Laika is one of the most famous animals in history. This female dog made history as the first living being in space, paving the way for human space travel. However, it´s almost certain that if she had been asked for consent she would´ve refused, considering that there was no expectation of her coming back.
Picture of Laika
Laika’s mission was one of suicidal character, a one-way trip without return, a sacrifice that Soviet scientists and politicians thought was more than justified in order to analyze the physiological behavior of a living being under the influence of microgravity (very close to zero gravity) in space, and of course, to overtake the United States in the Cold War. But how exactly did the Laika project materialize?
Laika and the Cold War
Just a month before Laika´s trip, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets launch into space the first artificial satellite in history: the Sputnik 1.
Soviet scientist working on Sputnik 1
The event created a big impact in the West, especially in the United States, who realized it was lagging behind in space technology. Moreover, the same technology that launched Sputnik 1 could be used to launch nuclear warheads from continent to continent, which was unacceptable for President Eisenhower. Thus, the Space Era was born and the race from both countries to conquest the stars is accelerated. In this context, is no surprise that Nikita Khrushchev, Russian Prime Minister by that time, was elated with the win and anxious to show a second (and more powerful) demonstration of power.
Khrushchev ordered a “space show” for the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which was just a month away, and that´s when the Laika project took shape. Space scientists had sent dogs on suborbital flights before, so they thought this was a perfect chance to finally take a living being to space. Laika was one of the stray dogs adopted by Soviet scientists, who “recruited” strays because they felt these dogs were more adapted to endure cold and hunger. Thus, three dogs were trained for this mission: Laika, Albina and Mushka.
Mushka was used to test instruments, Albina was sent twice at great heights in a test rocket, and Laika was chosen (unfortunately for her) as the dog who´d travel to space and never come back.
Laika in training
In case any complications emerged with Laika during prelaunch, Albina would replace her. Training consisted in simulations that mimicked a rocket´s sounds and acceleration, and the confinement of the dogs in gradually smaller compartments, preparing them to finally occupy the space of the satellite:
Mockup of Laika on Sputnik 2´s capsule
As the image shows, the capsule´s space was very small. A fan was placed to be activated if the temperature exceeded 59º F and the dog had body sensors to measure respiration and blood pressure. As for the food, she had nutritional gels that could´ve lasted for seven days (she was adapted to eating those during her training). Three days before launch, Laika was put on the Sputnik 2 capsule permanently so that she would get completely used to it. The space was so small, she could only stand up, sit down and make some movement to get the food.
A day before launch, one of the scientists brought the dog to his house to play with the children, in consideration of what was coming next. And finally, on November 3, 1957, Laika was launched into space.
Launch of Sputnik 2
Life and death in space
During moments of peak acceleration, Laika´s respiration tripled and even quadrupled, only returning to normal after 3 hours, demonstrating the great amount of stress she was into. A mechanical issue with the temperature regulator caused overheating, which accelerated her death. How soon Laika died has been highly controversial, since no signals were received on Earth after 5 or 7 hours. Some theories say she died on the fourth day by the release of a gas inside the capsule, others said she died in the same way but on the seventh day, and others that she died on the tenth day due to the termination of the batteries of the devices that facilitated life inside the capsule. However, Dimitri Malashenkov, one of the scientists behind the Sputnik 2 project, revealed in the World Space Congress of 2002 in Houston, Texas, that Laika most likely had died due to stress and overheating just a few hours after launch.
Needless to say, Laika´s death caused outrage by animal rights activists, and a debate emerged regarding animal´s use in scientific experiments. However, this discussion didn´t intensify until years after Laika´s death. The reason for this is that when Sputnik 2 took off, the whole world was much more interested in discussing the event from a political standpoint and what it represented to the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia. Keep in mind that on previous occasions animals had already been sent into suborbital flights (as mentioned before): the U.S. used to send chimpanzees while the Soviets experimented sending dogs.
Some of these animals also died, but the big difference is that all of them were sent with a return plan (although they eventually died accidentally), while Laika was destined to die since the rocket took off. In my opinion, this is what made this event so shameful: for the mere objective of giving a “space show” on the Revolution Anniversary, the government omitted a return plan for Laika. There was no need to do something like this; remember that scientists had only one month for designing and building (!) Sputnik 2, and the result of this haste was the poor temperature regulatory system inside the capsule, which made Laika die from overheating way before the 7 days of orbital life that were scheduled for her. Even Oleg Gazenko, who was the scientist that chose Laika to go into space and conducted her training, said the following in 1998, over 40 years after the event:
“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who can not 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.”
However, even tragedies have a positive side. In this case, it´s the fact that Laika passed into history as the first living being in space, admired by the whole world for her sacrifice, and remembered as a hero in the hearts of the space community. Part of her legacy also includes a greater justice for animals that subsequently traveled to space: none of them were sent without a return plan. But the best way to show this dog´s footprint in humanity is the numerous monuments made on her behalf, from a 2-meter high statue in the center of Moscow, to stamps…
…to paintings, like this one at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles…
…to the cigarettes brand: “Laika Cigarettes”…
…to a zone on Mars baptized as “Laika” by NASA…
Laika´s zone in Mars
…to monuments like this one at the “Homo Sapiens” museum in Crete, Greece…
…to these words by Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut in space:
“I still don´t know whether I´m the ‘first man’ or the ‘last dog’ to fly into space.”