A stray Moscow pup traveled into orbit in April 1957 (63 years ago) with
one meal and only a seven-day oxygen supply
With a pounding heart and rapid breath, Laika rode a rocket into Earth orbit,2,000 miles above Moscow streets she knew. Overheated, cramped, frightened,and probably hungry, the space dog gave her life for her country,involuntarily fulfilling a canine suicide mission.
Sad as this tale is, the stray husky-spitz mix became a part of history as thefirst living creature to orbit the Earth. Over the decades, the petite pioneerhas repeatedly found new life in popular culture long after her death and thefiery demise of her Soviet ship, Sputnik 2 , which smashed into the Earth’satmosphere 60 years ago this month.
Soviet engineers planned Sputnik 2 hastily after Premier Nikita Khrushchevrequested a flight to coincide with November 7, 1957, the 40th anniversary ofRussia’s Bolshevik Revolution. Using what they had learned from the unmannedand undogged Sputnik 1 and often working without blueprints, teams laboredquickly to build a ship that included a pressurized compartment for a flyingdog. Sputnik 1 had made history, becoming the first man-made object in Earthorbit October 4, 1957. Sputnik 2 would go into orbit with the final stage ofthe rocket attached, and engineers believed the ship’s 1,120-pound payload,six times as heavy as Sputnik 1 , could be kept within limits by feeding itspassenger only once.
They expected Laika to die from oxygen deprivation—a painless death within 15seconds—after seven days in space. Cathleen Lewis, the curator ofinternational space programs and spacesuits at the Smithsonian’s National Airand Space Museum doubts that a few ounces of food would have made adifference, and she recalls reports that a female physician broke protocol byfeeding Laika before liftoff.
The Soviet canine recruiters began their quest with a herd of female straydogs because females were smaller and apparently more docile. Initial testsdetermined obedience and passivity. Eventually, canine finalists lived in tinypressurized capsules for days and then weeks at a time. The doctors alsochecked their reactions to changes in air pressure and to loud noises thatwould accompany liftoff. Testers fitted candidates with a sanitation deviceconnected to the pelvic area. The dogs did not like the devices, and to avoidusing them, some retained bodily waste, even after consuming laxatives.However, some adapted.
Eventually, the team chose the placid Kudryavka (Little Curly) as Sputnik2’s dog cosmonaut and Albina (White) as backup. Introduced to the public viaradio, Kudryavka barked and later became known as Laika, “barker” in Russian.Rumors emerged that Albina had out-performed Laika, but because she hadrecently given birth to puppies and because she had apparently won theaffections of her keepers, Albina did not face a fatal flight. Doctorsperformed surgery on both dogs, embedding medical devices in their bodies tomonitor heart impulses, breathing rates, blood pressure and physical movement.
Soviet physicians chose Laika to die, but they were not entirely heartless.One of her keepers, Vladimir Yazdovsky, took 3-year-old Laika to his homeshortly before the flight because “I wanted to do something nice for the dog,”he later recalled.
Three days before the scheduled liftoff, Laika entered her constricted travelspace that allowed for only a few inches of movement. Newly cleaned, armedwith sensors, and fitted with a sanitation device, she wore a spacesuit withmetal restraints built-in. On November 3 at 5:30 a.m., the ship lifted offwith G-forces reaching five times normal gravity levels.
The noises and pressures of flight terrified Laika: Her heartbeat rocketed totriple the normal rate, and her breath rate quadrupled. The National Air andSpace Museum holds declassified printouts showing Laika’s respiration duringthe flight. She reached orbit alive, circling the Earth in about 103 minutes.Unfortunately, loss of the heat shield made the temperature in the capsulerise unexpectedly, taking its toll on Laika. She died “soon after launch,”Russian medical doctor and space dog trainer Oleg Gazenko revealed in 1993.“The temperature inside the spacecraft after the fourth orbit registered over90 degrees,” Lewis says. “There’s really no expectation that she made itbeyond an orbit or two after that.” Without its passenger, Sputnik 2continued to orbit for five months.
During and after the flight, the Soviet Union kept up the fiction that Laikasurvived for several days. “The official documents were falsified,” Lewissays. Soviet broadcasts claimed that Laika was alive until November 12. TheNew York Times even reported that she might be saved; however, Sovietcommuniqués made it clear after nine days that Laika had died.
