On Friday Russian officials unveiled a monument to Laika, the pioneering dog that led the way to manned spaceflight on November 3rd, 1957. Her little memorial is a model dog standing atop a rocket near a military research facility in Moscow. When she made the historic flight into space on board Sputnik II, very little was known about the effects of launch and zero-gravity on an animal and Laika wasn’t thought to make it. Due to her being so small and hardy, she made it into orbit, but this was a one way ticket, she had no idea there would be no coming home… be warned, this isn’t a happy tale…
The dogs chosen for the Russian space program were usually stray mongrels as it was believed they could survive and adapt in harsh conditions. Also, small dogs were chosen as they could fit into the capsule and were light for launch. Two year old Laika was apparently chosen from the animal shelter in Moscow for her good looks. After all, the first Russian into space would need to be photogenic. There was intense excitement about her selection for participation in the space race and she endeared herself to scientists and the public; she was described as “quiet and charming”.
Unfortunately Laika’s trip was far from humane. She had to wait for three days before launch locked inside the capsule whilst technical problems with the launch were fixed. Operators had to keep her warm by pumping hot air into her cockpit as the temperatures around the launch pad were freezing. Once the launch was successful, doctors were able to keep track of her heartbeat and her blood pressure. The official story was that her heartbeat was fast at the launch, but she calmed down and was able to eat a specially prepared meal in orbit.
There are mixed reports about what happened next, but the official Soviet version was that Laika was able to live in space for a week, and then she was euthanized remotely. However, after the Soviet Union collapsed, reports from mission scientists suggested that she only lived for a couple of days and was put down, or (most likely) the cabin overheated soon after orbital insertion, killing her within hours.
Interestingly, scientists did not announce that she was to die in orbit until after she was launched. Sputnik II was not equipped with a re-entry system and the craft burned up in the atmosphere after 2,570 orbits on April 14th, 1958.
It is easy for us to look back on Laika’s journey distastefully, but in the days of the Cold War, there was huge pressure on scientists to produce results in the Soviet Union and the USA. Sending dogs and other “guinea pigs” (I wonder, have any actual Guinea Pigs been sent into space?) into orbit was the most viable means to understand the effects of space travel. Regardless, she paved the way for other orbiting dogs (to be safely returned this time) and by 1961, enough data had been gathered to send the first man into space: Yuri Gagarin.
Original source: Associated Press