Note: This canine cosmonaut tale touches on some sensitive topics. If you want to look at cute dog pics and come back another day, click here. If you continue to read, perhaps grab some tissues.
On the 3rd of November 1957, at 5:30 a.m., a tiny, frightened stray dog was rocketed into orbit by the Soviet Union. Her name was Laika. 2022 marked the 65th anniversary of Laika’s fatal space mission.
Laika’s one-way journey also sparked the beginning of the animal rights movement during the 1960s which argues for the rights and moral recognition of all animals.
Laika was the very first animal to make an orbital spaceflight around Earth. The decision to send a dog into orbit was largely down to Nikita Krushchev (First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) who wanted to repeat the success of Sputnik 1 on a larger scale and show the world the true power of the USSR. He settled on achieving this by planning an orbital flight - with a dog.
Sputnik 2 was also planned to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution so to satisfy Krushchev’s grand demands, Soviet recruiters set about collecting stray female dogs from the streets of Russia. If they could successfully send dogs to space, what else could they achieve, and what power potential could this unlock?
Once they had gathered a small group of stray dogs, they began to test for obedience, reactions to changes in air pressure, and loud noises - surely enough to terrify anyone. Footage of such tests can be viewed in the 2020 documentary Space Dogs, though watch at your own discretion.
After narrowing it down to just two potential choices, doctors performed gruesome surgery on both dogs, embedding medical devices into their bodies to monitor heart impulses, breathing rates, physical movement, and blood pressure.
Following extreme experiments and surgery, Kudryavka (Curly) was chosen because of her docile and submissive nature. She later became known as Laika (derived from the Russian verb ‘bark’) after barking repeatedly on the radio when introduced to the public.
To adapt Laika to the small cabin of Sputnik 2, she was kept in a cage that began to get continuously smaller over a period of twenty days. Such cruel confinement caused her to stop urinating and defecating and for her overall condition to rapidly decline.
The spacecraft itself was something of a rushed project, designed and built within just four weeks. This speaks volumes about the level of concern for Laika and her well-being
Sending dogs to space caused wonder and bewilderment amongst Western audiences. The Soviets utilised this, parading a cast of cosmonaut dogs and subsequent merchandise to the press in an attempt to entertain and cover their dark secret - Sputnik 2 was not designed for recovery and Laika’s death was imminent.
Though they were pawns in a much larger game, the space dogs became recognised as soviet heroes paving the way for the future of space travel long after Laika’s death.
Doctors estimated that Laika would die from oxygen deprivation after just seven days, giving her no expected chances of survival. This story was spun and sold to the public, framing Laika’s inescapable death as painless and stress-free. A reward for such a sacrifice to space science.
Using stray dogs was also a strategic effort. No one was going to give up their pet and why would they have to when strays are more independent and self-sufficient? Sadly, and arguably the most important factor, these dogs had no owners so would not be missed.
Though Soviet scientists promoted the mission as daring and exciting, Laika was chained into the spacecraft to limit any movement. She was also fitted with an invasive bag to collect waste.
With just one meal and a seven-day oxygen supply, Laika was sent off to space. It’s reported that before lift-off, a female physician broke protocol by feeding Laika one final meal. A heartbreaking goodbye to a sweet-natured and trusting dog.
When Sputnik 2 lifted off, Laika’s heart rate tripled and her breath rate quadrupled. Terrified, cramped, overheated, and alone, she died soon after.
Since her mission, Laika has been hailed as a dog superhero. Whilst it was claimed, at the time, she allowed huge advancements in space travel to be made, this turned out to be somewhat of a lie.
Through all of her suffering, the mission failed to be justifiable, even conclusively agreed upon by officials. In 1998 at a Moscow press conference, Oleg Gazenko, a senior scientist involved in the project stated, “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog”.
Gazenko lived with the guilt of Laika’s death for the rest of his life even adopting Krasavka, another cosmonaut dog, in an attempt to heal the pain. During her training, Gazenko bonded with Laika and requested a window to be built into Sputnik 2 in the hope that she might be able to glimpse at the world below.
A biologist involved in the Sputnik 2 launch, Adilya Kotovskaya, recalled in an interview, “I asked her to forgive us and I even cried as I stroked her for the last time.”
Dr Vladimir Yazdovsky, another scientist involved in the mission, took Laika home a few days before the launch so she could spend time playing with his children. In a book on Soviet space, he recalled, “Laika was quiet and charming... I wanted to do something nice for her: she had so little time left to live.”
The statements from those involved with the project all have one thing in common; deep remorse.
For years, the public was told that Laika died peacefully when her oxygen supply depleted but it was revealed, in 2002, that her true cause of death was stress and overheating due to a fault in the air conditioning system.
Technology was not advanced enough for such missions to have taken place successfully, as reflected and agreed upon by Soviet researchers involved in Laika’s mission. The famous dog cosmonauts, though well-liked by the public, became the product of an animal cruelty space race between Russia and the United States.
Though Laika’s story is tragic, it is not the last. During the 20th century, the United States sent monkeys and apes to space to determine the safety of such travel for humans. The first ever mammal in space, a rhesus monkey named Albert II, died on landing due to a defective parachute in 1949. (There was an Albert I but he died before taking off.)
In 1961, the US launched Enos the chimpanzee into space. He died not long after due to a technical malfunction subjecting him to 76 electric shocks. This abhorrent use of animals placed an entire catalogue of ethical concerns at the forefront of future space travel when it seemed like almost every animal involved was continuously subjected to horrific abuse - and even death - in the name of science. (See also: Ham the chimpanzee and Félicette the cat.)
Whilst animals paved the way for human space exploration, they gave their lives unwillingly and were unable to reap any kind of benefit or reward. Sadly, all animals used in the space experiments of the 1950s-1960s were merely objects in the political turmoil taking place at the time.
Though Laika’s journey is now globally recognised and immortalised through art, poetry, and memorabilia, it’s important to remember that she had no input in this sacrificial mission. Laika’s journey raised dozens of questions concerning the ethics of sending animals to space and challenged the continued use in further missions.
In 2008, more than half a century after her fatal flight, a statue of Laika was unveiled in Moscow. The statue is an abstract piece, depicting a rocket and hand morphed into one, cradling Laika and pointing upwards towards the stars - if only she had been shown so much care and consideration in reality.
The determination by Russia to now memorialise Laika as some sort of national symbol seems more like an exercise of guilt and, if anything, a little too late.
Though she was undoubtedly brave, it seems more fitting that Laika should be recognised for what she was; an unwilling victim and collateral damage rather than a hero.
As we continue to explore space, Laika’s story should give us pause to do so in a way that considers all, not just humankind. They say dogs are our closest companions but Laika’s story tells the opposite - a betrayal of trust and loyalty that should serve as a heartbreaking reminder to honour our canine friends with respect and kindness, always.
If you find yourself looking up at the moon or stars tonight, spare a thought for Laika, cosmic queen of the canine world and all of the other animals who lost their lives in sacrifice for space exploration.
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