She paved the way for future space endeavours; Laika, the first dog ever sent out in space, will forever shine like the stars above

The ‘Barker’, a literal translation for the Russian, ‘Laika’, was hardly a descriptive name for the character behind the dog. With a temperament described as ‘phlegmatic’, she did not quarrel with other dogs and rarely got upset. Immortalised as the ‘First animal in space’; unfortunately, resulting in the first orbital death as well, Laika’s achievement had laid the foundation for future space endeavours. At the time the mission was launched, scientists were unaware of the impact of spaceflight on living things and the prospects of survival in outer space. Hence, they viewed such a flight as a necessary precursor to any future human missions into space. Thus, began Laika’s journey as a Space Dog.

Laika was found as a stray wandering the streets of Moscow and was picked up by Soviet scientists who chose to use non-pedigrees under the assumption that strays had already learned to endure harsh conditions of cold and hunger. Laika was all of three years and around 5 kgs. when she was taken in; termed as a mongrel female as her true pedigree was unknown. General acceptances however, reflect that she was part Husky and possibly part Terrier. Her cute toy-like appearance made her a huge favourite with the Soviet personnel, earning her several nicknames, some of which were Kudryavka (Russian for Little Curly) and Limonchik (Little Lemon).

Laika was truly no ordinary dog and was selected as the sole occupant of the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 after intense training alongwith two other dogs. From the moment the training began, Laika’s life would change forever from the freedom she once enjoyed as a stray to the confined life of a lab rat. To adapt the dogs to the limits of the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2, they were kept in progressively smaller cages for nearly 20 days each time. The close confinement caused them to stop urinating or defecating, made them restless, and caused their general condition to deteriorate. The dogs were placed in surroundings where the acceleration of a rocket launch was simulated, and the noises of the spacecraft as well, to judge their mental and physical responses. This caused their pulse to quicken and their blood pressure to increase simultaneously. The dogs were also trained to eat a special high-nutrition gel that would serve as food in outer space.

As D-day drew closer, Laika was then placed in the shuttle three days prior, on October 31, 1957, to acclimatise her body to the temperature inside. At that time of year, the temperatures were extremely cold and a heater was used to keep her container warm. Just prior to the launch on November 3, Laika’s fur was sponged in a weak alcohol solution and carefully groomed, while iodine was painted onto the areas where sensors would be placed to monitor her bodily functions. And Laika was off! Her respiration increased rapidly and the sensors showed her heart rate was racing during the early acceleration. The thermal operating system began to give way when the launch went awry as one of the stand-alone spaceships did not separate as planned. Some of the insulation tore loose, raising the cabin temperature to 40° C. After three hours of weightlessness, Laika’s pulse rate had returned to normal, however, at a rate three times slower than during ground tests; an indication of the stress she was under. It was seen that Laika was agitated but eating her food. And then, it happened. After approximately five to seven hours into the flight, no further signs of life were received from the spacecraft. Laika had passed away.

Over five months later, on April 14, 1958, it was recorded that after 2,570 orbits, Sputnik 2 disintegrated, alongwith Laika’s remains. Controversies surrounding her death revolve around two plausible reasons- overheating of the capsule and poisoned food; a measure by the scientists to euthanize the dog in space. Sputnik 2 was not designed to be retrievable, and Laika had always been intended to die. The mission sparked a debate across the globe on the mistreatment of animals and animal testing in general to advance science. In U.S.A, Animal Rights groups called on members of the public to protest at Soviet embassies while others demonstrated outside the United Nations in New York. In the Soviet Union however, there was less agitation. Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who trained Laika before her launch, expressed regret for allowing her to die, saying, “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.”

On April 11, 2008, Russian officials unveiled a monument to Laika, built near the military research facility in Star City, Moscow which prepared Laika’s flight to space. It features a dog standing on top of a rocket; Laika had conquered the galaxy beyond!

A successful experiment, which proved that a living passenger could survive being launched into orbit and endure weightlessness, paved the way for human spaceflight and provided adequate data on the survival of living beings in outer space. It would be adequate to say that progress of mankind is inevitable…and Laika’s life was the price that was paid for it.

This profile was published in Dogs & More, May-Jun 2011, with permission from the publisher.