It’s a Dog’s Life
November 3, 1957: The first Earthling makes it to outer space. The space race was on with the US and USSR in head-to-head competition. Early points went to the Soviet Union. They sent the first manmade object into Earth orbit when Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957. Sputnik means “co-traveler” in Russian. The tiny spacecraft rode up into the sky via an R-7 launch vehicle, a rocket designed to carry nuclear warheads. The first launch was as much a trial of the booster rocket as the satellite’s actual mission which helped to identify parts of the high atmosphere.
Following on the heels of their success, the Russians launched Sputnik 2 again using an R-7 rocket. This time, a stray dog named Laika was aboard. While the booster rocket and first stage separated flawlessly, the second stage did not release correctly. The thermal control systems could not optimally function after separation and a piece of insulation was torn as well. The interior of the space capsule reached temperatures of 104º F.
Laika was a stray found in Moscow. She was believed to be about 3 years old and was part-Samoyed terrier and part husky. She weighed 11-13 pounds (reports vary). Other dogs had been sent on sub-orbital trips by both superpowers and survived. Laika’s training consisted of acclimation to the space capsule which was exceedingly small. She was confined for weeks at a time in ever smaller cages which caused stress and impaired bodily functions. She and others who trained for the flight were placed in centrifuges to simulate the noise and G-force of take off which also stressed the animals. They were trained to eat a gel-type food.
The plan was to monitor her bodily functions for ten days. Laika was harnessed with telemetry monitors to keep an eye on heart rate and blood pressure. There was no viable plan for re-entry. Instead, due to overheating and extreme stress, Laika died within hours of take off. Conditions in space and the stress of getting there were great unknowns. The use of dogs was seen as a way to pave the way for manned space flight. By 1960, Sputnik 5 was launched with 2 dogs, 40 mice, 2 rats, and several plants aboard. All returned safely to Earth the following day. Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, took the journey on April 12, 1961.
“The overheating story has been around. But this, dead after five to seven hours, that was a shock to me.” – Sven Grahn, space historian
“The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.” – Oleg Gazenko
“The Soviet Union announced today it had launched a second space satellite — this one carrying a dog. Radio signals indicated that the animal was living, the Russians said.” – Associated Press release, November 3, 1957
“Our movies and television programs in the fifties were full of the idea of going into space. What came as a surprise was that it was the Soviet Union that launched the first satellite. It is hard to recall the atmosphere of the time.” – John Logsdon
This article first appeared at examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: Laika means “barker” in Russian. She was originally called Kudryavka which means “little curly” and she trained with two other dogs. The true cause of her death was unknown until 2002. It was reported that she died on day six when oxygen ran out and the Russian government originally claimed she was euthanized before suffocating. The need for something living to precede humans was considered essential. It was unknown if living things could survive weightlessness at all. Because of the times, the political aspects of space conquest far outweighed the plight of one small dog. However, that doesn’t mean that many did not protest the dog’s demise or the fact that there never was a plan to try to save her. There was global debate on the mistreatment of animals in the Space Race as well in general daily lives. In the USSR, it was not advisable to criticize the government and there was little protest about the fate of Laika at home.
Also on this day: Greensboro Massacre – In 1979, violence broke out in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Last Public Hanging – In 1783, Tyburn public hangings ceased.
Fashoda Incident – In 1898, the Fashoda Incident ended.