The Untold Story of Laika: The First Astronaut Dog in Space & the Communist Sputnik 2 mission

Laika the first dog in space
“Laika was quiet and charming”

Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky wrote in his book chronicling the story of Soviet space medicine. She was one of several dogs that gave their lives for the space race in the 1950s and ‘60s. The Soviet Union and the United States used test animals to figure out whether humans could survive outside of the earth’s atmosphere.

The stray from the streets of Moscow became the first dog in space on November 3, 1957. Her mission ended in tragedy, but it paved the way for subsequent successful flights.
Laika first dog in space
Image credit: RASA

Table Of Contents

Scientists in the Soviet Union collected stray dogs to use in their space program in the 1950s. Laika and five other female pooches came from the streets of Moscow before they started training for their missions. Researchers selected Laika for the Sputnik 2 project nine days before the launch date. This two or three-year-old pup was a good-natured, small gal who quickly won the hearts of the watching world.

Why Did the Soviets Choose Laika? Mushka and Albina
Image credit: NASA

Scientists used several types of animals to test survivability in space. After sending fruit flies, mice, rats, and rabbits into low-level orbits, the Soviets turned to dogs. Researchers in the Soviet Union had a history of canine testing, so it was natural for them to resort to these four-footed creatures to collect data that would help them create a space capsule fit for human beings.

One author wrote from Laika’s perspective,

“From three dogs — Albina, Mushka, myself — I was selected for this mission.”

But, why did they choose her over the other pups?

She Was Photogenic

Nikita Khruschev wanted a spectacular event to mark the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Sputnik 2 fit the bill. The mission coordinators were looking for a pooch that would play well to the public. Laika had an endearing quizzical expression and a brightly-colored coat that made her an excellent candidate.

She Was the Right Size

The small capsule and spacesuit were limiting factors. Scientists needed a diminutive dog that was not too tiny. Laika weighed in at about 13 pounds, and she fit in the confined space.

She Had a Calm Demeanor

Launching into space is stressful even for humans. The researchers wanted a pup that was less prone to panic than a high-strung animal. Laika was calm and handled the training sessions without showing excitement.

She Was a Stray

Soviet scientists targeted stray dogs for their missions. They believed life on the street prepared the canines for the rigors of space travel better than if they lived in the comforts of a house.

She Was Female

Sputnik 2 was a small capsule, and the spacesuit was confining. Soviet scientists, Adilya Kotovskaya explains,

"We chose bitches because they don't have to raise a leg to urinate which means they need less space than the males."
Of six rescued dogs, Laika, Albina, and Mushka met the above criteria and successfully completed the training. But Albina was a new mother. Not only this, but Laika had promising results in the centrifuge tests and with managing extremely tight quarters.

Laika
Image credit: NASA

Nobody knows Laika’s breed for sure because she was a stray mongrel and DNA testing wasn’t available in the 1950s. Mongrel is a word used to describe a pup that has a mixture of breeds in its ancestry.

Spitz Dogs

Based on her appearance many believe that this pooch may have been a Husky-spitz mix. The Spitz is actually a general term for working dogs with thick fur, a curly tail, and pointy ears.
Some breeds in the Spitz Group include:
    • Akita
    • Basenji
    • Chow Chow
    • Husky varieties
    • Laika varieties
    • Spitz varieties

Laika Breeds

There are several breeds of working dogs in Russia and Siberia that are known generally as Laikas. They are medium to small-sized animals, and they strongly resemble Spitz dogs. Depending on the specific breed, these pups work as herding, hunting, or sled dogs and have several color variations.
Laika
As we shared above, the scientists chose stray dogs for the space program. They believed street dogs would already have experience handling harsh temperatures and hunger such as they might encounter on a space mission. Kotovskaya said,
“And (we chose) strays because they are more resourceful and less demanding.”
These dogs, they expected, would be more resilient and better able to manage the challenges associated with launch and orbit. In the case of Sputnik 2, the launch was a one-way mission. The satellite was designed and built in less than a month, and there was not enough time to prepare it for safe re-entry. By using a stray pooch, the scientists would not be sacrificing someone’s furbaby for the space program.
Before the space program dubbed this furry pal Laika, Moscow Radio introduced her as Kudryavka, or Little Curly, when they interviewed the canine cosmonaut. The first title might have referred to her curled tail. Some members of the team also called her Limonchik (Little Lemon) or Damka (Little Lady), names fitting for her docile nature and quizzical expression.
Western newspapers started competing to come up with the best creative spin on a name for the Soviet space dog – names like Muttnik, Sputpup, and Woofnik. That’s when an official spokesperson shared that her name was actually Laika. The title comes from the Russian word that means “barker.”

