60 years ago, a Soviet street dog was set off on a one-way journey around the Earth. Laika, one of Soviet space dogs became the first ever living creature to orbit our beloved planet. Scientists sent the stray dog on a doomed mission for the sake of the future travels. However, Laika the space dog- was never aware of her sacrifice for the greater cause.
“Laika’s portrait was published on the front pages of the main newspapers around the world,” Olesya Turkina, author of ‘Soviet Space Dogs,’.
“Countless postcards, cigarette packets – ‘Laika’ sweets, matchboxes, sweet boxes, stamps, pins, calendars all with Laika’s portrait were produced.”
“In the USSR, to commemorate her heroic death and to glorify her unwilling sacrifice for the sake of humanity, Laika become a hero of children’s fairy-tales dedicated to the Soviet Space Dogs.”
Soviet space dogs
Like all the Soviet space dogs, Laika was a stray dog, picked up on the streets of Moscow. Being a stray dog, couple with her photogenic appearances, Laika became the perfect candidate for the space mission.
“Her face, light in color, with dark brown spots and startled expression reproduced well in black and white photos and film,” Turkina said.
But, why have dogs been chosen as perfect candidates over other animals- likes of chimpanzees?
In 2015, Adilya Kotovskaya, one of the scientists involved in the 1957 mission stated that there were three primary reasons why dogs where their preferred candidates.
“Firstly, plain mutts were perfect for the mission. They had quite a difficult life: either [because of] cold or hunger. It means they are used to various environmental conditions. Secondly, dogs like us, humans are their owners. They are easily trained. Thirdly, the dogs’ physiology has been extensively studied since the times of Ivan Pavlov.”
Laika the space dog
Three dogs, Laika, Mushka, and Albina, were selected and trained for the space mission- which was meant to be a one-way trip- as tech had not yet been developed for a two-way trip.
The three dogs underwent grueling training for the historic space exploration. They dressed spacesuits, kept in smaller capsules with very little space to maneuver. As a result of the rigorous training process and probably because some of these scientists were dog lovers who knew that Laika would be sacrificing he life for the sake of space exploration, some scientists formed a strong bond with her.
“Before Laika’s flight, I started crying,” Kotovskaya said. “Everyone knew in advance that she would die, and we were asking her to forgive us.”
Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky, one of the scientists involved in the mission brought Laika to his home, a day before the lift-off. He had trained the dog and personally chose her for the mission.
The much expected take off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was to take place on 31st October. However, Laika was forced to wait for three days before Sputnik took off.
Even though the mission was never meant to be a return trip, it was hoped that Laika would survive for one week. At the time, the Soviets managed to convince the world that she died a pain death. However, it wasn’t until later that the truth was finally revealed.
After 5-7 hours after launch, no life signs were received and by the fourth orbit, it was clear that Laika was no more- she died from stress and overheating.
“The equipment did not allow [Laika] to come back from space at the time, and then the flight orbit changed, having taken the elliptic shape, and the rocket was in the sun more than planned,” explains Kotovskaya. “The module overheated, and Laika died within a day, although she was supposed to spend a week in space. Then the rocket went off the orbit and burnt in the atmosphere.”
Despite having survived for a few hours in the space, Laika is an icon of space travel.
“Laika’s flight proved that humans can be sent to space,” Turkina told RT.com. “She survived g-forces during the launch, entry to orbit, microgravity and had orbited the Earth multiple times.”
“Laika, like any other space dogs provided a context for sending a man into space. They say that [Yuri] Gagarin once joked that he does not know if he is the first man or the last dog in space.”