Laika and the Soviet Space Dogs
Has anyone ever underestimated your capabilities?
No one was prepared for Laika.
On November 3, 1957, a tiny capsule rocketed into space. Inside was the diminutive body of a fourteen-pound dog. The occupant was named Laika, and she had become the first creature in history to leave Earth for the stars, initiating the era of space exploration. It was no small accomplishment for a stray that only a few days earlier had been fighting for scraps of food on the streets of Moscow.
Laika’s unlikely journey was borne out of the desperate need to prove that spaceflight was possible. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union had launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. But Sputnik had only been a machine, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev insisted that his beleaguered scientists immediately perform a second test to determine whether a living being could survive in space. Since the mission was too dangerous to risk a human life, it was decided that a stray dog from Moscow would become the first cosmonaut. Laika was chosen only nine days before the scheduled launch, selected both for her gentle disposition and her natural beauty. A Soviet space dog that would make history would need to be photogenic.
A great deal depended on the experiment. If Laika did not survive the first few hours, it would suggest that future human space travel was impossible. Yet because of Khrushchev’s deadline, there was no time to design a re-entry vehicle. Even if the experiment was a success, there would be no way to bring Laika home. Saddened over Laika’s inevitable fate, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home every night to play with his children, in order to make her last days on Earth as comfortable as possible.
On October 31, Laika was strapped into the new Sputnik 2 capsule. Sensors were placed on her body to monitor her heart rate and blood pressure, and a high-nutrition protein gel with enough food to last a week was stored with her. During takeoff, her heart rate spiked dangerously, and for several tense moments it was feared she had perished. As the satellite broke out of Earth’s atmosphere and entered a steady orbit, a sudden but steady pulse was detected in the capsule. Laika had survived to become Earth’s first space traveler. While she would succumb in a few hours to stress and the heat of the cramped capsule, her brief journey had proven once and for all that human spaceflight was possible.
Laika’s journey to the stars sparked the earliest debates over the rights of animals in scientific testing. In the United Kingdom, the National Canine Defence League called on all dog lovers to observe a minute of silence out of protest at her sacrifice. In the Soviet Union, Laika immediately became a folk hero. She was featured on stamps and coins, and even received a statue in Moscow. Laika’s fame ensured that greater efforts would be made to protect canine cosmonauts. On August 19, 1960, Moscow strays Belka and Strelka became the first living creatures to return safely from space to a hero’s welcome.
The sacrifice of Laika the Space Dog continues to fire imaginations around the world, inspiring poems and novels. Despite her death, Laika’s gift to science lives on. Russian historian Olesya Turkina summarized Laika’s importance in simple terms: “These dogs were the pioneers for humankind. … Not only for the idea of the single hero, but crucially, for all humanity.''
Laika was the first living thing to boldly go where no one had gone before. That small act catapulted her celebrity and shot her to stardom in both the fields of science and animal rights. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.