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Last updated on April 23, 2014 at 12:54 EDT

First in Orbit, Laika the Dog Made History

December 30, 2004

History records the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin as the first man to orbit the earth, on April 12, 1961. However, he was not the first in space. A female orbited the earth three years earlier. On November 3, 1957, Laika, a six-pound female terrier mix from the streets of Moscow, blasted her way into the hearts of the world when she became the first earthling to orbit the planet in the Russian satellite Sputnik 2.

News of the brave pup spread quickly and the world watched in awe as human- and canine-kind entered the Space Age. But sadder news spread also, as it was revealed that the Russians did not yet have the technological means that would allow Laika to return to earth.

Response to the Russians’ decision to send Laika into space without means for her return ranged from sadness to outrage. In the United Kingdom, in honor of Laika’s courage, The National Canine Defense League called on all friends of dogs to observe a minute of silence every day that Laika was in space, while animal rights groups around the world called on their members to protest at Russian embassies.

In addition to Laika, the Russians trained other dogs for use in their space program. Female dogs were chosen because of their temperament and the fact they did not need to lift their leg to urinate in confined spaces. Their training included standing still for long periods of time, wearing space suits, being placed in simulators that accelerated like a rocket launch, and being kept in progressively smaller cages to prepare them for the confines of space capsules.

As would be expected of most dogs, training and attention produced loyalty and dedication to their tasks; these dogs got aboard rockets that lifted them into the unknown frontier of space. (However, two of the dogs did run away before their appointed flight time.)

Of the 13 dogs the Russians sent into space, five gave their lives in service to the Soviet cause. Among the eight who survived their flights was Strelka, who orbited the earth 18 times in August 1960, returning safely to earth to later give birth to a litter of six healthy puppies. One puppy, named Pushinka, was given to President John F. Kennedy as a gift. Pushinka’s offspring are still members of the Kennedy family today.

A variety of animals were sent into space: dogs, chimps, monkeys, rats and mice. Of all these early space pioneers, Laika was the only traveler whose safe return to earth was not accommodated. Sputnik 2 was a hastily organized flight, launched only one month after the unmanned Sputnik 1 in October of 1957.

The need to launch Sputnik 2 so soon after Sputnik 1 was due to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s insistence that the Soviets celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on Nov. 7, 1957 with a second, ground-breaking space flight. Having only one month to prepare, the Soviet rocket scientists cut corners in order to accommodate Khrushchev’s deadline; Laika paid a tragic price for a purely political purpose.

Controversy and uncertainty orbited Laika’s planned demise. The official version from the Russian space agency was that Laika would automatically be fed poisoned food at the end of the 10-day mission and would die peacefully, thus sparing her a painful, fiery death as the spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere. However, immediately after the flight, the Russians concluded that Laika had died after only four days due to overheating in the spacecraft.

That conclusion stood for over 40 years, until October 2002, when a stunning announcement was made at the World Space Congress in Houston: Laika died only four hours into the flight of Sputnik 2 due to psychological stress and overheating problems in the space capsule brought on by a failure of the insulating system.

For most who have heard her story, Laika represents a pioneering spirit who had the destiny of being used in a political climate which exploited her trusting nature for dubious benefits. Although some scientific knowledge was gleaned from Laika’s first flight orbiting the earth, the results are summed up best by Oleg Gazenko, a leading member of the Soviet team that trained Laika and put her into space. Speaking at a news conference in Moscow in 1998, 41 years after Laika’s flight, he said, “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.”

Today, Laika is remembered over all other canine cosmonauts. Stamps have been printed in her honor. Inspired by her bravery, several present-day music groups bear her name. In 1997, a monument to the Soviet Union’s fallen space heroes was erected at Star City, the cosmonaut training center near Moscow. Peering out from behind the fallen cosmonauts is the image of a small dog, ears perked. It is Laika, the very first to orbit the earth.

Phil Mahon and Rae Ann Kumelos are owners of Star Hill Inn, an astronomy retreat in Sapello, N.M. Mahon has taught astronomy at Star Hill for the past 16 years, while Kumelos is a Ph.D. candidate in mythology. Contact them at www.starhillinn.com

January Skies

* JAN. 2 and 3 — The Quadranid meteor shower peaks the evening of the 2nd and early morning the 3rd. Some years have seen meteor rates as high as 120 per hour. The highest peak of this shower is forecast to be around 5 a.m. Jan. 3.

* JAN. 7 — Comet Machholz should be at the limit of visibility as it dances by the Pleiades star cluster. This famous cluster (often called “The Seven Sisters”) is visible in the eastern skies early in the evening. Keep track of the comet with binoculars as it moves through the eastern skies this month.

* JAN. 13 — The ringed planet Saturn reaches its brightest magnitude and remains visible the entire night. Look for a bright yellow “star” in the eastern skies just after sunset. A telescope with at least 60 X magnification will show the glorious rings of Saturn.