When Yuri Gagarin was launched into space on April 12, 1961 from Star City, Russia, it was dubbed “The Roar that was Heard around the World”. Though he was the first man in space, he was not the first earthling in space.
Four years earlier, that honor went to a little stray dog found wandering the streets of Moscow. Her name was Laika.
Refered to as “Muttnik”, Laika was approximately 3 years old and guessed to be a husky-terrier mix. After being specially trained to withstand confined movement and special high protein food, Laika was launched into space by the Soviet Union aboard Sputnik II on November 3, 1957. Sputnik was a 250-pound object equipped with a cabin, providing all the necessary life support for a dog. Laika’s cabin was equipped with a television camera, a fan designed to activate whenever the cabin temperature exceeded 59 degrees F to keep her cool. She had only enough food (in a gelatinous form) for a seven-day flight, and was fitted with a bag to collect waste. Laika wore a harness and there were chains to restrict her movements to standing, sitting or lying down. There were also sensors to measure ambient pressure and temperature, as well as Laika’s blood pressure, respiration, and heartbeat. These instruments allowed Ground Control to monitor how Laika functioned in space.
It also allowed Ground Control to monitor how Laika died in space. You see, Laika was knowingly sent on a one-way journey. The Soviets reported to the public that Laika survived 4 days into space, dying when the module overheated due to a battery malfunction.
Sputnik 2 exhausted its electrical batteries after six days in orbit. As a dead object, the spacecraft, along with Laika’s body, continued circling the Earth until April 14, 1958, when it re-entered the atmosphere after 2,570 orbits. The spacecraft burned up upon re-entry. There was no recovery method for true orbital flights designed at that time.
However, in October 2002, Dr. Dimitri Malashenkov, one of the scientists behind the Sputnik II mission, revealed that Laika had died five to seven hours after launch from overheating and stress according to a paper he presented to the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas. In reality, the medical sensors recorded that immediately after the launch, as her capsule reached speeds of nearly 18,000 miles per hour, her pulse rate increased to three times its normal level, presumably due to overheating, fear and stress. It appears Laika died of fright.
When it was finally revealed that Laika only had enough food for seven days and was destined to die in space, the American public was outraged and the mission sparked a debate on scientific testing with animals which still continues today. In 1998, Oleg Gazenko, one of the leading scientists responsible for sending Laika into space, expressed regret for allowing her to die: “The more time passes, the more I am sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of a dog.”
It wasn’t until 2008 that Russia dedicated a monument to Laika. It is located in Moscow near a military research facility. The monument depicts a dog standing next to a rocket.
Laika’s final farewell to the human race was brief and subtle, and easily missed if someone was not specifically looking for it. It was in the form of a shooting star.