Laika: The Brave Dog Who Reached The Heavens

Last updated: Oct 12, 2023

In 1957, an unmanned spacecraft carrying an exceptional passenger was launched into orbit by the Soviet Union. This passenger was a special dog named Laika, and her mission paved the way for human spaceflight. 

Laika’s journey was not without controversy, and her sacrifice sparked debates about scientific ethics and animal welfare. Let’s explore her story. 

From Stray to Space

Laika was a small mixed breed, possibly a mongrel, part husky or samoyed, and part terrier. She was found on the streets of Moscow and chosen by the Soviet Union to be the first living being to orbit the Earth. 

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The purpose of her expedition was for scientists to gather data on spaceflight’s effects on a living organism. So, Laika traveled to the orbit with one meal and a 7-day oxygen supply.

The Famous Spaceship

Upon the request of the then Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet engineers hastily built a spaceship called Sputnik 2. The Premier requested the spaceflight to overlap with the 40th anniversary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution.

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The teams worked to quickly create a ship, using what they learned from Sputnik 1, that had no pilot, whether man or animal. Primarily working without blueprints, they made a ship with a pressurized compartment for a space dog.

The Mission of Sputnik 2

Sputnik 1, a spaceship launched before Sputnik 2, had already made history, becoming the first human-made object in Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. Sputnik 2 was to go into orbit with the final stage of the rocket attachment.

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The engineers believed Sputnik 2, a spacecraft with an 1120-pound payload, was six times heavier than the Sputnik 1 and could be kept within calculated limits if they fed its occupant only once.

Selecting Canine Candidates

The Soviet canine recruiters commenced their quest with a pack of stray dogs. The first test on the dogs was to determine obedience and spiritlessness. They favored female dogs because they were smaller and more docile than male dogs.

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The mute of dogs lived in tiny, pressurized capsules for days and weeks. During the tests, doctors checked their reactions to changes in air pressure and loud noises that could occur during liftoff.

Pushing Boundaries Beyond Tradition

Testers fitted the dogs with a sanitation device connected to their pelvic areas. The dogs did not like the machines, so they did not use them. 

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Some dogs held in their bodily wastes, even after taking laxatives, while a few adapted to the devices in the best manner. After many trials, the experiments and tests yielded two outstanding candidates.

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May The Best Candidate Win!

A placid Kudryavka (Little Curly) was the main cosmonaut, while the Albina (White) was to take the supporting role. They were both made known to the public on the radio. Kudryavka barked on air, and that action got her the name “Laika,” which meant “barker” in Russian. 

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There were rumors that Albina performed better than Laika, but because she had just birthed puppies and had the affection of her keepers, Albina did not embark on the journey.

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Prepping The Pup for the Great Journey

Both dogs underwent surgery; medical devices were embedded into their bodies to monitor heart impulses, breathing rates, and physical movement. In the end, the Soviet doctors chose Laika for the grueling task. 

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According to Vladimir Yazdovsky, one of Laika’s keepers, who took the 3-year-old dog home shortly before the flight, said he wanted to do something nice for her.

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Ready, Set, For Liftoff!

Exactly three days before the scheduled liftoff, Laika was placed into her constricted travel space that allowed only a few inches of movement. After being cleaned, fitted to the teeth, and fitted with a sanitation device, Laika donned a spacesuit with in-built metal restraints. 

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On the 3rd of November, at exactly 5:30 a.m., the ship lifted off with gravitational forces five times its average level. 

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Paving the Way For Human Space Travel

Laika was terrified. The noise and pressure of the flight caused her heartbeat to skyrocket, tripling the regular rate. Her breath rate also quadrupled. 

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With this pounding heart and rapid breathing, Laika rode the rocket into the Earth’s orbit, 2000 miles above the familiar streets of Moscow. Overheated, frightened, cramped, and hungry, Laika, the space dog, began a journey that marked the beginning of significant findings.

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The Ultimate Underdog: Laika’s Journey to the Stars

The country’s National Air and Space Museum holds declassified printouts showing Laika’s respiration during spaceflight. Laika reached the orbit alive, circling the Earth in 103 minutes. 

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Unfortunately, losing the rocket’s heat shield made the temperature in the capsule unexpectedly rise, making Laika’s environment unbearable. This took a considerable toll on the poor dog. She eventually passed on “soon after the launch.”

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Laika Gave Her Life For A Great Cause

The engineers did not design the spacecraft to be retrievable and did not expect Laika to survive the mission. Oleg Gazenko, a Russian medical doctor and dog trainer, revealed the news of her passing. 

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After the fourth orbit, Soviet personnel reported the temperature inside the spacecraft to have been over 90 degrees. According to one of the Soviet officers, “There was no expectation that Laika made it beyond an orbit or two after that.” Consequently, without its passenger, Sputnik 2 continued to orbit for five months.

