57 years ago, a Muscovite street dog became the world’s first orbital explorer. She also suffered for our gain.
“Laika” by Jenny Schukin. Image: © Jenny Schukin, used with permission
On this day in 1957, a stray mutt named Laika became the first animal ever to orbit the Earth. She was launched on Sputnik 2, a mission that reinforced the huge lead that the Soviet space program had over the Americans in the early years of the space race. Her historic voyage marked a major milestone for space exploration, and she has become an international symbol of triumph over impossible odds.
But there is a darker side to this optimistically heroic image we have thrust on the most famous of the canine cosmonauts. Mere hours after she boldly went where no dog had gone before, Laika made history for a second time by becoming the first animal to die in orbit.
For decades, Soviet officials lied about the time, cause, and manner of her death, claiming that she passed away painlessly several days after the launch. Some even claimed she hung on for a full week. But in 2002, Sputnik 2 scientist Dimitri Malashenkov put a near half-century of rumors to rest by admitting Laika died on her fourth circuit around the Earth, about five to seven hours after launch.
And her death was, unfortunately, far from painless.
The Soviets may have had a head start on the Americans, but by no means did that mean that their spacecraft were flight-ready. Sputnik 2 was hurriedly launched less than a month after Sputnik 1, and Laika was never intended to survive the journey. The plan was to euthanize her with poisoned dog food after several days of tests, but instead, a malfunction in the slapdash temperature control system resulted in her dying from stress and overheating.
Throughout all of this, Laika was absolutely terrified. Her heart was beating at triple its normal rate during the launch. With no handlers to comfort her—as they had after centrifuge tests—it took much longer than usual for her to calm down. No sooner had the stress of the launch receded than Laika was exposed to the spiraling heat and humidity, in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, that would end up killing her.
It's excruciating to imagine this poor dog, born a stray on the harsh streets of Moscow, dying alone and scared in outer space. It's especially heart-breaking that she so enthusiastically trusted her caretakers, completely oblivious to their ultimate plans for her. Mission scientist Vladimir Yazdovsky, for example, took her home to play with his children before the launch. "I wanted to do something nice for her," Yazdovsky later said. "She had so little time left to live."
For people who support animal rights as well as aggressive space exploration, Laika represents a powerful crisis of conscience. As much as she is an adorable poster girl for early spaceflight victories, so too is she a pervasive symbol of the ethical debate over experimenting on animals for scientific advancement.
Yes, she earned an enviable place in space history. But where Soviet and American astronauts could consent to putting their lives on the line, Laika had no ability to do the same. She died not knowing where the hell she was, why she was weightless, or whether she'd ever come home again.
The double-edged nature of Laika's story was recognized right away, and her death sparked a global debate over animal rights. Many argued that the fear and pain she suffered could never be redeemed by her substantial contribution to human spaceflight. Even Oleg Gazenko, who worked closely with Laika during her training, admitted he regretted sending her to her death in 1998. "The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it," he said at a Moscow conference in the late 90s. "We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog."
This essential bittersweetness surrounding Laika's life and death has been echoed by her evolution as an enduring pop culture figure. There is no lack of artwork inspired by her, such as the cover image by Jenny Schukin or the above portrait by Lars Brown, both of which capture both the heroic and melancholy sides of journey. The quirky animation studio that made Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls is named for her, as is the space travel Playstation game Planet Laika.
On top of that, multiple songs have paid tribute to her twin role as a pioneer and as a martyr, and often express hope that she will magically return. The final verse of "Laika" by Chicago rock band Kill Hannah, for example, goes, "I know how alone you feel so far away/ While they pretend to remember you/ Laika, I'll make you proud/ Is Laika coming home? Laika, please come home."
That "please come home" sentiment has been repeated by multiple artists and writers across a wide range of platforms. When fans were bummed out by her death in Nick Abadzis' graphic novel Laika, Abadzis wrote an alternate ending that had her morphing into a superpowerful being called Cosmodog, hellbent on revenge against the scientists who sent her to space to die.
The fact that Laika can still inspire this palpable desire for revisionist wish-fulfillment 57 years after her death speaks volumes about her continued relevance as an ideological lightning rod. Dogs are the undisputed champions of loyalty and love, and it will always be painful to accept that Laika's blind trust in her masters was betrayed.
At the same time, reaching the Moon is the most spectacular achievement in human history, and it would likely never have been done without sacrificing the lives of dozens of animal and human astronauts alike. The fact that a humble stray dog continues to emblematize this struggle is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming.
Laika will never come home. But the dreams, ideas, and controversies she inspired are here to stay.