In the 1950s, space was an unknown frontier. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans knew whether humans could survive outside of the earth’s atmosphere. Bill Britz, an American veterinarian who worked with chimpanzees that flew to space in the early 1960s, shared,

“We take for granted now that animals and humans can function in space, but back then we knew absolutely nothing.”

Before they launched a man into orbit, scientists from the United States used chimpanzees to decide whether people could stay alive in outer space. But the Soviets relied on canines for their space trials. 

Why?...

Dogs were easier to obtain

Strays abounded in Moscow, and they were free.

Primates could pass diseases to humans

When chimpanzees from Africa arrived at Hollman Airforce Base, eight of the nine veterinarians that cared for them caught hepatitis from the animals.

Soviet scientists had a history using canines in research

Ivan Pavlov used dogs in his research on classical conditioning.

The Soviet Union didn’t need a button pusher

The first cosmonauts would only use manual controls in case of an emergency. Mission control activated the Soviet capsules from the ground.

The Soviets briefly considered launching a chimpanzee.

When they talked to monkey handlers at the circus, they changed their minds because they were told the animals were “too high strung.”

Her mission

Laika
On November 3, 1957, Laika became the first dog in space when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2.

Hasty Training

Laika’s training was brief. Scientists took her from the streets of Moscow just over a week before the scheduled launch date. Over the course of a few days, researchers prepared the pooch for her mission:
  • They moved her into progressively smaller cages to get her used to the cramped quarters of the space capsule.
  • They placed her in a centrifuge-style flight simulator that mirrored the G-forces associated with blast-off.
  • They exposed her to noise levels like those she would experience on the mission.
  • They fed her jellified food similar to the rations she would get in space.

The Mission

Laika’s mission was a one-way trip, and scientists expected her to orbit the earth for about 10 days before running out of oxygen. At that point, the rocket’s automated system would feed Laika poisoned dog food to end her life painlessly. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned, but we’ll talk about that in a later section.
Sputnik2
Image credit: Russian Ministry Of Defense RussionSpaceWeb.com
The spacecraft that carried Laika into orbit was a small capsule that measured about 4 meters tall and had a 2-meter diameter at the base. The conical satellite weighed just over 500 kilograms. It had an 80-centimeter cabin where the pup would live during her mission.

Laika’s Quarters

Inside the padded cabin, an air regeneration system supplied oxygen and controlled the temperature. There was a television camera in Laika’s chamber that transmitted video back to earth at 10 frames per second. The satellite also had automated dispensers to feed the pup her gelatinized food and provide her with water.
Image credit: Wikimedia

Monitoring Laika

In addition to video monitoring, scientists attached electrodes to Laika to monitor her vital signs. They equipped her with a harness and bag system to collect her waste. Scientists planned to collect data that would provide information about how a living organism functioned in space.
Sputnik 2 launch - what went wrong
Image credit: NASA
Sputnik 2 launched from a pad in Kazakhstan at 5:30 am Moscow time. When the satellite reached orbit, the nose cone separated from the rocket as planned, but the Blok A core failed to break off. Part of the heat shield also tore loose from the capsule. These issues caused problems with the thermal control system. Temperatures inside Laika’s chamber rose to 40 C.
“Of course we knew she was destined to die on the flight since there was no way to get her back”,
said Kotovskaya. The space program scientists hoped Laika would live about 7 days before running out of oxygen. Then, the automated feeding system would give the food that contained poison to euthanize her humanely.

