Ellen has been an online writer for over 12 years. Her articles focus on everything from gardening to engineering.
A Casualty of Politics
Meet Laika, the stray dog who became a space pioneer.
During the Cold War, politicians on both sides made cold calculations about lives. How many nukes to aim at Moscow, where millions of civilians lived? How many to aim at New York? How many people should we sacrifice in Vietnam to keep it from becoming Communist? Under such circumstances, it's not surprising that one stray dog was sacrificed for political gain.
At the time, the news media focused most of its coverage on the Russian space program's successes, not the fate of one canine cosmonaut.
Now we realize that Laika's story matters more than feats of national oneupmanship. She was the first living creature from Earth to reach outer space—and the first one to die there.
What Kind of Dog Was Laika?
While she was popularly known as Laika (which means "Barker" in Russian), which is also a Russian breed of husky, she may have been a smooth fox terrier mix, weighing in at a tiny 13 pounds. (She certainly looks like one.)
The Russian space program needed very small dogs. They also needed tough dogs. So they rounded up strays from the streets of Moscow, mutts who had endured harsh Russian winters.
Mission: Sputnik II
In 1957, flush with the triumph of Sputnik I, the first successful launch of a satellite into space, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded another "space spectacular." He wanted it to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution on November 7.
There was just one problem. Getting any satellite into orbit was an amazing achievement, and took years of planning. Sputnik I was launched on October 4. Russia's fledgling space program had a month to stage something even more incredible.
How could they top Sputnik? Simple: send a living animal into space!
Sending Dogs Into Space
The Russian space program had already been preparing for manned flight with suborbital test flights, sending dogs up in ballistic missiles and bringing them down with parachutes. These lab animals had been confined to tiny cages for 20 days or more, forced to sit very still, eat a gel for nutrition, and endure stress tests in centrifuges and other "Right Stuff" torture chambers.
Laika ("Barker"), initially called Kudryavka ("Little Curly") by her trainers, was selected for the Sputnik II mission. She was well-behaved and would urinate sitting down, an ability that made her tragically suitable for a space capsule.
The race was on to build Sputnik II. A space capsule was cobbled together with minimal life support. There was no time to design a system for returning its passenger to Earth: it would simply burn up on reentry.
Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky, a doctor who worked with Russia's space dogs, described Laika as "quiet and charming." He took her home to play with his children the night before she was placed in the capsule. "I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live."
First Animal in Space: November 4, 1957
Sputnik II was ready just three weeks after Khrushchev demanded his "space spectacular." In fact, it was ready ahead of schedule, so the launch was slated for November 4, 1957. It was one month and one day after Sputnik I.
Laika was placed into her cramped capsule three days before launch, in order to assemble the rockets that would carry her into space. She endured close confinement and dangerously cold temperatures on the launch pad. Finally, launch day arrived. During her ascent, Laika's vital signs showed great stress, but she calmed down enough to relax and eat a little food after reaching space.
Her journey was brief. She was supposed to be euthanized with a dose of poisoned food administered after one week, before her oxygen ran out. That was the official Soviet story, which would let them claim that she was still alive in space on November 7, anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
However, the capsule's temperature controls malfunctioned. We now know that Laika died of overheating about 5-7 hours after launch. For five more months, Earth was orbited by a dead dog, the second thing humans ever put into space.
Sputnik II remained in orbit until April 14, 1958, when it was cremated upon reentering Earth's atmosphere.
Did We Gain Anything From Laika's Death?
When the fate of Laika became known, it sparked an international outcry. Laika became an unofficial mascot for the movement for humane treatment of animals. The debate about animal testing continues to this day, but Laika helped raise awareness of the problem.
Indirectly, Laika was also responsible for the U.S. space program, since Russia's early space successes goaded the U.S. into a competitive frenzy that would spur the creation of NASA and the resolve to send men to the Moon.
Russian scientists did learn a few things from Laika's ordeal. Until then, it was not known whether a living creature could survive in outer space. Instruments on Sputnik II gathered information about radiation and, of course, Laika's vital signs. That information helped space scientists develop reentry vehicles for the next dogs in space, and, eventually, cosmonauts.
But of course, that was just the scientists trying to salvage some useful data from what was essentially a heartless publicity stunt. Several members of the Sputnik II team voiced their regrets after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when they finally felt safe revealing the full facts of the mission:
"The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it...We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog." — Oleg Gazenko, Russian Space Program, 1998
Lest We Blame it All on the U.S.S.R....
Yes, I know: this story fits in with what we are told about the harsh pragmatism of Soviet Russia. But that doesn't let us off the hook. Are we sure that 1950s America wouldn't have sacrificed a dog or two in pursuit of oneupmanship against its arch-rival? Look up Bikini Atoll.
The Cold War led to many callous decisions, only a few of which I've outlined above. Also, consider how many thousands of pets are euthanized in shelters every day: abandoned, confined to tiny cages, and then killed. We are not as "civilized" as we would like to think.
Laika's story reflects not just the brutality of any one regime or ruthless leader, but the darker side of human ingenuity. The creatures of this planet are at our mercy. Let's try to be merciful.
Please share this story. Laika shouldn't be forgotten.
Mini-Documentary Showing Laika and Other Russian Space Dogs
"What Happened to Laika"
The six-minute mini-documentary above, directed by David Hoffman, shows rare video of Laika and some of her successors. (When you see two dogs, it's from later missions; one dog with a dark nose and white stripe down her forehead is Laika.)
The newsreels illustrate Cold War fears.
Credit: Hoffman uploaded this to promote his critically-acclaimed film.