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How Laika’s Journey Shaped the Future

The Soviet Union wrote fiction about Laika’s journey during and after the flight. The Soviet broadcast claimed Laika was alive until the 12th of November 1957 after launching her into space on the 7th of the same month.

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Another report stated that she might have been saved from the disaster. However, Soviet personnel cleared the air, saying the dog passed on due to overheating and stress.

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A Controversy-Sparked Mission

All these happened before the 21st century when there were no concerns about animal rights. Still, people and scientists in the country cried out against the deliberate decision to let Laika meet her unfortunate end. 

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They argued that Laika passed on because the Soviet Union lacked the technology to return her safely to Earth. Many also argued that the mission was inhumane and that poor Laika needlessly endured agony.

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Going Global

The news spread and countries started weighing in. In Great Britain, where the Brits were increasingly opposing hunting of animals, the Royal Society for The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the British Society for Happy Dogs fought against the launch. 

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In front of the United Nations office in New York, a pack of dog lovers at that time attached signs to their pets and marched against the act. The Russian doctor that worked on Laika, Oleg Gazenko, about 30 years later, said, “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.”

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Criticisms and Defense

Many questioned the mission’s scientific value, arguing that the data collected was limited and could have been obtained through other means.

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The Soviet authorities, however, defended the mission, stating that it was necessary to advance space exploration and that the data collected was valuable. They later argued that human’s eventual travel to space required Laika’s sacrifice.

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Her Body Defied Gravity and Made History

Even if everything worked out perfectly for the brave mutt, if she had been lucky enough to have plenty of food, water, and oxygen, she would have met the same fate when the spaceship re-entered the atmosphere after about 2570 orbits. 

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Ironically, the eye-opening flight that handed Laika her unfortunate end proved that space was livable. In general, Laika’s unintentional mission was for the best.

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The Canine Cosmonaut

Laika’s impact has spread around the globe since her fated journey. Her story lives on websites, poems, and children’s books. There are features on the stop-motion animation studio named Laika after the cosmonaut at the Portland Art Museum. Some provide a happy ending for the historical dog.

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There is also a vegan lifestyle and animal rights periodical called Laika Magazine, published in the United States.

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Laika’s Continuous Legacy

A Swedish film in 1985, My Days as a Dog, portrayed a young man’s fears that Laika endured agonies. Many rock and folk singers around the globe also dedicated songs to the dog. A Finnish band called itself Laika and the Cosmonauts and another English indie-pop group also took her name. 

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Well-known novelists Victor Pelenin of Russia, Jeannette Winterson of Britain, and Haruki Murakami of Japan have all featured Laika in their books. Everyone wanted to find a way to honor her for her sacrifice. 

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A dog’s Stamp On The Moon

At a Moscow military research facility in 2015, Russia unveiled a new memorial of Laika on top of a rocket. When the nation honored fallen cosmonauts, a statue of the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Star City in the year 1997 was erected, and Laika’s image can be seen in one corner. 

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In March 2005, during the Mars Exploration Opportunity Mission, NASA unofficially named a spot within a Martian crater “Laika.”

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The Animal Celebrity

Amy Nelson, a space dog biographer, compares Laika to other animal celebrities like Jumbo, the elephant in Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. She was also likened to the champion thoroughbred racehorse, Seabiscuit, who lifted the Americans’ spirits’ during the Great Depression. 

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She argued that the Soviet Union transformed Laika into “an enduring symbol of sacrifice and human achievement” in “Beastly Natures.”

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Evolution of Space Creatures

In the days before spaceflights had human crews, the United States primarily looked to using apes as test subjects. The reason for the Soviet Union’s choice of dogs over apes as test subjects is unclear, except that Ivan Pavlov’s groundbreaking work on dog philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century may have given a strong background for the use of dogs. 

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A source also said there were many stray dogs on the streets of the Soviet Union, easy to find and not likely to be missed.

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The Hope For Positive Results

Between 1951 and 1966, according to Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs, the authors of Animals In Space, the Soviet Union launched canines into space flights about 71 times with 17 recorded failures. 

Source: Wikipedia

The Russian Space Programme continues to use animals for space flight tests, but in every case, except Laika’s, they had hope that the tests and the other animals’ safety would yield positive results.

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Celebrating Laika's Contributions to Space Exploration

Despite the controversy surrounding her mission, Laika’s legacy and impact on space exploration cannot be denied by anyone. Her sacrifice paved the way for future human spaceflight and helped scientists understand the effects of spaceflight on living organisms.

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Laika also inspired a generation of space enthusiasts and animal lovers, and her memory continues to be honored through various memorials and tributes. 

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Giving the Pioneering Space Dog Her Flowers

Laika, the space dog, will always be remembered as a heroic pioneer in space exploration. Her gift, while controversial, has helped advance scientific knowledge and inspire future generations of scientists and explorers. 

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Laika’s story serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made in pursuing scientific advancement. We honor her memory and legacy as we continue pushing the boundaries of space exploration.

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