The Soviet’s Story

Soviet Radio broadcast daily updates about how Laika was faring in space for nine days. They told the world that she was doing well, and the trip was going according to expectations. On November 12, the reports shared that Laika died after eating the poisoned food so that she wouldn’t suffer when the capsule re-entered the earth’s atmosphere. The true story remained a secret until Dr. Dimitri Malashenkov explained what really happened in 2002.
Laikas Heartbeat
Image credit: National Air and Space Museum
When the rocket took Laika into space, her heart rate shot up to three times faster than normal. The pulse began to go back down once the pup started to experience weightlessness. However, it took much longer for her vital signs to stabilize than it had in her centrifuge training. These measurements told the researchers that Laika was under deep stress. Laika’s sensors stopped reporting life signs five to seven hours into the mission. The combination of her stress and the rising cabin temperatures caused her to die from overheating and dehydration.
If you’re wondering if Laika’s body is still circling the earth in a space coffin, the answer is no. The capsule continued to orbit for about five months before burning up upon re-entry to earth’s atmosphere on April 14, 1958.

Now and Then...

While the Soviets viewed Laika as a hero and her sacrifice worthwhile, others in the world were outraged at the news.
  • Animal Rights groups in Great Britain campaigned to stop the launch. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals encouraged citizens to contact the Soviet Union’s embassy in London to voice their disapproval.
  • The media chimed in with protest pieces.The Daily Mirror in Britain ran a story with the headline, “THE DOG WILL DIE, WE CAN’T SAVE IT”.
  • Musical artists Wil Wagner and Kill Hannah wrote songs bemoaning Laika’s fate.
  • The world’s response confused the scientists in the space program. The Soviets issued a statement:
    “The Russians love dogs. This has been done not for the sake of cruelty but for the benefit of humanity.”
Looking back, there are regrets over sending Laika to her doom. In her book, Soviet Space Dogs, Olesya Turkina quotes one of the scientists that worked on the mission,
“The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”
Today, space programs are more likely to use invertebrates like insects and worms for space research. Martin Barstow, director of the Leicester Institute of Space and Earth Observation shared,
“We’re a bit more alert to the nuances of whether or not you should test anything on animals these days.”
Today, people remember Laika in a variety of ways:

Laika Statue

In 2008, the Russians unveiled a memorial statue to Laika. The monument stands in Moscow by the military facility where the stray pup trained for her mission. The small piece resembles a tiny rocket that opens into a hand that appears to lift the pooch to the stars.

Romanian Laika Stamp: 1959

Romanian Laika Stamp 1959
Romania issued commemorative stamps that featured an image of Laika and Sputnik 2. Albania and Poland also designed stamps in memory of the pup.

Books

Laika's Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog
Kurt Caswell wrote Laika’s Window to chronicle the dog’s life. In it, he examines the events and motivations surrounding her mission. There are also a few children’s books that follow Laika’s journey from the streets of Moscow into outer space.

T-shirts

Laika T-Shirt
Vintage t-shirts that display images of Soviet Union propaganda posters are available if you want to publicly honor Laika’s memory. You can choose an image of the canine hero with or without a cosmonaut helmet.
Although people today question whether Laika’s sacrifice was worthwhile, her mission helped answer some vital questions. Scientists had no idea if a human being could survive outside of the earth’s atmosphere. The fact that this pooch was able to stay alive for several hours after breaking through the stratosphere told researchers that life in space was a real possibility.

Laika’s mission paved the way for mankind to break the space barrier.

Laika’s Legacy

3 thoughts on “The Untold Story of Laika: The First Astronaut Dog in Space & the Communist Sputnik 2 mission”

  1. What a precious sacrifice I’m glad that she’ll go down in infamy famous forever and numbered amongst the Stars

  2. I heard as a child about Laika. I was so, so sad. In my prayers Laika stands for all the animals that where abused by humans.
    Laika is and will be forever in my heart, she is my dog.

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3 thoughts on “The Untold Story of Laika: The First Astronaut Dog in Space & the Communist Sputnik 2 mission”

  1. What a precious sacrifice I’m glad that she’ll go down in infamy famous forever and numbered amongst the Stars

  2. I heard as a child about Laika. I was so, so sad. In my prayers Laika stands for all the animals that where abused by humans.
    Laika is and will be forever in my heart, she is my dog.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *