramped quarters of the spacecraft, the dogs were progressively confined to smaller cages for up to twenty days. Extensive exposure to centrifuges simulating rocket acceleration and spacecraft noises was also crucial training.
They were also taught to consume a special high-nutrition gel that would serve as their food in the weightless environment of space.
During the training period, one of the Soviet space mission scientists even took Laika home to spend time playing with his children. This was an act of kindness towards the canine astronaut.
Sadly, as he knew, Laika’s mission would also be her final hours.
The Mission: Sputnik 2
Laika’s historic voyage aboard Sputnik 2 began early in the morning on November 3, 1957.
During liftoff, Laika’s respiration increased significantly. Her heart rate spiked from 103 beats per minute to a whopping 240.
Once in orbit, the successful separation of Sputnik 2’s nose cone was overshadowed by the failure of the “Block A” core to separate. This led to a malfunction in the thermal control system.
The resulting tear in the thermal insulation caused the cabin temperature to rise to a scorching 40 °C (104 °F).
After three hours of weightlessness, Laika’s pulse rate finally subsided. This took three times longer than during tests, which was an indication of her immense stress.
Regrettably, after approximately five to seven hours into the flight, communication with the spacecraft ceased. No further signs of life were received.
While the exact situation remained clouded in controversy for many years, it is almost certain that Laika met her end shortly thereafter.
After years of dishonesty – the Soviet government initially claimed Laika had been euthanized to avoid a painful end. In 2002, it was revealed by Dimitri Malashenkov, a scientist involved in the Sputnik 2 mission, that Laika had succumbed to overheating during the fourth orbit.
Tragically, over five months later, on April 14, 1958, Sputnik 2, along with Laika’s remains, disintegrated during re-entry.
Laika’s journey into space marked a significant milestone in space exploration. It demonstrated the capability of sending a living being into orbit.
But it was also marked by the tragedy of Laika’s death. Still, her sacrifice paved the way for future advancements and a deeper understanding of the challenges and risks associated with space travel.
Laika’s tragic fate remains a poignant reminder of the sacrifices involved in early space exploration. She is memorialized with a statue and plaque at the Russian Cosmonaut training facility, Star City.
She was sent into space without the possibility of return. She endured physical and psychological stresses beyond comprehension.
The decision to use Laika and other animals in these pioneering missions raises complex ethical questions about the treatment of animals in the name of science. While her mission provided valuable data for human space travel, it came at a cost – one worth remembering.
Ultimately, the history of Laika, the space dog, is one we – as individuals and as humanity – will never forget.
George, Alice. “The Sad, Sad Story of Laika, the Space Dog, and Her One-Way Trip into Orbit.” Smithsonian.com, April 11, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/sad-story-laika-space-dog-and-her-one-way-trip-orbit-1-180968728/.
Lewis, Robert. “Laika.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed June 28, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Laika.
Wellerstein, Alex. “Remembering Laika, Space Dog and Soviet Hero.” The New Yorker, November 3, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/remembering-laika-space-dog-and-soviet-hero.