The Sad Story of Laika: First Dog in Space
My Portrait of Laika
A Casualty of Politics
Meet Laika, the stray dog who became a space pioneer.
During the Cold War, politicians on both sides made cold calculations about lives. How many nukes to aim at Moscow, where millions of civilians lived? How many to aim at New York? How many people should we sacrifice in Vietnam to keep it from becoming Communist? Under such circumstances, it's not surprising that one stray dog was sacrificed for political gain.
At the time, the news media focused most of its coverage on the Russian space program's successes, not the fate of one canine cosmonaut.
Now we realize that Laika's story matters more than feats of national oneupmanship. She was the first living creature from Earth to reach outer space — and the first one to die there.
What Kind of Dog Was Laika?
The Russian space program needed very small dogs. They also needed tough dogs. So they rounded up strays from the streets of Moscow, mutts who had endured harsh Russian winters.
Smooth Fox Terrier
Mission: Sputnik II
In 1957, flush with the triumph of Sputnik I, the first successful launch of a satellite into space, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded another "space spectacular." He wanted it to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution on November 7.
There was just one problem. Getting any satellite into orbit was an amazing achievement, and took years of planning. Sputnik I was launched on October 4. Russia's fledgling space program had a month to stage something even more incredible.
How could they top Sputnik? Simple: send a living animal into space!
The Russian space program had already been preparing for manned flight with suborbital test flights, sending dogs up in ballistic missiles and bringing them down with parachutes. These lab animals had been confined to tiny cages for 20 days or more, forced to sit very still, eat a gel for nutrition, and endure stress tests in centrifuges and other "Right Stuff" torture chambers.
Laika ("Barker"), initially called Kudryavka ("Little Curly") by her trainers, was selected for the Sputnik II mission. She was well-behaved and would urinate sitting down, an ability that made her tragically suitable for a space capsule.
The race was on to build Sputnik II. A space capsule was cobbled together with minimal life support. There was no time to design a system for returning its passenger to Earth: it would simply burn up on reentry.
Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky, a doctor who worked with Russia's space dogs, described Laika as "quiet and charming." He took her home to play with his children the night before she was placed in the capsule. "I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live."
First Animal in Space: November 4, 1957
Sputnik II was ready just three weeks after Khrushchev demanded his "space spectacular." In fact, it was ready ahead of schedule, so the launch was slated for November 4, 1957. It was one month and one day after Sputnik I.
Laika was placed into her cramped capsule three days before launch, in order to assemble the rockets that would carry her into space. She endured close confinement and dangerously cold temperatures on the launch pad. Finally, launch day arrived. During her ascent, Laika's vital signs showed great stress, but she calmed down enough to relax and eat a little food after reaching space.
Her journey was brief. She was supposed to be euthanized with a dose of poisoned food administered after one week, before her oxygen ran out. That was the official Soviet story, which would let them claim that she was still alive in space on November 7, anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
However, the capsule's temperature controls malfunctioned. We now know that Laika died of overheating about 5-7 hours after launch. For five more months, Earth was orbited by a dead dog, the second thing humans ever put into space.
Sputnik II remained in orbit until April 14, 1958, when it was cremated upon reentering Earth's atmosphere.
Romainian Laika Stamp
Did We Gain ANYTHING from Laika's Death?
When the fate of Laika became known, it sparked an international outcry. Laika became an unofficial mascot for the movement for humane treatment of animals. The debate about animal testing continues to this day, but Laika helped raise awareness of the problem.
Indirectly, Laika was also responsible for the U.S. space program, since Russia's early space successes goaded the U.S. into a competitive frenzy that would spur the creation of NASA and the resolve to send men to the Moon.
Russian scientists did learn a few things from Laika's ordeal. Until then, it was not known whether a living creature could survive in outer space. Instruments on Sputnik II gathered information about radiation and, of course, Laika's vital signs. That information helped space scientists develop reentry vehicles for the next dogs in space, and, eventually, cosmonauts.
But of course, that was just the scientists trying to salvage some useful data from what was essentially a heartless publicity stunt. Several members of the Sputnik II team voiced their regrets after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when they finally felt safe revealing the full facts of the mission:
"The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it...We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog." — Oleg Gazenko, Russian Space Program, 1998
The Story of Laika
This surprisingly thoughtful graphic novel, suitable for young adults, tells Laika's story while avoiding pat stereotypes. It includes a few of the scientists who worked with her, struggling with their own past experiences in the Soviet Union.
Lest We Blame It All on the U.S.S.R...
Yes, I know: this story fits in with what we are told about the harsh pragmatism of Soviet Russia. But that doesn't let us off the hook. Are we sure that 1950s America wouldn't have sacrificed a dog or two in pursuit of oneupmanship against its arch-rival? Look up Bikini Atoll.
The Cold War led to many callous decisions, only a few of which I've outlined above. Also, consider how many thousands of pets are euthanized in shelters every day: abandoned, confined to tiny cages, and then killed. We are not as "civilized" as we would like to think.
Laika's story reflects not just the brutality of any one regime or ruthless leader, but the darker side of human ingenuity. The creatures of this planet are at our mercy. Let's try to be merciful.
Please share this story. Laika shouldn't be forgotten.
Mini-Documentary showing Laika and other Russian space dogs
"What Happened to Laika"
The 6 minute mini-documentary above, directed by David Hoffman, shows rare video of Laika and some of her successors. (When you see two dogs, it's from later missions; one dog with a dark nose and white stripe down her forehead is Laika.)
The newsreels illustrate Cold War fears.
Credit: Hoffman uploaded this to promote his critically-acclaimed film.
- Space.com article on Laika
(via Internet Archive) Good historical article detailing the story of Laika and the Sputnik II mission, including top scientists who worked on the program.
- Homage to Laika and other Russian space animals
Web site devoted to the welfare of Moscow's homeless animals. (Includes more rare photos of Laika)
- Sputnik-2, more news from distant history
2002 article revealing declassified data of the Sputnik II mission from Russian space scientists who monitored Laika's vital signs.
- NASA - Sputnik II
NASA's entry on Sputnik II and Laika, with a few photos of the famous pooch.
- Rare Photo of Laika - Terrierman's Daily Dose -
Terrierman.com's Daily Dose: unusual photo of Laika in her space suit. Also, this is where I found the theory that she might be part smooth fox terrier.
- Laika, Space Dog (Stamp Collection Site)
Website on rare stamps discusses the story of Laika while covering commemorative stamps in her honor.
- List of non-human astronauts by Jonathan McDowell
I didn't use this, but it's a useful table showing the extensive animal testing done to prep for human spaceflight.
- Laika "The World Kennel": A Japanese anime short
An online animation studio dramatizes Laika's story. [Quite good, but the attempt to soften a tragedy via Laika's cuddly fictional friend doesn't quite work for me.]