The Brave Bitches Who First Orbited Earth and Lived to Bark About It

Laika may have been the first animal to orbit the Earth, but Belka and Strelka were the first to survive the journey.

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Aug 19 2016, 12:00pm

Belka and Strelka pictured on a stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of their flight. Image: Russian Post/O. Yakovleva

Once upon a time, two stray dogs joined forces with a gray rabbit, two rats, and 40 mice to become the first animals ever to orbit the Earth and live to bark about it.

It sounds like the premise of a twee children's book, but it's actually the true story of Korabl-Sputnik 2, a Soviet spacecraft that launched 56 years ago, on August 19, 1960. Onboard rode a duo of intrepid canine cosmonauts, named Belka ("Squirrel") and Strelka ("Little Arrow"), tasked with boldly going where no man had gone before.

Stamp commemorating Korabl-Sputnik 2. Image: Russian Post

The Space Race was still in its infancy at this point, and next to nothing was known about the effects of orbital flight on animal physiology. While Soviet space leaders were eager to add the first manned spaceflight to their growing list of off-Earth accomplishments, they needed basic intel about how living beings fared in orbit before committing to sending a human there.

Dogs were deemed the best candidate animals to take these first giant leaps, partly because of their loyalty, trainability, and capacity to remain still for long periods, but also because there was already a tradition of experimentation on canines in the Soviet Union.

During the 1950s, dozens of dogs were rounded up and trained by scientists at the Institute of Aviation Medicine in Moscow. They spent their days whirling around in centrifuges or enduring extended periods of confinement in small spaces, to prepare them for test flights.

The ultimate sacrificial lamb was Laika, an adorable mutt who became the first living creature to orbit the Earth

Most were stray mutts picked up from the streets, selected for their presumed hardiness and stress tolerance relative to pampered purebreds. Female dogs were preferred for their calm temperaments, so contrary to the male-dominated crews of the first human space flights, these early orbital adventures and spacesuits were designed for bitches only.

And what resplendently brave bitches Belka and Strelka were, especially considering how many of their predecessors had met with tragic fates. Strays blasted to the edge of space in the USSR's early suborbital flights occasionally died in crashes and explosions. One candidate, named Bolik, straight-up peaced out and ran away days before she was supposed to fly.

But the ultimate sacrificial lamb was Laika, an adorable mutt who became the first living creature to orbit the Earth on November 3, 1957, in Sputnik 2. Sadly, shortly afterwards, she also made history as the first animal to die in space, from stress and overheating. She was never intended to survive the journey, but still, her death struck a chord with people around the world, prompting Soviet space leads to focus on developing successful round trip missions for future dogs, instead of one-way death traps.

Nearly three years after Laika's death, Belka and Strelka were walked out to the launchpad and sealed inside the Vostok crew capsule of Korabl-Sputnik 2 along with their rodent companions. Only a few weeks before, on July 28, 1960, two dogs named Bars and Lisichka had died attempting the very same trip they were about to undertake, when their vehicle disintegrated seconds after launch. Needless to say, tensions were high during the countdown, and the dogs were watched closely through video monitors as their spaceship blasted off to orbit.

At first, the pair seemed catatonic in the capsule, perhaps dumbstruck by their newfound weightlessness and otherworldly environment, but they livened up after their first circuit around the Earth. Belka was clearly uncomfortable, and vomited during the fourth orbit, which influenced the decision to limit cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's trip into space for only one orbit for the first manned flight, which took place eight months later in April 1961.

Belka having her helmet and spacesuit removed on arrival back on Earth on August 20, 1960. Image: PA3DMI/YouTube

When their capsule gently touched back down on Earth again the following day, Belka and Strelka jumped from their spacesuit constraints with vivacious energy, apparently unfazed by their new status as spaceflight trailblazers. The rabbit, rats, and mice also reportedly survived.

The dogs were instant heroes at home and abroad, and were commemorated with stamps, propaganda, and media appearances. They were such beloved celebrity icons that they sparked a spike in popularity for mixed breed dogs in the USSR.

As if the tale couldn't get any sweeter, Strelka eventually settled down to have a litter with a male dog, Pushok. Nikita Khrushchev gifted one of these puppies, named Pushinka, to President John F. Kennedy's family in 1961.

Family portrait of Strelka (left), Pushinka (middle), and Pushok (right). Image: Photographer unknown. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis Personal Papers. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Pushinka received a mixed welcome, and had to endure an extended two-day examination at Walter Reed Hospital outside of Washington DC to make sure she was not bugged with surveillance equipment. But eventually, she was accepted with love by the White House, and even went on to have her own litter with one of the Kennedy dogs, Charlie. JFK jokingly referred to these four puppies as "pupniks."

Pushinka with the pupniks. Image: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Both Belka and Strelka were taxidermied after their deaths, and their bodies remain on public display at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow.

As the most famous survivors of the Soviet space dog elite, they have continued to be immortalized by loving homages, including a 2010 feature film. Though Laika will always be a melancholy symbol of the price of animal experimentation in science, Belka and Strelka remain an enduring emblem of the partnership between dogs and humans, both off Earth and on it.