The Sad Story of Laika, The First Dog In Space


It was a Space Race victory that would have broken any animal activist’s heart. During this week, on 3 November 1957 in fact, the Soviet Union launched the first-ever living animal into orbit: a dog named Laika.

The Soviet Union stunned the world with the launch of Sputnik 2. On board the small satellite was a little dog, Laika, the first animal to orbit Earth.The flight was meant to test the safety of space travel for humans, but it was a guaranteed suicide mission for the dog, since technology hadn’t advanced as far as the return trip.

Laika was a stray, picked up from the Moscow streets just over a week before the rocket was set to launch. She was promoted to cosmonaut based partly on her size (small) and demeanor (calm), according to the Associated Press.

All of the 36 dogs the Soviets sent into space — before Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth — were strays, chosen for their scrappiness. (Other dogs had gone into space before Laika, but only for sub-orbital launches.) We remember Laika on this, the 60th anniversary of her flight.

Laika, Russian cosmonaut dog, in 1957.

The mission was another in a series of coups for the Soviet Union, which was then leading the way in space exploration while the United States lagged. Just a month earlier, they had launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. When Laika’s vessel, Sputnik 2, shot into orbit, the U.S. fell even further behind. News media alternated between mockery and pity for the dog sent into space. According to a 1957 TIME report on how the press was covering the event, “headlines yelped such barbaric new words as pupnik and pooch-nik, sputpup and woofnik,” before ultimately settling on “Muttnik.”

“The Chicago American noted: ‘The Russian sputpup isn’t the first dog in the sky. That honor belongs to the dog star. But we’re getting too Sirius,’” the piece adds. Other headline-writers treated Laika with more compassion. According to another story in the same issue, the Brits were especially full of feeling for the dog — and outrage toward the Russians. “THE DOG WILL DIE, WE CAN’T SAVE IT, wailed London’s mass-minded Daily Mirror,” the story declares. The Soviet embassy in London was forced to switch from celebration mode to damage control.

“The Russians love dogs,” a Soviet official protested, per TIME. “This has been done not for the sake of cruelty but for the benefit of humanity.” Nearly a half-century later, Russian officials found themselves handling PR fallout once again after it was revealed that reports of Laika’s humane death were greatly exaggerated.

Although they had long insisted that Laika expired painlessly after about a week in orbit, an official with Moscow’s Institute for Biological Problems leaked the true story in 2002: She died within hours of takeoff from panic and overheating, according to the BBC.

After five months and 2,570 orbits around the Earth, the satellite that had become Laika’s coffin fell down to the Earth. It streaked across the sky while people around the world watched, creating a small panic in the United States.

“Shortly after midnight on April 14, 1958, UFO sightings were reported by reliable witnesses along the east coast of the United States,” one report said. “They reported a brilliant bluish-white object moving high across the sky at incredible speed. According to reports, it suddenly turned red, and several small objects detached from the main object and fell into formation behind it.”

The UFO was Sputnik 2, and the detached objects were the pieces of the capsule being torn apart on reentry. Laika and the capsule disintegrated as they rushed toward the Earth. Her body never touched the ground.

One of Laika’s human counterparts in the Soviet space program recalled her as a good dog. He even brought her home to play with his children before she began her space odyssey. “Laika was quiet and charming,” Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky wrote in a book about Soviet space medicine, as quoted by the AP. “I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.” Source: TIME

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