Laika was the first animal to orbit the Earth. She was a stray, three-year-old Siberian husky mix sent up into orbit by the USSR in 1957 on the Sputnik 2. The space dog program of the USSR was a continuation of their project sending dogs into sub-orbit. Scientists believed that people could survive in space, but they wanted more evidence before they sent people up.
That was where Laika came in. The Soviets were desperate to win the arms race with the United States, so they decided to send a dog into orbit even though they knew she would not come back alive. The scientists knew that there was no way Laika could survive the trip and reentry in the capsule they had designed, so they only packed enough food and water for 10 days. This was the only dog the Soviets purposefully sent to death in their space program. The public did not know about the death sentence until after Laika had already gone into space.
Laika died, but the truth surrounding her death was not released until 2002, 45 years after her death. The official story had been that Laika had survived for four days until the cabin overheated due to a faulty battery. The truth is that Laika died only hours after takeoff from fright. After launch, scientists monitoring her noted that her pulse was three times normal. By five to seven hours into the trip, scientists detected no signs of life from Laika.
Since that flight, many scientists have regretted sending Laika into space to die. Years later, Oleg Gazenko, who was one of the head scientists on the project, said, “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it…. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”
Laika’s real name was actually Kudryavka, which means “Little Curly.” Many people could not pronounce the Russian name, so they called her Laika, which is actually the Russian word for “husky”or “barker ” Laika was also given a number of nicknames by the scientists who worked with her including Zhuchka, which means “Little Bug,” and Limonchik, which translates as “Lemon.”
After Laika, a number of other dogs were sent into space, although the Soviets tried to make sure they survived. Some of the dogs died, but a number of them did in fact survive. Laika and the other dogs are still remembered today for the contribution they made to space technology.
For more information, check out Russian dogs lost in space and the true story of Laika the dog.
Astronomy Cast has an episode on space capsules.