Before it was proven humans could survive the trip to space, the Soviet Union sent dogs in rockets to the outer edge of the atmosphere. The oldest tests date back as far as 1951. As a result, dogs were among the earliest space pioneers.
Dogs versus Apes
America and the Soviet Union had very different ideas when it came to the first animal candidates to send into space. NASA preferred chimpanzees and squirrel monkeys as they felt apes best represented what a person would experience under the circumstances. The Soviets focused on small, homeless dogs that roamed Moscow streets. They believed the canines would be used to harsh environments—they’d previously lived through frigid Russian winters—and would be easy to train.
The Tragic Tale of Laika
Laika was the first living animal to ever orbit the Earth. She was launched in Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. She was believed to be a husky cross terrier. Her name means “barker” and she was named so after she barked into a microphone during an interview.
The Soviet Union had amazed the world the month before by sending the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit. Government leaders wanted something big and grand for the next flight to tie in with the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. Rocket scientists rushed to get Sputnik 2 ready for a dog.
In space, Laika had enough food and water to last near a week. She became an international celebrity and the world awaited her safe return. It was said she lasted several days in Sputnik 2 before being peacefully put to sleep. In reality, the technology to keep her alive had not yet been perfected and she passed away a couple of hours into the flight. A heatshield had failed and the temperature inside her cabin quickly rose above 30 degrees Celsius. The true story of Laika wasn’t released to the public until 2002.
Scientists working on the project knew they were sending the dog to her death. One of them, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home the night before the mission to have some fun playing with his children. Dog lovers also protested Laika’s launch outside Soviet embassies but their efforts had little effect.
The Safe Return of Belka and Strelka
The next dogs to go to space were Belka (“Squirrel”) and Strelka (“Little Arrow”) on Korabl-Sputnik 2 on August 19, 1960. They weren’t alone and went with rats, fruit flies and a rabbit. The dogs did well during their time in orbit and returned safely afterwards. The two became famous and the public were fascinated by them.
Belka and Strelka’s mission was in preparation for the first human flight the following year. Because the manual controls on his rocket were disabled, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, once joked “I don’t know whether I’m the first man in space, or the last dog”.
Pushinka the Presidential Dog
After her mission, Strelka became pregnant and had puppies. One of them was named Pushinka (“Fluffy”).
During one of their first summit meetings, Soviet and American presidents Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy were having dinner when First Lady Jackie asked about the space dogs. About a month later, Pushinka arrived in the United States as a gift. It’s believed the dog was searched for listening devices and put under surveillance before she was allowed in the White House.
The Kennedy children adored Pushinka and she even had puppies with their other dog Charlie. The First Lady encouraged a letter writing campaign to give away the puppies to loving families. She got over 5,000 responses from American children.
Over a 15-year period, 71 dogs were sent into space with, sadly, 17 of them passing away during their flights. In 1966, and on one of the last missions, Veterok (“Light Breeze”) and Ugolyok (“Ember”) set a record of 22 days in orbit. The milestone wouldn’t be beaten by humans until 1971.
Laika has had monuments dedicated to her and even has had a Martian crater named in her honour. She’s been recognised for her sacrifice and is even listed along side cosmonauts who have died in the pursuit of space.
Photo Credit: The Dogington Post
Dog Star: Scientist Recalls Training Laika for Space (https://phys.org/news/2017-11-dog-star-scientist-recalls-laika.html)
Laika the Dog & the First Animals in Space (https://www.space.com/17764-laika-first-animals-in-space.html)
Remembering Laika, Space Dog and Soviet Hero (https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/remembering-laika-space-dog-and-soviet-hero)
The Sad, Sad Story of Laika, the Space Dog, and Her One-Way Trip into Orbit (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/sad-story-laika-space-dog-and-her-one-way-trip-orbit-1-180968728/)
The Stray Dogs That Led the Space Race (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20171027-the-stray-dogs-that-paved-the-way-to-the-stars)
Why Soviets Sent Dogs to Space While Americans Used Primates (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/08/space-race-dogs-chimpanzees-monkeys/597166/)