- Space.com article on Laika
(via Internet Archive) Good historical article detailing the story of Laika and the Sputnik II mission, including top scientists who worked on the program.
- Homage to Laika and other Russian space animals
Web site devoted to the welfare of Moscow's homeless animals. (Includes more rare photos of Laika)
- Sputnik-2, more news from distant history
2002 article revealing declassified data of the Sputnik II mission from Russian space scientists who monitored Laika's vital signs.
- NASA - Sputnik II
NASA's entry on Sputnik II and Laika, with a few photos of the famous pooch.
- Rare Photo of Laika - Terrierman's Daily Dose -
Terrierman.com's Daily Dose: unusual photo of Laika in her space suit. Also, this is where I found the theory that she might be part smooth fox terrier.
- Laika, Space Dog (Stamp Collection Site)
Website on rare stamps discusses the story of Laika while covering commemorative stamps in her honor.
- List of non-human astronauts by Jonathan McDowell
I didn't use this, but it's a useful table showing the extensive animal testing done to prep for human spaceflight.
- Laika "The World Kennel": A Japanese anime short
An online animation studio dramatizes Laika's story. [Quite good, but the attempt to soften a tragedy via Laika's cuddly fictional friend doesn't quite work for me.]
Manuel Mendez on October 31, 2018:
I only cry out for the all humans on earth, who use animals specially dogs on medically research, one day they will receive what they deserve, you don't ruin something, to fix another thing. I always say, animals in they own language, system, and expressions are more grateful then humans to the gift of life. My consolation is that, the experience of dying for those animals, will be also the experience for those cruel systems on earth.
Alen on July 29, 2017:
More and more disgusted with humanity... i feel so sorry for the dog... poor thing didnt even know what was going on
Georgene Moizuk Bramlage from southwestern Virginia on January 14, 2015:
Excellent, well-written Hub.
Lissa Clason from Fayetteville, NC on October 30, 2014:
Laika's story is so sad. She trusted the people who sent her up there, and she must have had no idea what was happening. She died all alone up there, millions of miles away from help. I know the data they got was helpful, but it's still not right, sending a dog up there and not knowing what was going to happen up there. I found a song on youtube about Laika, from her point of view, that is pretty heartbreaking to listen to because you see how innocent and trusting she was. As a dog, she didn't understand what was happening, but she wanted to help her masters.
Caren White on August 26, 2014:
What a wonderful and sad hub! I remember learning about Laika in school (many, many years ago) but we were never told that she died in space. Thank you so much for sharing her story. Voted up and awesome.
Ellen (author) from California on August 23, 2014:
Oh, Susanna (hell0)! It was hard enough to learn about this as an adult; I can't imagine hearing about it as a child. The handful of years that separate us saved me from at least one loss of innocence, it seems.
Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on August 23, 2014:
I remember Little Laika from the newspapers at the time and would cry in my pillow at night thinking of her up there, scared and alone. Poor little thing
Ellen (author) from California on June 06, 2014:
Note that the U.S. has done equally horrific things on both animals and human test subjects.
People can be pretty danged unethical, sad to say.
poochie on May 29, 2014:
What a sad story!!!!How could the Russians do that!!??I am SO mad at them!!That poor innocent thing!
ReuVera from USA on December 04, 2013:
I grew up with the story about Laika. Of course, those years it was told differently to soviet children. Only decades later the truth came out.
It was very nice of you to write about Laika. Yes, many people did'n have any idea about it.
Tim from Los Angeles, CA on August 04, 2013:
Not a very enjoyable hub but glad you are sharing this story! The video just kills me. seeing Laika look up so trusting as they are strapping her in to his doom.
Barbara Badder from USA on July 27, 2013:
This is the first time I've heard this story. The story is sad. The poor dog.
marian on February 19, 2013:
the dog laika so amazing and it is so sad
Paul Goodman from Florida USA on October 22, 2012:
The Laika story is terribly sad. I remember reading a book on the mission and Laika's background and role. You've summarized the story and the related issues very well. Generally, I am sympathetic to animal rights, but there are situations where it seems ethical to me. Laika's treatment did not seem defensible, however.
moodle on September 23, 2012:
What a sad, sad story. Thanks for telling it. And I like your drawing of Laika.
pramodgokhale from Pune( India) on August 21, 2012:
I deeply expressed sorrow of Laika's death.CHRIS57 rightly said that Belka and Strelka female dogs were sent to space by Sputnik and safely returned.
Human is a smart animal, first test on animal for drugs ,medicines, space and after successful results ,used for own benefit if harmless.
Angela Blair from Central Texas on August 19, 2012:
I knew about this and have abhorred the idea of using animals this way all my life -- what insensitive cruelty. Thanks for reminding us -- we never need to forget! Best/Sis
Ellen (author) from California on August 19, 2012:
CHRIS: Thanks! I think I knew that as a kid but had forgotten (this all happened before I was born).
Sending puppies is a much more benign form of oneupmanship. I wish our politicians would do more of that kind of thing. ;)
Shasta Matova from USA on August 19, 2012:
That is a sad story and one I hadn't heard either.
CHRIS57 from Northern Germany on August 19, 2012:
To cheer you up, there is also the story of "Belka" and "Strelka". Two dogs who where sent into orbit in 1960 along with rats and other animals and landed safely back on earth.
Strelka later gave birth to 5 puppies. One of the puppies was supposedly given to Carline Kennedy as a gift. Who knows.
SunsetSky from USA on August 19, 2012:
That is so sad. I had no idea.
mythbuster from Utopia, Oz, You Decide on August 18, 2012:
I had never heard of Laika before. Thanks for sharing this sad story. Poor Laika (sigh).