Laika was a Soviet space dog. She was one of the first animals in space, and the first animal to orbit the Earth. In 1957, Laika became the first animal launched into orbit, paving the way for human spaceflight.
As little was known about the impact of spaceflight on living creatures at the time of Laika’s mission, and as the technology to de-orbit had not yet been developed, there was no expectation of Laika’s survival. Some scientists believed humans would be unable to survive the launch or the conditions of outer space, so engineers viewed flights by animals as a necessary precursor to human missions.
Laika, a stray dog from the streets of Moscow, was originally named Kudryavka. She underwent training with two other dogs, and was eventually selected to be the occupant of the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 that was launched into outer space on November 3, 1957.
Laika died within hours after launch from overheating, possibly caused by a failure of the central R-7 sustainer to separate from the payload. The true cause and time of her death were not made public until 2002; instead, it was widely reported that she died when her oxygen ran out on day six, or as the Soviet government initially claimed, she was euthanised prior to oxygen depletion. The experiment aimed to prove that a living passenger could survive being launched into orbit and endure weightlessness, paving the way forhuman spaceflight and providing scientists with some of the first data on how living organisms react to spaceflight environments.
On April 11, 2008, Russian officials unveiled a monument to Laika. A small monument in her honour was built near the military research facility in Moscow which prepared Laika’s flight to space. It features a dog standing on top of a rocket.
Laika was found as a stray wandering the streets of Moscow. Soviet scientists chose to use Moscow strays since they assumed that such animals had already learned to endure conditions of extreme cold and hunger.This specimen was an eleven-pound mongrel female, approximately three years old. Another account reported that she weighed about 6 kg. Soviet personnel gave her several names and nicknames, among them Kudryavka (Russian for Little Curly), Zhuchka (Little Bug) and Limonchik (Little Lemon). Laika, the Russian name for several breeds of dogs similar to the husky, was the name popularized around the world. The American press dubbed her Muttnik as a punon Sputnik,or referred to her as Curly.Her true pedigree is unknown, although it is generally accepted that she was part husky or other Nordic breed, and possibly partterrier. A Russian magazine described her temperament as phlegmatic, saying that she did not quarrel with other dogs.Vladimir Yazdovsky, who led the program of test dogs used on rockets, in a later publication wrote that “Laika was quiet and charming”.
The Soviet Union and United States had previously sent animals only on sub-orbital flights. Three dogs were trained for the Sputnik 2 flight: Albina, Mushka, and Laika. Soviet space-life scientists Vladimir Yazdovsky and Oleg Gazenko trained the dogs.
To adapt the dogs to the confines of the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2, they were kept in progressively smaller cages for periods up to 20 days. The extensive close confinement caused them to stop urinating or defecating, made them restless, and caused their general condition to deteriorate. Laxatives did not improve their condition, and the researchers found that only long periods of training proved effective. The dogs were placed in centrifuges that simulated the acceleration of a rocket launch and were placed in machines that simulated the noises of the spacecraft. This caused their pulses to double and their blood pressure to increase by 30–65 torr. The dogs were trained to eat a special high-nutrition gel that would be their food in space.
Before the launch, one of the scientists took Laika home to play with his children. In a book chronicling the story of Soviet space medicine, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky wrote, “I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.”
Laika was to be the “flight dog”—a sacrifice to science on a one-way mission to space. Albina, who already flew twice on a high-altitude test rocket, was to act as Laika’s backup. The third dog Mushka was a “control dog”—she was to stay on the ground and be used to test instrumentation and life support.
Before leaving for the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Yazdovsky and Gazenko conducted surgery on the dogs. They routed the cables from the transmitters to the sensors that would measure breathing, pulse and blood-pressure.
Because the existing airstrip at Turatam near the cosmodrome was small, the dogs and crew had to be first flown aboard a Tu-104 plane to Tashkent. From there, a smaller and lighter Il-14 plane took them to Turatam. Training of dogs continued upon arrival, one after another they were placed in the capsules to get familiar with the feeding system.
According to a NASA document, Laika was placed in the capsule of the satellite on October 31, 1957—three days before the start of the mission. At that time of year the temperatures at the launch site were extremely cold, and a hose connected to a heater was used to keep her container warm. Two assistants were assigned to keep a constant watch on Laika before launch. Just prior to liftoff on November 3, 1957 from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Laika’s fur was sponged in a weak alcohol solution and carefully groomed, whileiodine was painted onto the areas where sensors would be placed to monitor her bodily functions.
One of the technicians preparing the capsule before final liftoff states that “after placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight.”
The exact time of the liftoff varies from source to source and is mentioned as 05:30:42 Moscow Time or 07:22 Moscow Time. At peak acceleration Laika’s respiration increased to between three and four times the pre-launch rate. The sensors showed her heart rate was 103 beats/min before launch and increased to 240 beats/min during the early acceleration. After reaching orbit, Sputnik 2’s nose cone was jettisoned successfully; however the “Block A” core did not separate as planned, preventing the thermal control system from operating correctly. Some of the thermal insulation tore loose, raising the cabin temperature to 40 °C (104 °F). After three hours of weightlessness, Laika’s pulse rate had settled back to 102 beats/min, three times longer than it had taken during earlier ground tests, an indication of the stress she was under. The early telemetry indicated that Laika was agitated but eating her food. After approximately five to seven hours into the flight, no further signs of life were received from the spacecraft.
The Soviet scientists had planned to euthanize Laika with a poisoned serving of food. For many years, the Soviet Union gave conflicting statements that she had died either from oxygen starvation when the batteries failed, or that she had been euthanized. Many rumors circulated about the exact manner of her death. In 1999, several Russian sources reported that Laika had died when the cabin overheated on the fourth day. In October 2002, Dimitri Malashenkov, one of the scientists behind the Sputnik 2 mission, revealed that Laika had died by the fourth circuit of flight from overheating. According to a paper he presented to the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas, “It turned out that it was practically impossible to create a reliable temperature control system in such limited time constraints.”
Over five months later, after 2,570 orbits, Sputnik 2 disintegrated—along with Laika’s remains—during re-entry on April 14, 1958.