While concerns about animal rights had not reached early 21st century levels,some protested the deliberate decision to let Laika die because the SovietUnion lacked the technology to return her safely to Earth. In Great Britain,where opposition to hunting was growing, the Royal Society for the Preventionof Cruelty to Animals and the British Society for Happy Dogs opposed thelaunch. A pack of dog lovers attached protest signs to their pets and marchedoutside the United Nations in New York. “The more time passes, the more I’msorry about it,” said Gazenko more than 30 years later.
The humane use of animal testing spaceflight was essential to preparation formanned spaceflight, Lewis believes. “There were things that we could notdetermine by the limits of human experience in high altitude flight,” Lewissays. Scientists “really didn’t know how disorienting spaceflight would be onthe humans or whether an astronaut or cosmonaut could continue to functionrationally.”
Alas, for Laika, even if everything had worked perfectly, and if she had beenlucky enough to have plenty of food, water and oxygen, she would have diedwhen the spaceship re-entered the atmosphere after 2,570 orbits. Ironically, aflight that promised Laika’s certain death also offered proof that space waslivable.
The story of Laika lives on today in websites, YouTube videos, poems andchildren’s books, at least one of which provides a happy ending for the doomeddog. Laika’s cultural impact has been spread across the years since her death.The Portland, Oregon, Art Museum is currently featuring an exhibition on thestop-motion animation studio LAIKA, which was named after the dog. The show“Animating Life” is on view through May 20, 2018. There is also a “veganlifestyle and animal rights magazine” called LAIKA Magazine , published inthe United States.
The 1985 Swedish film, My Life as a Dog , portrayed a young man’s fears thatLaika had starved. Several folk and rock singers around the globe havededicated songs to her. An English indie-pop group took her name, and aFinnish band called itself Laika and the Cosmonauts. Novelists Victor Pelevinof Russia, Haruki Murakami of Japan, and Jeannette Winterson of Great Britainhave featured Laika in books, as has British graphic novelist Nick Abadzis.
In 2015, Russia unveiled a new memorial statue of Laika atop a rocket at aMoscow military research facility, and when the nation honored fallencosmonauts in 1997 with a statue at the Institute of Biomedical Problems inStar City, Moscow, Laika’s image could be seen in one corner. During the MarsExploration Rover Opportunity mission in March 2005, NASA unofficially named aspot within a Martian crater “Laika.”
Space dog biographer Amy Nelson compares Laika to other animal celebritieslike the Barnum and Bailey Circus’s late 19th-century elephant Jumbo andchampion thoroughbred racehorse Seabiscuit, who lifted American spirits duringthe Great Depression. She argues in Beastly Natures: Animals, Humans and theStudy of History that the Soviet Union transformed Laika into “an enduringsymbol of sacrifice and human achievement.”
Soon after the flight, the Soviet mint created an enamel pin to celebrate “TheFirst Passenger in Space.” Soviet allies, such as Romania, Albania, Poland andNorth Korea, issued Laika stamps over the years between 1957 and 1987.
Laika was not the first space dog: Some had soared in the Soviet military’ssub-orbital rocket tests of updated German V-2 rockets after World War II, andthey had returned to Earth via parachuted craft—alive or dead. She also wouldnot be the last dog to take flight. Others returned from orbit alive. Afterthe successful 1960 joint flight of Strelka and Belka, Strelka later producedpuppies, and Khrushchev gave one to President John F. Kennedy.
During the days before manned flight, the United States primarily looked tomembers of the ape family as test subjects. The reason for the Soviet choiceof dogs over apes is unclear except perhaps that Ivan Pavlov’s pioneering workon dog physiology in the late 19th and early 20th century may have provided astrong background for the use of canines, Lewis says. Also, stray dogs wereplentiful in the streets of the Soviet Union—easy to find and unlikely to bemissed.
According to Animals In Space by Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs, the SovietUnion launched dogs into flight 71 times between 1951 and 1966, with 17deaths. The Russian space program continues to use animals in space tests, butin every case except Laika’s, there has been some hope that the animal wouldsurvive.
Source:Alice George smithsonianmag.com
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