Just over a decade before Neil Armstrong delivered his iconic line about leaps and mankind, a grave responsibility was thrust on a three-year-old stray dog from Moscow. Russian astronauts named this mongrel Laika, and she would begin a perilous journey on November 3rd, 1957. Laika met a tragic end but left a significant legacy behind.
Laika wasn't the first animal in space, nor was she the first dog. She was the first living creature to make a circuit around the earth. The first animals to leave the confines of this world were fruit flies on a 1947 U.S. mission, and they made it back alive. A rhesus monkey named Albert II was the first mammal to exit the planet in 1949. And the first dogs in space were Tsygan and Dezik, who were on the same Soviet Union flight in 1951. Both dogs survived. Dogs were deemed more suitable for space flights than monkeys because they wriggled less.
The Soviets gave one of the dogs they found roaming the capital city several names, including Kudryavka or Little Curly, Zhuchka or Little Bug, and Limonchik or Little Lemon. Laika is the word Russians use to refer to certain husky-like breeds of dogs. The word means 'barker,' and it seemed to fit the part-husky part-Terrier with the loudest bark the most. Because Laika went up in the Sputnik 2, the Americans threw some wordplay into the mix and referred to her as a Muttnik.
Despite her loud barking, space-life scientist Vladimir Yazdovsky described Laika's temperament as 'quiet and charming.' She wasn't inclined to fight with the other space dogs in the program, and she played well with his children when he took her home for one last hurrah before her doomed voyage commenced.
The Soviet leader at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted to reinforce an early advantage in the Space Race against the U.S. by making another unprecedented move. Khruschev sought to demonstrate that weightlessness was survivable and space travel would soon be possible for humans. He rushed Sputnik 2's mission to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. But four decades after Laika's famous flight, one of the mission scientists, Oleg Gazenko, acknowledged that not enough had been gained from the mission to justify the loss of Laika.
The Soviets used stray dogs because they figured homeless dogs that could survive the country's frigid temperatures were resilient candidates for an expedition involving cold, hunger, and discomfort. However, in this case, the team knew the tragic fate of Laika from the outset—the technology for deorbiting wasn't available on the hastily constructed spacecraft. They planned a remote euthanization with medicated food and gave her a farewell kiss to acknowledge the gravity, or lack thereof, of the situation.
Laika's death was a poignant moment in history and spawned much ethical debate. It gave rise to many protests outside embassies as citizens asserted the idea that animals had rights. Spacefaring nations still insist that human spaceflight may never have come to fruition without initial exploration using animals. These animals were collateral damage sacrificed on the altar of human advancement and technology.
Laika and her canine compatriots were put through rigorous astronaut preparations. The human team placed the dogs in progressively smaller cages over a few weeks, and, understandably, this made them restless and constipated. They also spun them in centrifuges so they could become accustomed to out-of-this-world speeds. The Soviets exposed them to similarly loud noises as those experienced during launch and fed them the gel available during orbit. This training was no doubt traumatizing.
For over four decades, the Soviets kept the actual circumstances of Laika's death under wraps. They claimed that she was euthanized as planned before re-entry into the earth's atmosphere killed her. In the 90s and early 2000s, a Sputnik 2 scientist, Dimitri Malashenkov, confirmed that Laika died within seven hours of launch due to overheating likely caused by a hardware failure. She'd completed four orbits.
Laika survived weightlessness but was felled by an equipment malfunction. After her death, countries designed missions differently and only sent dogs on two-way trips to space. Between 1997 and 2008, two statues were created in Laika's honor. She's included in 1964's Monument to the Conquerors of Space and has been featured on stamps, envelopes, and other branded merchandise in Russia, where space dogs are heroes.
Space Dogs is a 2020 documentary directed by Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter. It runs 91 minutes long and pays homage to Laika and other unwitting space travelers in a brutal fashion. The documentary follows stray dogs and tries to draw parallels between their violence and what Soviet-era space scientists did at the state's request.
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