Fifty four years ago this week, on November 3, 1957, the Soviet government launched Sputnik 2. Inside was Laika, the first traveler to voyage beyond our planet’s protective embrace. Alongside the specter of Soviet domination and world war, her mission revealed a more basic underside of human endeavor: the sacrifice and barbarism that sometimes makes it possible. For a grueling seven hours, she barked her way around Earth – her name meant “Barker” – and died an unknown death in a mission that would pave the way for all the human spaceflight to come.
Laika was found as a stray on the streets of Moscow, chosen because scientists assumed that such animals had learned to endure difficult conditions. An eleven-pound, rougly three-year-old mongrel female, Laika was likely part husky. For twenty days, she trained for her mission by suffering progressively smaller chambers meant to simulate conditions of her voyage. She was trained to eat a special gel that would provide nourishment during her journey, and subjected to extreme launch-like conditions. Among the dogs that were tested by the Soviets, Laika seemed the most comfortable with the difficult prospect of going to the stars, and described by her trainers as being more congenial with humans than with other dogs.
Laika couldn’t have known where she was going, nor that her human overseers had no idea how to bring her back home. The craft was undoubtedly the most advanced of its kind, containing instruments for life support, a fan to keep the dog cool, and equipment for monitoring its lone furry occupant.
At peak acceleration, her respiration increased to between three and four times the pre-launch rate, from 103 beats/min before launch to 240 beats/min during the early acceleration. After three hours of weightlessness, Laika’s pulse rate had settled back to 102 beats/min, about three times longer than it had taken during ground tests, an indication of the stress she was under. Early data indicated that for the better part of her voyage, Earth’s first space traveler was agitated but eating her food.
But science knew no method of planetary reentry. After roughly 7 hours of monitored suffering, on her fourth circuit around the globe, Laika’s vital signs were lost.
Russian operators have cited a number of different causes of death since the mission’s conclusion, including oxygen starvation due to a failed life support battery and overheating from an insulation malfunction after the capsule containing Laika separated from the craft. Five months later, her body burned up when the craft reentered the atmosphere.
As Josh Kopstein wrote last year in these pages, “Before Laika, it wasn’t known if a living being could even survive in space, or for how long. Humans throughout history have used animals to further scientific discovery, and Laika’s mission received considerable backlash from animal rights organizations even before the mission had concluded. One scientist who trained Laika even regrets sending the dog on the doomed mission, stating that it was impossible to create a properly insulated craft given the time restrictions placed on them by Khrushchev, who was anxious to claim another ‘Soviet victory’ in space following the success of Sputnik 1. Because of this, many viewed Sputnik 2 as a rushed gesture designed only to further solidify Soviet dominance in space.”
Laika contributed to more than just space science: she sparked a debate across the globe over the mistreatment of animals and scientific animal testing in general. The United Kingdom’s National Canine Defense League called on all dog owners to observe a minute’s silence. Animal rights groups called for protest outside Soviet embassies, and others demonstrated outside the United Nations in New York. The tributes to the “muttnik,” as the American press endearingly referred to her at the time, extended from newspaper editorials to a cigarette brand.
In 1988, Oleg Gazenko, one of the Sputnik scientists, expressed regret: “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot 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.”
Today Laika’s memory lives on in monuments, paintings, blog posts, and in the continued quest to reach beyond the blue-glowing borders of our planet. Her own quest will serve as a milestone in the history of “man’s best friend” – and a reminder that sometimes, that friendship can get quite complicated.