Meet Laika: The Stray Dog Who Paved the Way for Space Exploration

In the annals of space exploration, many names stand out, from Yuri Gagarin to Neil Armstrong. Yet, before humans ever ventured into the cosmos, a brave little dog named Laika became the first animal to orbit the Earth. Her story is both inspiring and heart-wrenching, shedding light on the early days of space exploration and the sacrifices made along the way.

From the Streets to the Stars

Like Sputnik, Laika became an icon of early Soviet space exploration (Credit: Alamy)
Like Sputnik, Laika became an icon of early Soviet space exploration (Credit: Alamy)

Laika, whose name means “barker” in Russian, was a stray dog found wandering the streets of Moscow. In the 1950s, Soviet scientists were looking for a suitable candidate for their next space mission. They believed that stray dogs, having endured the harsh Russian winters, would be more resilient and better suited for the extreme conditions of space. Laika’s calm demeanor and small size made her an ideal candidate.

On November 3, 1957, Laika was launched aboard the Sputnik 2 spacecraft. The mission aimed to gather data on the effects of space travel on living organisms, paving the way for human spaceflight. However, the technology to safely return from space had not yet been developed.

While the Soviet space agency had initially claimed that Laika had survived for several days in orbit, it was later revealed that she died only a few hours after takeoff due to a combination of stress and overheating.

Laika was a small, female dog weighing about 6 kilograms (13 pounds). She had a combination of terrier and Siberian husky features, with a curled tail and pointed ears.

The First Canine Cosmonauts to Return

Belka and Strelka both survived their trip into space, becoming lauded around the world (Credit: Alamy)

While Laika’s journey ended tragically, her sacrifice was not in vain. She played a crucial role in advancing space research, leading to more sophisticated missions. Two more stray dogs, Belka and Strelka, would soon follow in Laika’s paw prints.

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In August 1960, almost three years after Laika’s mission, Belka and Strelka were launched aboard the Sputnik 5 spacecraft. Like Laika, these dogs were chosen for their resilience, having survived the challenges of life on the streets. The mission was groundbreaking, as it was the first to safely return animals from space. After spending a day in orbit, Belka and Strelka returned to Earth unharmed, becoming instant celebrities in the Soviet Union.

Oleg Gazenko holds up Belka (right) and Strelka (left), the first two dogs to survive an orbit around Earth. Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems

Why Choose Stray Dogs?

The decision to use stray dogs for these early space missions was rooted in practicality. Scientists believed that strays, having been exposed to the elements, would have a higher tolerance for the physical stresses of spaceflight. Additionally, their small size was ideal for the compact confines of the early spacecraft.

The Choice Was Not Without Controversy

However, the choice was not without controversy. Animal rights activists and many in the general public decried the use of animals in such high-risk experiments. Yet, the data gathered from these missions provided invaluable insights that paved the way for human space exploration.

Belka and Strelka were also mixed-breed dogs. Belka, which means “squirrel” in Russian, was light-colored, while Strelka, meaning “little arrow,” had darker fur.

Today the dogs can be visited (well, taxidermied effigies) at the Cosmonautics Memorial Museum in Moscow.

Photo Credit: Dave Mosher/Tech Insider

A Pupular Chapter In The US Soviet Space War

In June 1961, just two months post Yuri Gagarin’s historic orbit around the Earth, a summit took place in Vienna between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev. The meeting was reportedly tense. However, during a dinner conversation, Jackie Kennedy broached the topic of the space dogs with Khrushchev.

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Khrushchev mentioned that Strelka had given birth to puppies. Jackie expressed her wish to have one, recalls Andrew Hager, the historian at the Presidential Pet Museum. Not long after, a puppy arrived at the White House, complete with a quaint Russian passport.

The FBI inspected Pushinka, the puppy, for any hidden surveillance devices before she joined the First Family. Despite President Kennedy’s dog allergy, Pushinka bonded with the children and even developed a close bond with another White House dog, Charlie. Their bond blossomed into a litter of puppies. Hager fondly describes it as a “Cold War Romance.”

Laika, Belka, and Strelka are more than just footnotes in the history of space exploration. They represent the spirit of discovery, resilience, and sacrifice. While the ethics of using animals in experiments remain debated, there’s no denying the contributions these canine cosmonauts made to our understanding of space and the possibilities it holds for humanity.

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