At the dawn of the space age, no one knew whether the human body could survive conditions of rocket launch and space flight. The US Space program experimented with a variety of primate species between 1948 and 1961, including rhesus monkeys, crab-eating macaques, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees.
On May 28, 1959, a squirrel monkey named “Miss Baker” became the first of the US space program, to survive the stresses of spaceflight and related medical procedures. A rhesus monkey called “Miss Able” survived the mission as well, but died four days later as the result of a reaction to anesthesia.
Soviet engineers experimented with dogs on a number of orbital and sub-orbital flights, to determine the feasibility of human space flight. The Soviet Union launched missions with positions for at least 57 dogs in the fifties and early sixties, though the actual number is smaller. Some flew more than once.
Most survived. As with the early US program, those who did not often died as the result of equipment malfunction. The first animal to be sent into orbit, was a different story.
Three dogs were plucked from the streets of Moscow and trained for the purpose. “Laika” was an 11-pound mutt, possibly a terrier-husky cross. In Russian, the word means “Barker”. Laika was chosen due to her small size and calm disposition. One scientist wrote, “Laika was quiet and charming.”
First, were the long periods of close confinement, meant to replicate the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2. Then came the centrifuge, the highly nutritional but thoroughly unappetizing gel she was meant to eat in space, and then the probes and electrodes that monitored her vital signs.
The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”
Laika was placed inside the capsule for three days, tightly harnessed in a way that only allowed her to stand, sit and lie down. Finally, it was November 3, 1957. Launch day. One of the technicians “kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight”.
Sensors showed her heart rate to be 103 beats/minute at time of launch, spiking to 240 during acceleration. She ate some of her food in the early stages, but remained stressed and agitated. The thermal control system malfunctioned shortly into the flight, the temperature inside the capsule rising to 104°, Fahrenheit. Five to seven hours into the flight, there were no further signs of life.
There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia. Soviet propaganda portrayed “the first traveler in the cosmos”, heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers. Soviet authorities concealed Laika’s true cause of death and how long it took her to die. That information would not be divulged , until 2002.
In the beginning, the US News media focused on the politics of the launch. It was all about the “Space Race”, and the Soviet Union running up the score. First had been the unoccupied Sputnik 1, now Sputnik 2 had put the first living creature into space. The more smartass specimens among the American media, called the launch “Muttnik”.
Sputnik 2 became controversial, as animal lovers began to question the ethics of sending a dog to certain death in space. In the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received protests before Radio Moscow was finished with their launch broadcast. The National Canine Defense League called on dog owners to observe a minute’s silence.
Protesters gathered with their dogs in front of the UN building, to express their outrage. In the Soviet Union, political dissent was squelched, as always. Of all Soviet bloc nations, it was probably Poland who went farthest out on that limb, when the scientific periodical Kto, Kiedy, Dlaczego (“Who, When, Why”), reported Laika’s death as “regrettable”. “Undoubtedly a great loss for science”.
Sputnik 2 and its passenger left the vacuum of space on April 14, 1958, burning up in the outer atmosphere.
It was not until 1998 and the collapse of the Soviet tower of lies, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who had trained the dog, was free to speak his mind. “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us”, he said, “We treat them like babies who cannot speak. 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”.
As a lifelong dog lover, I feel the need to add a more upbeat postscript to this thoroughly depressing tale.
“Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960 and returned safely, to Earth. The first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive.
Strelka later gave birth to six puppies fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in ground-based space experiments, but never flew. In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev gave one of them, a puppy called “Pushinka,” to President John F. Kennedy.
Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies. JFK called them his “pupniks”. Rumor has it their descendants are still around, to this day.
Tip of the hat to the 2019 Vienna Film Award winning “Space dogs” for the artwork at the top of this page.