Before man ever set foot on the moon or achieved the dream of breaking the Earth’s gravity and going into space, a dog did it first! Really, a dog? Well… yes, if the topic is the first animal to go into space, then it was a dog that beat man to the punch by about four years. The dog’s name was Laika, a member (after a fashion) of the Russian cosmonaut program. She was the first animal to go into space, to orbit the Earth, and, as an added – though dubious – honor, was also the first animal to die in space. Laika’s sacrifice paved the way for human spaceflight and also taught the Russians a few things about what would be needed in order for a human to survive a spaceflight.
Part of the Sputnik program, Laika’s was launched with the Sputnik 2 craft, the second spacecraft launched into Earth orbit. The satellite contained two cabins, one for its “crew”, the other for its various scientific instruments, which included radio transmitters, a telemetry system, temperature controls for the cabin, a programming unit, and two photometers for measuring solar radiation (ultraviolent and x-ray emissions) and cosmic rays. Like Sputnik 1, the satellite’s launch vehicle the R-7 Semyorka rocket, a ballistic missile that was responsible for placing the satellite into the upper atmosphere.
The mission began on November 3rd, 1957 and lasted 162 days before the orbit finally decayed and it fell back to Earth. No provisions were made for getting Laika safely back to Earth so it was expected ahead of time that she would die after ten days. However, it is now known that Laika died within a matter of hours after deployment from the R-7. At the time, the Soviet Union said she died painlessly while in orbit. More recent evidence however, suggests that she died as a result of overheating and panic. This was due to a series of technical problems which resulted from a botched deployment. The first was the damage that was done to the thermal system during separation, the second was some of the satellite’s thermal insulation being torn loose. As a result of these two mishaps, temperatures in the cabin reached over 40º C.
In spite of her untimely death, Laika’s flight astonished the world and outraged many animal rights activists. Her accomplishment was honored by many countries through a series of commemorative stamps. The mission itself also taught the Russians a great deal about the behavior of a living organism in space and brought back data about Earth’s outer radiation belt, which would be the subject of interests for future missions.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Space Capsules. Listen here, Episode 124: Space Capsules, Part 1 – Vostok, Mercury and Gemini.