The space race was on during the 1950’s and 60’s between the Soviet Union and the United States. It was a time of intense competition as each superpower tried to become the first to achieve spaceflight. Both the Soviet space program and NASA, conducted many tests involving animals before sending crewed missions.
One of those animals was Laika, the Soviet street dog and the first living being ever to orbit earth back in 1957.
Before Laika was sent to orbit earth, there were suborbital flights in the early 50’s.The first dogs to make the sub-orbital flight were Dezik and Tsygan, who both launched aboard an R-1 rocket in 1951.The mission flew to a maximum altitude of 110 km, and both dogs were recovered unharmed.
Unlike these previous missions where dogs were sent into suborbit, Laika’s death was anticipated in advance. Her fateful story is also the story of many animals that died while being used as scientific experiments.
Scientists expected Laika to survive for a full ten days, but she died between five and seven hours into the flight. And even though she managed one or two orbits only, Sputnik 2 continued to orbit for five months with her dead body inside.
Many decades after Laika was sent to her death aboard the Sputnik 2, evidence revealed that she didn’t have the painless death that was initially revealed to the public.The dog died while in orbit due to her oxygen supply running out.
The evidence also showed that the Laika died not only of extreme temperatures in the constricted space within the capsule that allowed for little movement- loss of the heat shield made the temperature in the capsule rise unexpectedly- but also because she felt terrified by the noises and pressures of the flight. As a result her heartbeat was three times the normal rate, and her breath rate quadrupled.
Even at the time, when animal rights were still in their infancy, there were protests against the decision to let Laika die deliberately. Back then, the Soviet Union did not have the technology to return the dog safely to Earth. Paradoxically, the flight that killed Laika was also the flight that proved that space was liveable. Hence, the Soviet Union transformed Laika into a symbol of sacrifice and achievement.
Before Laika was sent to die in space, the Soviets had sent the first man-made object to Earth orbit successfully in October 4, 1957, the Sputnik 1. Soon afterwards, and using the lessons learned for the Sputnik 1, a team of Soviet engineers built a ship that included a pressurised compartment for a flying dog.
It was the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, the one who requested a space flight to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, on November 1957.
From Laika’s mission, scientists learned a lot about the behaviour of organisms during space flight, though whether what was learned justified the awful death of the adorable dog, it is still debatable. Majority argue that the use of animal testing was essential to preparation for manned spaceflights. Scientists didn’t know how an astronaut could function rationally while in space.
Laika would not be the last dog to fly, others had better luck and returned from orbit alive. The next dogs to go into space were Belka (“Squirrel”) and Strelka (“Little Arrow”) aboard the Sputnik-5 mission that took place in 1960.
Belka and Strelka were accompanied by a rabbit, mice, rats, flies, and several plants. They all spent a day in orbit before returning safely to Earth.
After the flight, Strelka gave birth to six puppies, one of which, Pushinka, was gifted to President John F. Kennedy by Nikita Khrushchev in 1961.The stray dogs recruited to go into space from the streets of the Soviet Union were mainly female dogs as they were smaller and more docile.
Once recruited, these dogs went through a very gruelling and pretty cruel training. The training involved living in very small pressurised capsules for weeks at a time, being confined in small boxes of decreasing size for periods of two weeks, or being made to ride in centrifuges that simulated the high acceleration experienced during launch.The ones that performed the best, were the ones who eventually made the space flight.
Four years after Laika’s death in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to go into space. He could have never achieved that, had it not been for Laika and all the stray dogs from the streets of Moscow that paved the way for “manned” spaceflights.