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Russian Memorial for Space Dog Laika (Update)

Laika statue outside a research facility in Moscow (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky)
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”.

Laika before launch in 1957 (NASA)

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.

Laika before launch in 1957 (AP Photo/NASA)

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

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Falter August 7, 2008, 4:46 PM

    Choices for Laika? I agree, given her druthers, the poor pup would probably have preferred a nice romp in a park, a snuggle in someone’s lap, or a cozy snooze in her own little bed. However, had she not had such a famous a date with history, the odds of her ever seeing these things were practically nil anyway. As a stray on Moscow’s streets during the Krushchev years, her likely options included:

    1) being adopted by some human,
    2) living out her years on the streets, or
    3) being picked up by some dogcatcher.

    There was not much chance of option #1 happening in that times were rough then in Moscow. True, not everyone was poor, but even US dog pounds couldn’t place all the dogs they had then…and the US was supposedly a financially better off society. Laika *could* have been adopted, but the odds were pretty slim.

    If she ended up with option #2, she might have been able to see maybe her seventh birthday, but she probably would have been cold, hungry, malnourished, dirty, and frightened for the majority of that time. This assumes disease, accident, starvation, exposure, or a larger dog or cat didn’t end her life first. Her time and place was not a pleasant place to be for a homeless dog.

    If she found herself with option #3, if she were lucky, she would have been euthanized quickly to make room for the next dog at the pound. If she were unlucky, she would have ended up as a test subject in a more mundane experiment than spaceflight, but probably promised a much slower, much more painful end. Stray dogs were the test subject of choice for the USSR in those days.

    As sad as it is to say, the poor pup wasn’t born with many options. What few she had weren’t very appealing. Perhaps the end she was given had at least a shred more meaning than she would have had otherwise. I know they’re hollow words five decades too late, but words and her memory are all we have left.

    So as you shed a tear for Laika/Kudryavka, pause a moment to honor those other animals whose deaths were less glamorous, but were probably much more horrible…and definitely much less remembered.

  • jacob March 12, 2009, 1:36 PM

    that is the saddest story ever to be told

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