Animals in Space: How Russian Dog Laika Became the World's First Astronaut

A month after the Soviet Union made one of its greatest political and scientific coups with the launch of Earth’s first manmade satellite in 1957, Moscow planned to be the first to send a living creature into space. Though they managed to make cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin the first human in outer space four years later, he was not the first living creature to make the journey.

Before Gagarin's flight came mongrel pup Laika, whose journey into orbit took place exactly 60 years ago on Friday.

Kicking off the space race with the U.S. with an early triumph in October 1957, when the rotund Sputnik satellite began its orbit of the Earth, the Kremlin was keen to maintain momentum. While the small, antennae covered ball was little more than a honing beacon, designed to survive in Earth’s orbit, its successor, Sputnik 2, had to do all that and accommodate a living creature inside it.

Soviet scientists had already flown dogs into space, launching Tsygan and Dezikin in August 1951, and both returned alive. However, the pair flew suborbital, making the repetition of Sputnik’s flight into orbit with another canine onboard a new challenge altogether. Testing space travel capabilities was becoming commonplace at the time, with the U.S. having already opted for using monkey test subjects, while France subsequently sent a cat and China launched rats into space.

Time was also pressing as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had set a November deadline for the launch of Sputnik 2. Eager to make the most of the first satellite’s breakthrough in October, Khruschev wanted scientists to ensure that by the Soviet Union’s state holiday marking the Bolshevik Revolution, the Kremlin had another new accomplishment to celebrate, Russia’s Argumenti i Fakty newspaper recalls.

Sputnik 2 was considerably larger than its 141 pound-predecessor, weighing in at nearly half a ton (1,120lbs). The space inside was also very tight, with engineers estimating that the spacecraft’s only crew member could not be heavier than 7 kilograms (15lbs.), according to Russia’s online space encyclopedia Astronaut.

Around 10 dogs were handpicked after fitting the size requirement, and Laika was among the three deemed calmest and most suitable for the mission. Part of the training involved testing the dogs’ readiness to stay still in increasingly confined cages over the course of two weeks.

11_02_First_dog_in_space A picture taken on November 1 shows an effigy of the dog Laika, the first living creature in space, inside a replica of satellite Sputnik II at the Central House of Aviation and Cosmonautics in Moscow. Three and a half years before Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, a dog called Laika was in 1957 the first living being to orbit the Earth. Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

The casting was not solely scientific, as Laika beat out her nearest rival, Mukha, thanks to being more “photogenic,” Argumenti i Fakty reported. Mukha instead became the test subject of Laika’s life support during ground tests.

However, the Soviet leadership's desire for a speedy achievement meant Laika’s return journey was doomed from the start. Scientists were already breaking new ground in building systems to support life onboard Sputnik 2. Provisions to ensure the dog made it back home safe would take much longer and could end up wasting a great deal of money if it turned out Sputnik could not even keep Laika alive in orbit.

On November 3, Soviet scientists announced that Sputnik 2 had launched and Laika was alive in orbit. Shortly after they announced to the public something which was apparent to Moscow from the start—Laika would not be returning to Earth but would be regarded as a Soviet state hero. The dog completed her week-long mission and died in space when Sputnik’s transmitters failed, the official record showed.

In reality, Laika survived very briefly in orbit according to reports from 2002, which showed that the dog suffered greater stress during launch and the start of weightlessness than she did during ground simulations of the flight. Telemetry from the capsule indicated rising temperature humidity after the start of the mission and Laika’s heart rate took longer to return to normal than during tests.

Mission control stopped receiving lifesigns from Laika after after five to seven hours into the flight, according to the BBC. Laika had apparently died from overheating and stress, by Sputnik 2’s fourth orbit of the Earth.

Of the 2,570 orbits Sputnik 2 performed, Laika survived only a few hours, but her journey paved the way for Gagarin’s successful mission in 1961.

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