Heroes of Space: Laika the space dog

How one dog went from being a stray on the streets of Moscow to the first animal to orbit the Earth

Laika had several nicknames before they settled on her name. The American press called her ‘Muttnik’

Laika had several nicknames before they settled on her name. The American press called her ‘Muttnik’. Image credit: NASA

The year was 1957 and the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States was just starting to gain speed. After the success of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was keen to instate Soviet domination of space. The 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on 7 November provided the perfect opportunity for another successful Soviet launch, and Khrushchev demanded a “space spectacular” to stun the world. It came in the most unlikely of packages – a three-year-old dog named Laika.

Laika had spent her life as a stray on the streets of Moscow, and stray dogs had already been adopted by the space mission due to their ‘scrappy’ natures and ability to withstand extreme temperatures and hunger. Laika stood out from other dogs as she had a calm temperament and small size, weighing about five kilograms (11 pounds). Vladimir Yazdovsky, who prepared Laika for her flight, described her as “quiet and charming.”

Laika was not the first dog that was to be sent into the sky, both the US and the Soviet Union had sent animals into sub-orbital flight, and two other dogs – Mushka and Albina were also trained for the Sputnik 2 launch. Laika and the other dogs embarked on an intensive period of training before the much-anticipated flight. Over their training they were enclosed in progressively smaller cages to prepare them for the confines of the spacecraft. Laika was trained to eat a special gel high in nutrition that would serve as her food during her flight and was also placed in machines that stimulated the noise and acceleration she would experience during launch.

The spacecraft itself was similarly prepared for its passenger. Although there were only four weeks to build the craft, it was fitted with a variety of devices to keep Laika alive. There was an oxygen generator to absorb carbon dioxide, a temperature-activated fan and it was stocked with enough gelatinous food to keep the dog alive for seven days.

Two other dogs - Mushka and Albina were also trained for the Sputnik 2 launch

Two other dogs – Mushka and Albina were also trained for the Sputnik 2 launch. Image credit: NASA

Laika was chosen, while Albina would be the backup and Mushka the control dog. All the animals were fitted with cables to monitor heart rate and blood pressure. However, nobody involved was under the impression that Laika would survive, as the technology to de-orbit had not yet been developed. Before she was placed in the spaceship Laika enjoyed her last day of freedom in the home of one of the scientists, who took her home to play with his children.

Laika was placed in the satellite on 31 October 1957 and was fitted with a harness and chains that would control her movement. While in Sputnik 2 Laika could stand, sit and lie down, she would be unable to turn around. In the early hours of 3 November liftoff finally occurred, but there were immediate problems. Laika’s heart rate jumped to 240 beats per minute, compared to 103 before launch, while her respiration was almost four times faster. Crucially, the Blok A core of Sputnik 2’s nose cone didn’t separate, which stopped the thermal control system operating properly, raising the temperature to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Although Laika’s pulse slowly returned to normal, after five to seven hours she was dead.

For years after there would be conflicting reports on the nature of Laika’s death. However, the truth eventually emerged – the fact that it had always been known that Laika would die on the flight sparked a wave of outrage among animal welfare groups. Although the ethical justification of the mission is still disputed today, Laika paved the way for human exploration of space.

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