A Brief History
On November 3, 1957, before any chimpanzee, any man, any woman, any Russian, any American went into space, the Soviet dog Laika became the first astronaut (cosmonaut in Soviet terms) in history, an indication of just how important dogs are to people.
Unfortunately, poor Laika was on a one way mission, as the fledgling space programs of the day did not include the technology for a safe return to Earth. A stray found roaming the streets of Moscow, Laika was an 5 to 6 kilogram mixed breed dog. (Note: We say mixed breed instead of mongrel or mutt, terms better applied to certain people such as politicians.) Being a stray, Laika did not actually have a known given name, and the term Laika was merely a Russian description of a dog of that type. The name stuck in the world press, and History knows her as Laika.
Laika and other dogs in the Soviet space program were trained to become accustomed to being confined in small spaces and space capsule type environments. One of the scientists even took Laika home to play with his children as a reward to the doomed pup for her cooperation. Laika earned the right to be blasted into space by exhibiting a calm and cooperative nature.
Laika was hooked up to various instruments to measure her vital signs during her flight, and she was loaded into the Sputnik 2 capsule atop an R7 rocket and launched into orbit. The dog tolerated the launch forces well, with her hearbeat more than doubling during launch. Unfortunately, she died of overheating only a few hours (5 to 7 hours) into the flight. Interestingly, the steadfast canine did calm down after achieving orbit, and even ate her food provided. Cause of death by overheating was probably caused by a failure detach part of the booster rocket that resulted in failure of heat shielding insulation. The capsule containing Laika eventually made over 2700 orbits of the Earth before burning up upon reentry in April of 1958.
As governments are apt to do, the Soviets lied about the timing and cause of Laika’s death, giving various stories about her being euthanized by poison food, eventually suffocating, and living for several days into the flight. Only many years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union has the truth been told.
In 2008 the Russians unveiled a monument to Laika, the Space Dog in Moscow, and she also appears on another Russian monument to space pioneers. Criticism by animal lovers about the one way mission led to future missions using dogs and other animals being planned with live re-entry and recovery, although those were not always successful, just as human flight into space has not always concluded with live recovery.
Dogs are indeed “Man’s Best Friend,” being our companions and partners for as long as 30,000 years. No other animal on Earth is as in-tune to humans as dogs. Our hats are off to Laika and all the millions of dogs that have sacrificed themselves for the benefit of humans over the millennia. Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have a dog? What breed do you think is best? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Davey, Owen. Laika: Astronaut Dog. Templar, 2013.
Laika and ライカ. Sounds of Satellites. Sire / London/Rhino, 1997. Audio CD.
Turkina, Olesya. Soviet Space Dogs. Eds. Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell. FUEL Publishing, 2014.